By Matt Ruby
The New York Times
From Our NYT Files: When a Surfer Lands a Skateboard Trick, Who Gets to Name It?
Albee Layer pulled off what looked like an original move on a surfboard. Soon after, the royalty of surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding began a debate about what to call it. It was mid-May when Albee Layer soared off a wave in Maui and did something exceptional, if not unprecedented, on a surfboard. He sped along the wave and then launched into the air, taking off facing away from the beach and turning back toward where he came from — known as an alley oop — rotating a little more than 360 degrees. He landed backward on the wave and then slid another 180 degrees to ride in facing forward.
Days later, video of the move went viral, and soon the surfing, skateboarding and snowboarding worlds were colorfully debating what it should be called.
Everyone agreed that Layer’s move was impressive, but everyone seemed to disagree on whose sporting heritage it evoked. Depending on your point of view, it is:
• Clearly a skateboarding move, and there is already a name for it.
• More like snowboarding, but let’s use the skateboarding term.
• Something altogether different and unique to surfing.
I followed along on Instagram as Todd Richards, a former professional snowboarder, sent text messages to pioneers in skateboarding who invented some tricks and have namesake moves. Tony Hawk quickly responded.
Unprecedented? Depends on whom you ask.
These sorts of debates have become a regular occurrence, and Layer has been involved in them before and since May 21. Other surfers, like Kelly Slater and Mikey Wright, have surfaced naming controversies after revealing new moves. But this episode sparked a few new in-depth conversations trying to get to the bottom of it.
To continue building his case, Richards sent Mike McGill, a former professional skateboarder who invented the inverted 540 known as the McTwist, a similar trick to Layer’s done by the surfer John John Florence. Here’s a response from McGill: Skateboarders and snowboarders think they know what to call these tricks because they have been looking at bodies moving in a similar way for close to 40 years. But this is new in surfing, and progression deserves to be rewarded. So who gets to name a move?
Skateboarding evolved from surfing but quickly developed its own identity, and snowboarding drew from both surfing and skateboarding but evolved as well. Even though skateboarders were emulating surfing by riding in pools and on ramps, the progression resulted in techniques not easily transferred to surfing until recently.
“What makes it different from, you know, every other sport is our ramps move,” Layer told me. “So when we do an air maneuver, we’re never taking off at the same angle.”
But this is on water.
So at this point we’ve heard from Hawk and McGill, giants of skateboarding. Enter Kelly Slater, the most famous surfer in the world. He went back and forth on Instagram with Pierre Wikberg, a snowboarding filmmaker and Richards’s ally, over the question of whether Layer’s move was frontside or backside. So where do we stand after all this?
Layer calls his move a “double alley-oop,” attempting to avoid one of the key aspects of the debate: the degrees of rotation.
Slater calls it an “Albee-oop,” avoiding direction or degrees of rotation altogether in favor of using Layer’s name. Although if Layer’s name were different, this might not be as cute of an option, and the bar to having a namesake trick is debatable.
“I think the unwritten rule for skating at least was if you did something truly unique, you get to name it,” Hawk said. “In these days, it’s very hard to do something that isn’t just a combination of existing tricks, and you would just give it that name.”
For his part, Hawk calls Layer’s move an “alley-oop 540,” counting the final 180 degrees rotated on the wave in the name, similar to sliding the final half rotation on a ramp. Richards and Wikberg are dead set on “alley-oop backside 360.”
Slater’s frustration with the situation is palpable.
“We’ve got snowboarders trying to tell us how to name surf maneuvers,” he said. “I don’t know a single surfer trying to do the opposite and name snowboard maneuvers. We should all know enough to know we should stay in our lane.”
Layer echoed a similar feeling of frustration. “I think as a whole it’s like no one ever thought of these things; they’re just like, oh yeah, it’s different in surfing,” he said. “But now that our tricks are getting closer to snowboarding and skateboarding, like with spins and whatnot, we’re going to have to figure this out so we don’t sound stupid.”
Richards was the one who got all this started by getting his influential friends to weigh in. I talked to him after things had died down. Let’s give him the last word.
“The problem is highlighted because surfers use the established grab names from skateboarding, which have been adopted by snowboarding,” he told me.
“The way that they add rotations is where the discrepancy begins. And it comes down to if you look at the wave in comparison to a wall on a halfpipe or a straight jump. Surfers look at it more like a straight jump. Snow and skate look at it like the wall of a halfpipe.
“Surfers use frontside or backside to describe their body’s orientation to the wave, but in air tricks, it is in relation to the spin, and in an alley-oop, the orientation and the spin direction are in opposite directions.”
O.K., makes sense. But why is the issue of who gets to name a move so heated?
“Surfers are going to look ridiculous calling something that has been done in a different sport by a different name,” Richards said. “It is about paying respect to the people who came first and pioneered the tricks. They killed themselves to put their names on tricks.”