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The fame that El Gato Classic founder Eddie Elguera’s skateboarding career gave him led, in part, to a drug and alcohol addiction in the early 1980s. (For more on the El Gato Classic, see the main story.)

He retired from the sport, and then became a born-again Christian before eventually returning during the boom of vert-skating in the 1980s. He opened the Rock Church, where the slogan is, “Loving people to life.”

Elguera was not shy about discussing his fall into drug use.

“Basically, when you’re at the top, and you have people throwing money at you, the opportunities are there for people who want to give you drugs and give you alcohol,” he said. “It’s so important to have a good structure around you that helps you to bounce wisdom off of. I was focused for the first two years, and I wouldn’t allow things to come in like that, because I knew what my goal and purpose was. But I didn’t have the big picture, so I dropped off the map.”

After retiring from skateboarding and taking a job at a fast-food restaurant, he had an encounter with a woman who turned him on to teachings from the Bible.

“This lady came in and just began to share the gospel about God and Jesus Christ,” he said. “That day, I gave my life to God, because she said, ‘You will never find fulfillment in skateboarding or drugs, and you’ll only find it in Jesus Christ. God will use you and find you’ll have purpose in life.’ I accepted the Lord; I started going to church. That was back in 1983, and in 1986, God began to speak to me about starting to skateboard again.”

“It was great to get back into it after a six-year hiatus. I was afraid because of not being at the top any more, but at the same time, I knew it was for a greater purpose. I got back into the competition scene, and pretty soon, a friend asked me to come and share my story at a youth group, and then a couple more, then I had a skateboard ministry where I went around to different churches and shared my story.”

Christian Hosoi, who will also be appearing at the El Gato Classic, recalled Elguera’s Bible-study meetings at skateboarding events. Hosoi also had drug problems and served a prison term after being arrested in 2000 at the Honolulu International Airport in Hawaii after attempting to transport more than a pound of crystal meth. He became a born-again Christian while in prison. Hosoi is currently the outreach pastor of the Sanctuary Church in Orange County.

“(Eddie) is a great example of what a man of God can be,” said Hosoi. “He’s a businessman and a professional skateboarder. We’re both still professional skateboarders. I’m a pastor at the Sanctuary Church, and he’s a pastor at The Rock. We still get gnarly; we still get rad; and we still hang out with all of our friends who do crazy things, but we just love people. I love his saying, ‘Loving people to life.’”

Published in Features

Palm Springs will become the center of the skateboarding world Friday, Jan. 23, through Sunday, Jan. 25, when the area will be taken over by skateboarding’s most legendary riders for the El Gato Classic.

At the center of the event is Eddie “El Gato” Elguera, a valley resident who is a pastor at the Rock Church in Palm Desert. Elguera became a professional skateboarder in the late ’70s and went on to be a two-time world champion. He’s a major influence on many current pros, given he created several tricks that skateboarders continue to use today, such as the “Elguerial.”

“When I started back in the ’70s, when pool skating and vertical skating was coming out, there wasn’t the recognition that there is today. Now, it’s a lot more mainstream, and there are corporate sponsors like Red Bull,” said Elguera during a recent interview the Rock Church. (For more on Elguera’s religious awakening, see the sidebar.)

While Elguera is 52 now, the grandfather and father of three still has a skater look; when we spoke, he was wearing black skinny jeans, Nike skateboarding shoes, a black cardigan sweater and a red-and-black striped shirt.

Big-name skateboarders participating in the El Gato Classic include Tony Hawk, Christian Hosoi, Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain, Mike McGill and others. During a recent phone interview, Tony Hawk explained why Elguera is such an important figure in skateboarding.

“He absolutely inspired me, especially when I was coming into my own in skating,” Hawk said. “I felt like he was the most progressive skater and really a pioneer of trick-style skating. I didn’t really have the build or the natural style that a lot of skaters had, so I just loved doing tricks—and he was at the forefront of new tricks.”

Hosoi talked during a recent phone interview about the days of skateboarding when it was thought of as an outlaw sport.

“The whole ritual of skateboarding wasn’t just skateboarding; it was the discovery of finding an empty pool, planning it out, and inviting everybody to come,” he said. “… It was a pioneering thing, because no one had done it yet, and now we have grandmas taking their grandchildren to skate parks, where they’re learning to be the next Tony Hawk.”

Elguera remembered when prize money wouldn’t even cover airfare or hotel expenses for the professionals who would show up to events.

“Sometimes, first prize would be $500, or maybe $1,000,” Elguera said. “Then skateboard parks started to close because insurance companies didn’t want to insure skateparks. Skateboarding kind of took a dip after that, and that’s when the contests popped up where the prize was $100. When I was at the top, I never thought I’d still be skateboarding at 52, which I am today. Back then, you figured your career would go to 25.”

There was a goal in mind for any kid who skateboarded.

“You wanted to get sponsored,” Elguera said. “Not so much for the money and everything else, but just to get free product, because then you could get boards, get wheels, get clothes, and you didn’t have to buy all that stuff. You were like, ‘Wow, I hit the top!’ when you get your first package. You end up waiting for the UPS guy. The UPS guy for skateboarders is like Santa Claus.”

Elguera said many early innovators in his support have not received the recognition they deserve. On the El Gato Classic website, there is a graphic asking, “Have You Seen Them?” with a list of skateboarding innovators who have fallen off the radar; organizers hope these missing legends will see their names and attend.

“The El Gato Classic is where we’re taking the guys who were really pioneers and revolutionary in terms of what skateboarding could be,” he said. “A lot of the guys we’re gathering together didn’t really get the recognition, and that’s why I want to come out and just say, ‘Thank you.’ I have a saying: ‘If we honor the past and champion the future, skateboarding will never die.’ My goal with the El Gato Classic, with this first one, is to honor the past.”

There’s a reason the El Gato Classic is being held in Palm Springs, beyond Elguera’s connection to the Coachella Valley: From the late ’70s through the early ’90s, there was a spot called Nude Bowl outside of Desert Hot Springs. The former Desert Garden Ranch, which was once a nudist resort, had a kidney-shaped pool and some leftover structures that skateboarders loved. Videos from the Nude Bowl era now on YouTube show a pool with tons of graffiti; one video shows a fire engulfing the entire outer edge of the pool as people skateboard inside of it.

Today at the Palm Springs Skate Park, there is a replica of the kidney-shaped pool—sans graffiti, of course.

Hawk said he knows the Nude Bowl’s history.

“I never got to go there. It was a famous spot, and just about all the legends coming to this event have probably been there,” he said.

Hosoi said he went to the Nude Bowl all the time.

“We’d have punk-rock bands up there, and it was outlaw craziness up there on that mountain,” he said. “There were dirt roads forever to the top of this hill and just hundreds of people. It was out of control, and I’m surprised no one ever died up there, because that’s how crazy it got. It was all day, all night and ’til the next morning, to where we’d finally just say, ‘Gotta go!’ because there was no more in us.”

Proceeds from the El Gato Classic will go to the Tony Hawk Foundation, which works to build skate parks in low-income communities.

“The perception of skating in those areas when a park first gets built—there’s usually some pushback about having a skate park, and what it means, and what kind of crowd it will attract,” Hawk said. “When a city finally approves a project, and they see that there’s a community that rallies around it, they end up building more. We’re empowering communities that are already trying to help themselves.”

It’s well-known that in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Hawk and Hosoi were rivals in vertical-skating events. At the El Gato Classic, they just might have another epic skate battle.

“I feel like he and I have come a long way,” Hawk said about his former competitor. “We’re no longer rivals and are more like comrades. We’re happy we’re still doing this for a living and that people come out to see us. I think we’re just more appreciative of the fact we’re still here than trying to compete with each other. When we get together, even in a competition setting, it’s more of a celebration.”

Hosoi said he agrees, but joked that he still feels the rivalry at times.

“We like to have fun, but we’re competitive,” Hosoi said with a laugh. “It doesn’t matter what it is, whether it’s playing pool or throwing rocks at a can 100 feet away—we are going to compete!”

The El Gato Classic will take place Friday, Jan. 23, through Sunday, Jan. 25; the times, prices and venues vary. For more information, visit www.elgatoclassic.com.

Published in Features