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Once a skater, always a skater
They fell in love with skateboarding as teens. Two decades later, they're still at it.
By Elisabeth Mistretta | Daily Herald Staff

Mark Frankel, 44 , of Naperville, at Northbrook skate park..

 

Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

Kirk Vondra, of Elgin, skates a parking lot in St. Charles..

 

Paul Michna | Staff Photographer

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Published: 9/5/2007 12:20 AM | Updated: 9/5/2007 11:40 AM

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They say it gets into your blood.

Trying it for the first time can be scary.

Or thrilling.

Sometimes even clumsy.

No wonder it's mostly teens or tweens who fall helpless to skateboarding's charms.

But don't tell that to these guys.

"As long as I can walk, I'm still going to skateboard," says 33-year-old Kirk Vondra of Elgin.

He's among the few suburban men in their 30s or 40s who spend weekends dropping down half-pipes and hanging out in skate parks often built with junior high school age kids in mind.

But they were landing ollies in parking lots and grinding rails long before skate parks started popping up -- and long before pro-skater Tony Hawk developed his teen following. So returning to the sport seems only natural.

Like Marty McFly

The inspiration to pick up a skateboard strikes so many different ways.

Jake de Vries' neighbor turned the 32-year-old Palatine man onto the sport when he was about 13.

Streamwood resident Jim Mallardo, 34, stumbled across a Transworld skating magazine in high school, then bought a cheap board.

Before he could get discouraged -- even skating in a straight line is tricky for novices -- "Back to the Future" hit theaters.

Mallardo instantly clicked with Michael J. Fox's character, Marty McFly. He loved how Marty used his board to hitch rides on cars, to escape bullies and, most importantly, just to escape. Marty, he said, became an instant icon for his generation.

"(That's) what really amped me up to stick with it," Mallardo said.

Catalysts like these sparked a passion that still consumes Mallardo, de Vries, their friend Vondra and Matt Snow.

But it was nostalgia that got 44-year-old Mark Frankel back on his board, after he quit for decades to get married, raise a family and focus on work.

The Naperville man stumbled across an old skateboarding documentary and soon he was dusting off his board.

"It just sort of stuck in my mind about getting back into it," Frankel said. "It actually seems like it's more fun now than it has ever been."

'A brotherhood'

More than 15 years separate 31-year-old Matt Snow from some of his students at Elk Grove High School.

On the surface, it might seem like Snow wouldn't have much in common with the teens except the ESL lessons he's been teaching for six years.

Skateboarding, however, serves as the Lake Zurich native's secret weapon. When students learn of his talent, he instantly earns cool points.

Snow says his hobby even helped him land his job.

"They were already eyeing someone else for the position," he said. "But after my interview I was hired. Later I asked the principal what put me over the top, and he said it was my suggestion to create a skateboarding club."

Snow, who lives in Chicago, now sponsors the club at Elk Grove and leads a skateboarding camp in Wisconsin each summer.

These organizations do more than keep students active. They introduce them to a sport that rarely involves competition and, more often, creates bonds.

Mallardo uses it to strengthen his marriage to his new wife, Amanda, 29, who also skates.

Frankel meets fellow skaters on the Web -- visiting sites like oldmanarmy.com -- and travels to meet friends at parks across the country.

Vondra even argues that skateboarding creates instant friendships.

"It's almost like it's a brotherhood and that's your membership card," he said. "I've been in other countries where I can't speak the language, but we communicate through the skateboards."

Up from underground

Whatever its virtues, the allure of skateboarding is no secret.

No longer underground, skating is now a bona fide sport with star athletes, video games, sponsorships and clothing lines.

This causes mixed feelings for veterans, with some like Mallardo saying it would be better without pros and corporate contests like X Games.

Snow says the exploding popularity of skateboarding -- including the Tony Hawk empire and MTV shows like "Viva la Bam" or "Rob & Big" -- are inevitable.

"Part of me hates it," Snow says. "Skating was always counterculture. It's like it loses the heart of skating, in a way, but there's no use to fight it."

There is one bonus, however, that these grown-up skaters wish was on their side as teens: Today, the skater boy gets the girl.

Even Tony Hawk himself admitted in a summer interview with the Daily Herald that he was considered "nerdy" and got picked on for skating in his childhood.

Vondra and Snow roughed the same abuse.

"Now the skateboarders get all the pretty girls," Snow said. "When I see that, I look at these kids and think 'You don't know how much work I've done for you to get you to this point.'"

How old is too old?

No matter how they feel about skateboarding's role in pop culture, all five men agree on one point: You are never too old.

Frankel even argues that skating is more fun for adults, because they have disposable income to buy top-of-the line boards and travel for the sport.

"As kids, we were just stuck where we were," he said.

Shiny, new skate equipment doesn't interest everyone though. Bare-bones parking lots still call to Vondra, Mallardo and de Vries, who agree that skating colors how they see the world.

"I find myself staring out car windows and thinking 'Look at those stairs. Look at that ledge. Look at those handrails,' " de Vries said. "You never look at a parking lot the same."

Sure, falls hurt these men more than they did 20 years ago. And for the few who street skate, getting tickets proves more embarrassing as an adult.

Still, the health benefits, social ties and sense of accomplishment that come with skating are perks that Snow says will keep him on his board until he's 75.

Even though they are part of the first crop of elders in a young sport, don't tell them it's time to quit.

"I can't stop it, it's pretty much an addiction," de Vries said.