From NYC to Big Air Gold: Sloan's breakout year
"Action!" the director yells, and Elliot Sloan drops into the vert ramp. He pumps for speed then rises above the metal coping, tweaked at the height of his airs, back and forth for more than a minute. On the flatbottom, Will Adler, guitarist for the metal band Lamb of God, mashes the strings on his new Signature Series ESP guitar.
It is a sweltering May afternoon in Vista, California, 10 miles inland from Carlsbad. The rental car thermometer reads 109 degrees. Six wildfires are burning in northern San Diego County, their plumes darkening the sky around Sloan's home. Adler, a cult hero among metal fans and who lives in Mechanicsville, Virginia, flew across the country for this shoot, which will help create buzz for his new guitar.
He and Sloan spent 10 hours the day before tracking the original song -- which they co-wrote -- in Sloan's studio, fashioned out of an old garage between his house and his ramp. Adler, a longtime skateboarder (hence the promo's theme), left wholly impressed. "Not to sound jaded, but we get music sent to us all the time," he said. "Elliot shocked the s--- out of me when we first started exchanging tracks."
Sloan, a vert and MegaRamp specialist who will defend his X Games Skateboard Big Air title Friday in Austin, Texas, is skating at less than full strength today. While practicing in January on Bob Burnquist's MegaRamp a few miles away, he broke the scaphoid bone in his left wrist, which happens to be the slowest healing bone in the body. Four months of agonizing patience and one surgery later, it still has not returned to full strength.
To skate a vert ramp for more than 60 seconds requires intense focus and stamina, and Sloan's time off the board shows during one of the takes. "Don't worry," the cameraman tells Adler. "Even the crashes are going to look awesome, so just keep on rocking."
For Sloan, 25, an amateur guitarist who has idolized Adler for a decade and is working on his second album, the shoot represents the latest dream come true in a year full of them. His Big Air gold medal in Los Angeles was the first of his career and made him one of only six athletes to medal at all four Summer X Games in 2013.
Shrouded in the frenzy of that L.A. night was Sloan's quiet, touching tribute to his father, Jon, who died when Sloan was 16. "This one's for my dad, because he can't be here," Sloan said while pointing to the sky.
He had envisioned that moment for years, he says -- paying homage to the man whose image he wears everywhere he goes, creased-cheek smile, soft eyes, funny mannerisms and all. This November will mark 10 years since Jon's death, and Sloan and his mother, Priscilla, still think about him every day. Mostly because they miss him. But also because his death set in motion a series of events that have defined Sloan's skateboarding career -- and, as a result, each of their lives.
There is simply no way to predict that a commodities trader's son -- raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, whose mother walks dogs and runs marathons and none of whose relatives skateboard -- will become a professional skateboarder. Sloan studied at the United Nations International School. He owned a guitar before he owned a skateboard. Only after watching his hero, Tony Hawk, land the sport's first 900 in 1999 did he decide he wanted to follow the same path.
He grew up skating transition at Riverside Park and Chelsea Piers. Like so many future stars, he could never get enough. His father resisted at first. He wanted Elliot to go to college, study business, follow the same life path he had charted.
Eventually Jon relented to what Priscilla calls "the force of Elliot's dream," which continues to guide Elliot's and Priscilla's lives today.
"OK," the prescient trader, nicknamed "Moon Man" by his colleagues, told Priscilla. "I guess there's nothing I can do. I have to let him do what he loves."
As Elliot improved -- often skating alone because his friends preferred street to vert -- he began to realize he needed to leave New York. Skateboarding's epicenter has long been Southern California, where the weather is divine and skateparks are abundant. He imagined moving west but knew that his father, a diehard New Yorker who fit the mold with every quirk of his personality, right down to his maniacal driving and incessant shouting of obscenities, would never leave the Big Apple.
Sloan accepted his fate. His parents had been together since they were in high school, and he was their only child.
Then his father got into a couple of car accidents while riding in taxis. He had herniated disks in his back, which led to circulatory problems in one leg. He broke his hip and had surgery. It didn't go well, and his health deteriorated. In November 2004, six months after the onset of his problems, he died at home from surgical complications. He was 48.
A week after his father's death, Priscilla walked into Elliot's room to rouse him for school.
"I'm not going," Elliot said.
"What are you talking about?"
Instead of finishing high school, he told his mother he would earn his high school equivalency diploma and get a job. He knew they needed money to cover the loss of his father's income. Three weeks later, he made good on his word, earned his GED and took a job as a construction laborer.
He insulated attics and replaced drywall, the first in a long line of jobs that also included bank teller, restaurant busboy and paralegal. "I had to grow up overnight," Sloan says, "and become the man of the house."
At the same time, his skating had begun to suffer. His go-to ramps closed or transitioned from wood to concrete. His mother drove him to a vert ramp in Philadelphia, two hours each way, so he could at least skate on weekends. But he could feel his dream slipping. During one hopeless stretch, he stopped skating entirely for two months. What am I doing? he thought. This is my passion.
The year after his father died, Sloan and his mother flew to the prestigious Tampa Am contest in Florida. Kevin Staab, a longtime vert pro, talent scout and one of Hawk's closest friends, happened to be skating the ramp during practice one day. He watched one of Sloan's runs and thought to himself, who the hell is this kid?
That night, Staab had dinner with Elliot and Priscilla. She told him about Jon's death and said she didn't know what to do with Elliot, who was only skating a few days a week at the time.
Staab suggested they move to California: "He can skate with me every day on Tony's ramp."
The next morning, Priscilla asked Staab if he had been kidding.
"No," he said. "It's completely true."
They went home to New York and resumed their uncertain lives. Sloan kept working and stewed. One day he woke up and told his mother he could no longer take it.
"I've got to get out there," he said. "I can't wait anymore. I'm going with or without you."
In January 2006, he packed a car and drove to California. He was 17. Priscilla, who was not about to lose him, too, followed one month later.
Staab let Sloan skate Hawk's ramp any time he wanted. Hawk would show up to skate as well, along with a host of other established pros. "Who's that?" Hawk asked Staab one day, pointing at the new kid.
"I found him at the Tampa Am," Staab replied. "I think he's going to be good."
In a month's span, Staab recalls, Sloan went from getting 4 feet above the lip to 7 feet. Hawk followed his ascent and eventually added Sloan to his Birdhouse team, no small show of confidence for a vert skater given that the market was -- and continues to be -- dominated by street sales.
When Sloan went looking for a home to buy, he found a 2-acre plot of land in Vista with room to build a backyard ramp the size of the X Games ramp. He couldn't qualify for the loan on his own, so he turned to his new skateboarding fraternity for help. Pierre-Luc Gagnon, who moved to California alone from his native Quebec in 2000 and went on to win eight X Games gold medals, agreed to back the New Yorker and co-sign on the loan. Never mind that they were competing against each other in contests; Gagnon asked only that he be allowed to skate Sloan's new ramp, which Sloan's sponsor, Rockstar Energy, built in the months after the sale.
"I don't have any brothers or sisters, and he doesn't, either," Gagnon, 34, said, explaining why he supported Sloan. "Maybe we have a connection where he's kind of like my little bro."
Looking back, Staab says: "Elliot was one of those dream kids who was just lost for a moment and had gone through a lot of hard times, but already had everything figured out about what he wanted to do and who he wanted to be. It was just a matter of giving him a place to do it."
If Sloan spent much of his early 20s as a rising star, you could say he fulfilled his promise last season. He still skates vert, but his performance in X Games Big Air contests -- arguably the most daring discipline in action sports -- elevated him to a new echelon. He won all four of his 2013 medals on the MegaRamp, adding two silvers and a bronze to his gold, which ended Burnquist's three-year unbeaten streak. On Friday night in Austin, if the wind isn't too gusty, Sloan hopes to land a trick that has never been done and defend his title.
He has found balance off the ramp, too. Each morning before he skateboards, he plays guitar for an hour in his garage, which he turned into a man cave unto itself. No fewer than 74 vintage skateboards hang on the walls (next to the Pantera, Slayer and Metallica posters and above his pool table), many of them signed by men he now competes against. He and his longtime girlfriend own four dogs -- two of which showed up on their doorstep as strays -- and two chameleons. He hosts barbecues and skate sessions in his backyard, which is lined by palm trees and bamboo.
His mother rents a room next door and works as a receptionist at a local car dealership. Sometimes she wonders if she should move back to New York now that Elliot has found his way in California. But they still need each other. "You and I are all we have," she tells him.
Sloan has a tattoo on his shoulder that reads "1956-2004 Dad." But the ink is just a reminder. "It's up here," he says, pointing to his head.
Built like a wide receiver, Sloan looks every bit the California boy in his flip-flops and T-shirt. If his wrist feels good enough tomorrow, he may go surfing. The collision of bitter and sweet as it relates to his fate is not lost on him.
"I think things happen for a reason," he says. "Maybe if my dad didn't pass, I wouldn't have moved out here."
He could still be the lost soul he was in New York, bottling up his emotions, numb to the world around him. His skateboarding career might never have flourished. But to understand Elliot Sloan is to know that never would have happened.
As his mother likes to say: "This is our destiny."