Sports

How Anthony Van Engelen Conquered His Demons and Became a Skating Cult Hero

“Cats have nine lives. He might have fucking 11,” says pro skater Elijah Berle, “because it’s insane some of these stories I hear."
Pro skater Anthony Engelen stands in a half pipe wearing an orange t shirt.
Photo: Patrick O'Dell/VICE

Anthony Van Engelen is a skateboarding legend, renowned for an aggressive skating style that’s as intense as his personality. “When everybody’s grinding three feet, he’s grinding like 12 feet,” says videographer Aaron Meza. “He’s super powerful.”

His commitment to nailing big tricks meant he also became known for his epic meltdowns, captured in a series of iconic video appearances where he’s shown taking his frustrations out on his board. “It’s scary when [he] freaks out—you’re like, ‘Holy shit, he could probably just murder anybody’,” said the late pro skater Dylan Rieder, in an old interview. “He’s got that like intensity, it shows when he skates. That’s why he looks so awesome on a skateboard.”

Advertisement

On the latest episode of Epicly Later'd, VICE speaks to the man known as AVE and his skating peers about his legendary career, and how his natural talents long threatened to be overshadowed by substance abuse.

“Cats have nine lives. He might have fucking 11,” says pro skater Elijah Berle. “Because it’s insane some of these stories I hear… him using drugs and partying and not sleeping for three days and going to film tricks after.”

Like most kids growing up in Southern California, Van Engelen got into skateboarding at an early age. But while he displayed a natural talent, even by his mid-teens his appetite for partying was already threatening to derail his burgeoning career.

“By the time I was like 15, 16, I kind of started getting into partying and stuff, and wasn’t skating as much,” says Van Engelen, who is now 45.

Over the next couple of years he drifted—missing school, partying too much and skating too little—until his life took an unexpected turn. His stepfather had moved to St Petersburg, Russia, to open a restaurant, and he gave Van Engelen an ultimatum in a bid to get his life on track.

“He was like, ‘You’ve either got to go to school, get a job, or you can come over here.’ I thought about it and I was like, ‘Fuck it, I’ll go over there,’” he says. “It was insane. As soon as I got there, I was like, ‘Oh my god, this was a mistake’.”

Van Engelen lasted just four months of a planned year in the chaotic post-Soviet St Petersburg of the mid-90s before returning home. But still, the break from his comfortable life in California proved to be just what he needed, and he returned to skating with a newfound passion.

Advertisement

“I was grateful that I went there and had switched some gears in my head,” he says. “Because for a kid coming from Southern California, partying and skateboarding and whatever the fuck I was doing, it was a wake up call—life’s a lot different outside my reality. I had changed in that short amount of time,” he says. “I kind of re-fell in love with … skating.”

Before long, Van Engelen crossed paths with Jason Dill, a pro skater a couple of years older than him, who noticed his obvious talent and took him under his wing. Soon Van Engelen was making a big name for himself as a professional.

But the hard-partying lifestyle of a professional skateboarder repeatedly threatened to derail his career.

“Anthony was terrible at drinking,” says Dill. “I still have a chipped bone … in this elbow because he tackled me on Sunset Boulevard.” And it wasn’t just alcohol, explains Dill, who shared his close friend and collaborator’s appetite for drugs before eventually cleaning up. “I couldn’t smoke crack with Anthony the way I could smoke crack with other friends,” he says. “It wasn’t fun … when I did it with Anthony. He just got too gnarly… It was dark.”

Van Engelen realised he was squandering his talent, but his various attempts to clean up his act didn’t take. He recalls a trip he took to stay with fellow pro skater Anthony Pappalardo at his apartment in Barcelona, Spain, with the intention to knuckle down, focus on his skating and “get my shit together.”

Advertisement

“I was fucked up and went there and… that was bad,” he says.

Pappalardo—who had set up a room for Van Engelen to stay in, looking forward to a period of skating intensely together—recalls his disappointment when he showed up without his skateboard, and showed no sign of easing off his hard-partying ways.

“On maybe the third day I saw him come out [of his room], he had like a leather jacket on, nothing underneath, like a rock star … just going to get dinner,” says Pappalardo. “I was trying to talk to him being like, ‘You want to maybe skate this trip or something?’”

Van Engelen recalls with embarrassment his reaction to Pappalardo, who was drinking a glass of wine with a book by Charles Bukowski at his side. “I’m like, ‘You read about it, I live it,’ and I fucking left,” says Van Engelen.

Pappalardo says the pair laughed years later about how much the trip had cost—more than $20,000 on flights and partying. “He didn’t step on a board once. It was kind of a bummer,” says Pappalardo. “I was looking forward to skating with him.”

It would be years—involving failed attempts at rehab and interventions from friends—before Van Engelen would find sobriety, get fit, and fulfil his potential as a skater.

“Enough things weren’t working,” he says. “I kind of had a moment of clarity. It was just a realization of just: ‘Fuck man, I just need some fucking help. I’m not capable of running this show with or without alcohol and drugs.’”

Now he’s been sober for a third of his life and remains an active professional skater, continuing to command the respect of younger generations, even into his mid 40s. In 2015, he was named skateboarding bible Thrasher magazine’s skater of the year.

“To me, Anthony is a hero,” said pro skater Donovon Piscopo. “He’s not just a skateboard legend, he’s a legend in just being a fucking human being.”