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Stephane Larance | Skateboarder & Olympic Judge

There are a few things that spring to the layman’s mind when they think of skateboarding or skateboarders. Stale clichés that do not in the slightest represent the dedication, creativity, skill, bravery, tenacity or fraternity of the skateboarding community. Stéphane Larance is still the embodiment of these traits and tells me that there are skaters like him everywhere. He wants the world to see skaters for what they are – driven, talented and above all creative athletes. And who better than Steph, the Godfather of French skateboarding – a moniker he humbly refuses to accept – and Olympic, Street League and X Games judge, to help thrust skateboarding into the public eye?

Once we are set up on Steph’s patio on the outskirts of Paris with a cup of tea and a slice of cake (who said French hospitality was lacking?!) we immediately dive into the world of skateboarding – particularly French skateboarding in the mid-1980s. “Back then, we had very few role models. There was Powell Peralta and the Bones Brigade – but this is 1985 we’re talking. I was 13 (Steph is now a barely credible 48 years old). There were only a few magazines: Transworld, Thrasher… that was basically it. We’d get them every two months, they were our bibles.” It is clear that Steph believes that skateboarding was and still is a sport that thrives as a result of its collective feeling. “I got my first board from a friend of mine. He had one, I tried it and was pretty good, and so I asked him to give it to me! Then, we would get the occasional VHS and try to copy what we saw. At first, we weren’t very good, but as we got better, we could copy the tricks and try adding little bits on top. When I met the guys from Trocadéro (the most famous skatespot in Paris), they took me down there and that’s where I met most of the skaters. We would have these friendly competitions to see who could land a trick first, who could ollie higher or longer. Everyone would be really happy for whoever won the first one, but it would fire you up to win the next one. There was a bit of competition but a lot of progression. Yeah. The progression was really quick.”

Despite the rapid rise to the top of the skate world, a career as a skateboarder was not always a given. Steph studied as a graphic designer following in the footsteps of his architect father. “When I had the diploma, I decided to become a skateboarder and my mum was OK with that! I wasn’t making loads of money, but there was some equipment that I could resell, so I wasn’t a burden. Also, being a designer always helped me in my skate career, be it making adverts for sponsors or editing videos, it was a really useful tool.” The tale of the ‘skate-creative’ is well known - we see many Creative Directors, Art Directors, etc. that have come from the skate world. This does not surprise Steph. He tells me “in skateboarding, you are always expressing yourself. Even if you’re with your friends, or on your own, when you’re skateboarding, you’re being creative. It really trains the mind. It lends itself really well to visual arts. You have to interpret the world differently.” This creative eye, coupled with a do-or-die attitude makes for a great professional creative. “Everyone skates differently too,” Steph continues, shedding yet more light on the artistic education of young skateboarders, “there are so many different people that do it, so all the tricks look different. If you’re a group of 10, you’ll all skate differently and have different ways of doing things – it inspires the others and helps them progress.

The aesthetics of the sport expand the creative mind, but the nature of the sport nurtures a community mentality for which it is famous. “It’s funny,” Steph says, “skateboarding is an individual sport that you can’t do on your own. You have to be surrounded by people. When we’d go on tour, everyone would gather round to watch and support you, but they’d also give you the space you need to concentrate. They would motivate you. You couldn't let them down.” At the same time, the sponsorship model of skateboarding looks after their own in a way that other sports could learn a valuable lesson. In football, the image of sponsors is rather different. From Gazprom’s surreally glitzy Champions League spots, to generic boot and facial-scrub deals, there is little to love about football and its endorsements. However, Stéphane tells a reassuring story form the skate world. On one of his first tours to the USA, Steph was jumping down 12 steps and misjudged the speed. He landed on the last step, dislocating then relocating his ankle on impact. He was to spend the 3-month tour on the sofa in agony. “It took me a year before I even stood on a skateboard again, and about another year to get back to where I was. Luckily, the sponsors helped me out when I was there so I didn't have to pay US hospital bills in cash, and they stood by me for the years after that. I was very lucky that I had good sponsors at that time; they supported me all the way. It would have been easy for them to drop me.” He refers to it as them looking after their family.

There is a respect amongst skaters, and indeed their sponsors for the hardship through which they put their bodies. Despite 35 years of skateboarding, Steph tells me that aside from some hip issues, his body is holding up very well. He has a very serious sporting regime these days (triathlon, mostly) and has never smoked nor drunk in his life (apart from that one time after PSG beat Chelsea – Thiago Silva!!!). He has treated his life and his skate career with the utmost respect so as to prolong it, and enjoy it to the fullest. He tells me that some of his education has come through his experiences with a board under his feet, lessons he has applied to his post-skate life. “The cartilage in my hips is not good, because I used to skate big things. Skating these big things taught me to calculate risk. If there was something I knew I could do, but I wasn't feeling it that day, there was no way I would try. I would come back in a few days to try. It taught me to never give up, to always have confidence in myself and no matter what happened, believe that I could do it. It may take the time that it takes, but it will end with me succeeding. Like when I do my triathlons, for example, I set these small goals during the race – skating taught me that.” It is a particularly cerebral approach that Steph takes to skateboarding (and life in general), one that is quite at odds with the common misconceptions. “Skaters are not lazy, they’re not layabouts and wasters.” Steph wants the world to see skateboarding in a different light and believes the Olympics – of which skateboarding will be a part from 2020…2021 – could help. He is therefore relishing his new role as an Olympic judge.

After having turned the page on skateboarding and fallen somewhat out of love with it, Steph was invited to a judges training seminar. After seeing many of his friends on the invitees list, he decided ‘why not?’ “At the very worst, it would be 5 days with a lot of my friends that I hadn’t seen in a long time. Little by little, I learned about judging, I liked it and I was not bad at it.” After having judged a few international events, such as Street League, he was selected to be the European Olympic Representative for skateboarding. “It went from, I don’t want to do this, to this is awesome! I had to turn back the page on skateboarding!” There has, however, been some backlash to the introduction of skating to the roster of Olympic disciplines, not least from skaters themselves, many of whom think an official and ‘stuffy’ competition such as this will detract from the ‘core’ nature of skateboarding. Not so for Steph. “Skating is very open as a discipline, so there is a place for everyone. The guys in baggy clothes, skinny clothes, big shoes, Converse, all black, punks, rock, hip-hop, trash, blah blah. There will always be some people against something, no matter what it is. Some skaters love competitions, some people, like me, never did them. We spent our life street skating. I think there are so many skaters that deserve international recognition. For the most part, our sport is hidden from the public. There are skaters that earn more than footballers, but no one would know! I think the Olympics can spread the word about the fact that it's a real sport, with real athletes. That it’s really hard, too!” Beyond looking out for his protégés reputation, Stéphane is not blind to the financial implications either. “There are some non-skate brands that sponsor skaters, but only the A-list. I think the Olympics could help put the sport on their maps too, and will therefore help more of the skate community… What’s more, it might help clean the image of skateboarding a little bit with the drugs tests etc. People won’t think they’re dropouts anymore. It shows that they have real professional lives, that they're real professional athletes. Hopefully we can bring a different image to the sport.”

Even in his football (something that he has played and followed with passion his entire life), Steph knows the problems with bad labels. As a card-carrying member of the PSG Ultras, they have only recently been allowed back inside the Parc des Princes and he still isn’t allowed into Italy (but that’s a story for another time)! “It’s still not the same as it was before. It’s good, but it’s not the same!” He has travelled all over the continent following PSG, and all over the world with his skating but he tells me he would always takes his games consoles with him wherever he went. “I first started playing FIFA in 1998, when you could only play as countries. Since then, I only play as PSG. I played loads when I went on tour. I would take my console with me, or buy them out there because they were cheaper. I’d buy all the games out there as well. I have really good memories of these big games between 4 people in the hotel rooms. Like a family.”

And what of the king of skate games, The Birdman himself? “I never really got into Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater – no skate game has ever interested me. I’d rather go skate for real!”

Words by Jack Whelan @leballonfc Photography Celia Spenard-Ko

 

 

 

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