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El Gato always lands on his feet

By Kirk Noonan

Tony Hawk calls him the “lucid grandmaster of skateboarding.” His kids call him “Dad.” At church, “Pastor Eddie” will do. But at skate parks and contests he is simply known as “El Gato.” He’s carried the nickname since the ’70s because somehow — no matter how hard he has fallen — he’s always had a knack for landing on his feet.

The same has been true in his life. Yet, when he bottomed out on illegal drugs and alcohol nearly two decades ago it wasn’t his natural athletic ability that put him back on his feet. Instead, it was a 2,000-year-old message an old lady shared with him in the lobby of a fast-food restaurant that did the job.

To understand how an encounter with a woman he had nothing in common with could change his life, you have to know where Eddie “El Gato” Elguera has been.

Dropping in
Step back in time, circa 1975, to Lake Arrowhead in Southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains. While his friends spent their summers running down fly balls in Little League or partying, Elguera, a shaggy-haired 13-year-old of slight build, was skating on a homemade half-pipe in the woods behind his house. His family thought he was wasting his time. “Skateboarding isn’t an organized sport and it has no future,” they’d tell him.

Elguera brushed their dire predictions off like he did his knees after a nasty fall. What his family didn’t understand at the time was that skateboarding was not only his dream; it was his passion and he’d do anything to get sponsored.

“If you were sponsored that meant you got free stuff and gear from companies,” says Elguera, 40. “Back then, being sponsored meant you were the bomb when it came to skating.”

Since he lived in the mountains two hours from Southern California’s skateboarding hot spots on the coastline, he might as well have lived in Siberia. No one was going to see him skate, which made getting sponsored virtually impossible.

But in 1978, that all changed when he hitchhiked down the mountain to a new skate park in San Bernardino. There he learned the owners of the skate park planned to hold a grand opening and representatives from skateboard companies were going to be on hand.

Elguera attended the grand opening and did every trick he knew. What set him apart was that he didn’t skate in the surf-style way that was so popular in the ’70s. Instead, he was smooth and calculated and prone to pushing the limits of physics with his aerial maneuvers.

A representative from Hobie Skateboards was impressed. He offered Elguera a sponsorship and asked if he would like to be on the Hobie amateur team. Elguera accepted both invitations.

During the next five months he entered amateur competitions and won. In 1979 he claimed the U.S. Amateur Skateboard Association Championship and soon after, Hobie asked him to go pro. Elguera was only 16 years old, and by the end of the year had become Skateboarder of the Year.

“When I went pro I had never even seen many of the pros in person,” he says. “I didn’t even know how they skated.”

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To give Elguera an advantage at skateboarding’s highest level, his coach dreamed up a complex trick for him. If completed properly, the trick would help ensure many victories on the pro tour. However, it was also a trick that had never been done and Elguera was scared. But within four hours of arriving at the skate park to work on the new trick, Elguera had mastered it. The trick involves a 360-degree spin with a hand plant. His coach named it the “Elguerial,” for which he won the “Most Spectacular New Maneuver of the Year” award.

In 1980, Elguera became vertical Skateboarder of the Year for the second time and he won the Gold Cup Series and the World Championship. He also invented complex moves such as the frontside rock ’n roll, the fakie ollie and was one of the first to perfect the frontside invert. Though his new style of skating was making him a winner, some skateboarding rivals criticized him for not embracing surf-style skating. They called him a robot and chanted, “Tricks are for kids,” when he would skate.

Elguera didn’t mind — he had never been one to conform. Besides that, he knew he was pushing the sport to new levels. Plus, his image was plastered all over skateboarding magazines in features and advertisements. He had his own brand of skateboard. And now that he was pro, he not only got free gear but he got paid to skate. Everything and more had happened just as he had dreamed. But for reasons he could not explain he felt as if something was missing in his life.

To counter that feeling he decided to do something drastic. At the pinnacle of his career and at only 18 years old he quit skating and moved to Mexico.

Falling down
While in Mexico he used his skateboarding earnings to begin building a house. His plan was to marry, settle down and spend the rest of his days working. But in Mexico he became a womanizer, drunkard and drug abuser. The money he allotted for his house was soon wasted on his party lifestyle.

Nearly broke, Elguera, then 21, moved back to Lake Arrowhead and went to work at his brother’s fast-food restaurant. He continued to party until one day Mae Hulbolt, a tourist in her mid-60s, came into the restaurant to eat. She struck up a conversation with Elguera and began peeling back his streetwise, party-animal façade.

“You’re trying to fill your life with all the things the world has to offer,” Hulbolt told him. “God gave you a talent to skateboard, but He wants you to be fulfilled in Him, not in something He gave you.”

As Elguera listened, Hulbolt’s words penetrated his soul. That day, he committed his life to Christ. In the following weeks so did his mother and his older brother.

“It is amazing how God put Mae in my life,” says Elguera as his voice chokes with emotion. “I know God strategically put her there to lead me to the Lord. It was a divine appointment.”

Though Hulbolt lived in Huntington Beach she returned to Lake Arrowhead regularly to disciple Elguera and his family. She started a Bible study at the restaurant and got Elguera involved in a local church. As the months passed Elguera would occasionally party. But then he met Dawna, a Christian who challenged him to live a better life.

“You need to love God more than you love anything else in your life,” she told him one day. “You need to love Him even more than me.”

Less than a year later the two wed. They lived in a mountain cabin. During the day they skied at a nearby ski resort and at night they worked.

“We loved each other and the Lord,” Elguera says. “But we were still struggling spiritually.”

To grow closer to God, Elguera read the Bible and prayed every day. During this time he felt prompted by God to go back into skating. He wavered, but finally decided to skate. Though he was not as good as when he had left, he still had what it took to be a pro, and this time around he dedicated his skating to God.

“I prayed and told God I didn’t know if I could handle it,” he admits. “I knew God didn’t want me to come into this atmosphere to compromise my relationship with Him.”

Though his skills returned quickly and he was making enough money to do skateboarding full-time, Elguera started making compromises. Within months, he had stopped reading his Bible, praying and attending church on a regular basis. In place of those disciplines he partied hard with his teammates.

While on a team-sponsored event in Acapulco he partied late into the night. The next day he awoke and felt convicted. He prayed and asked God for forgiveness. Then he called his wife and apologized.

“I made a commitment to never do that stuff again,” he says, “and since that day I have never touched alcohol.”

Two years later, he began using his skateboarding talents as a hook to share his testimony with young people. “Whenever I have an opportunity to share the Word, I do,” says Elguera, who serves as the youth pastor at The Rock Church and World Outreach Center in Southern California. “Skating is a neat tool God has given me and now, rather than using it for my personal gain, I use it to lead others to Christ.”

In the bowl
It’s a balmy winter’s day in Fontana, Calif. At noon, the city’s skate park is teeming with those who enjoy risking life and limb catching air and grinding rails on their skateboards.

In the parking lot, Elguera does some pre-skating stretches. Even with his bulky knee and elbow pads strapped on he looks lean and agile. His lamb-chop sideburns, goatee and glasses scream hip college professor rather than professional skateboarder. But, a few minutes later, when he starts skating in the bowl, his finesse, style and moves speak for themselves.

“Is that Eddie Elguera?” a skateboarder on deck wonders aloud.

“It’s got to be,” says another.

When Elguera does his trademark “Elguerial” onlookers whoop and holler.

“That’s El Gato!” exclaims a skater for all to hear.

The rules in the bowl are simple. Skate until you bail and then get out so the next skater can go. Each time Elguera drops into the bowl with board underfoot he moves like a drop of water rolling up, out and then down the walls effortlessly.

For several hours Elguera skates. In between runs he shakes hands, signs autographs and makes small talk. His T-shirt bears the name of his youth group and he is quick to tell anyone he talks to that he is a youth pastor.

“I am not out here preaching to them, I am just living the Christian lifestyle,” he says. “When I am out here walking around, the Holy Spirit is with me and He does the convicting.”

One man covers a beer with a jacket when Elguera strikes up a conversation with him. Another man, who seems to think every sentence he speaks must include profanity, suddenly stops cursing when Elguera engages him in conversation.

“Eddie’s out here and he’s a professional skateboarder and he gives you props if you do a good trick,” says Jeff Smith, 31, who skates at the park regularly. “It gives you an ego boost and it’s cool. I’m definitely going to check out his church.”

After nearly three hours of skating Elguera says goodbye to his new friends and heads for the parking lot. At the gate of the park a thirty-something woman notices him and asks if he is a pastor. He says yes and she tells him she has attended his church.

She tells him about her life. She is a drug addict who had her children taken away from her. She regrets the decisions she has made and is praying God will one day restore her so she and her sons can be a family again. Elguera politely interrupts her and asks if he can pray for her.

“Father, You are the God of miracles,” Elguera proclaims for all in earshot to hear. “I pray for my sister, Lord. Please touch her and meet her needs.”

As Elguera, a 24-7 minister, crawls into his Jeep Wrangler he draws one last analogy between skateboarding and his faith.

“Being a great skateboarder is just like being a great Christian,” he says. “It takes commitment and a willingness to get back up when you fall.”

Good advice from a guy who knows Who it takes to get back on one’s feet.

Kirk Noonan is associate editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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