Preparing for his third and final run in the U.S. Freestyle Skateboarding championships last month, Richmond resident Connor Burke was feeling intimidated. He was going up against a 10-time world champion, a 50-year-old German named Guenter Mokulys.
"He rarely talks," Burke says. "He's like Ivan Drago from 'Rocky.'"
Those three freestyle runs are each only one minute, with skaters judged on a 100-point scale for style, trick selection, consistency and amplitude – which is crowd reaction. "My first and third runs were perfect," Burke says. "My second run was not perfect because halfway through I tried to improvise and I screwed it up."
Still, Burke's overall performance at the event, held Sept. 27 at Paines Park in Philadelphia, was good enough to beat 10 other competitors in the pro division, including the mysterious German. "Gunter did not land everything on his first two runs but then he got all his tricks on his third run," Burke says.
The victory, which officially makes Burke the best freestyle skateboarder in the country, was the culmination of 14 years of skating for the recent Virginia Commonwealth University graduate. Burke has come long way from his 2000 start in a Springfield cul-de-sac, when he was the youngest kid in the neighborhood skating. "I eventually started getting better than the older ones," he says. "But the scene was dead then."
In 2002 his family moved to Virginia Beach, which in the '80s was considered the skateboarding capitol of the East Coast. Skaters such as the legendary Tony Hawk mastered the half pipe at Mount Trashmore and revolutionized many of the tricks seen today.
"But in 2002 skateboarding was not widely accepted. People hated skaters more than they do now," Burke says of the fickleness of the sport, adding that he skated in his driveway until Mount Trashmore was rebuilt and new park construction started in 2007. "The scene blew up there after that."
Since 2006 Burke has been freestyle skating, which differs considerably from the more well-known and flashier street and "vert" skating. "Street skateboarding is the one everyone knows — skating stairs, handrails and ledges," he says. "There is vert skating, which is half-pipes, and very showy. Then there is the 'boring' skating, or freestyle."
Freestyle skating is very technical, extremely creative and done on a flat surface, using only your board as your main obstacle. "There are specific tricks people do," he says, "like caspers, where you have one foot on top of the board and one foot on the bottom, and rail tricks, which is when you are on the side of your board." Handstands are unique also to freestyle, he says, although he doesn't do them.
In addition to pro, there are divisions for novice, amateur and masters, which is more of an exhibition for skate geezers older than 40. The intense competition in all categories forces skaters to look for a unique edge to their three routines, or runs.
"I like to smash tricks together — do one trick then follow it up with another trick right away," says Burke, who adopts moves from street skating into his freestyle skating. "I like to connect a lot of flip and spin tricks back-to-back. It is pretty unique to me."
"Everything gets old fast in skateboarding," Burke notes, adding that there was some agreement that Mokulys' decade-old routine was growing stale. "But the younger guys are more inventive and doing more technical stuff."
There were no female skateboarders at the championships, but that may change. "There is a very tight-knit community of women skaters," Burke says, "and the industry is becoming more aware of that."
After winning the American championship, what comes next? There's a world championship in Vancouver in May. But Burke, who placed 16th there in 2009, is unsure if he'll make the trip, saying he prefers to focus on filmmaking and video editing.
"I'm planning my next video now, trying to make it more cinematic so it will serve two purposes," he says. Two of his nonskateboarding films, "Dwell Dig Shake" and "Outside of Virginia," have been screened at the James River Film Forum. Several videos of Burke's skating also can be seen on YouTube. "In the '80s you could make a living doing this," he says. "But I never thought of skating as a career." S