All photos by Grant Brittain

The 'Leap of Faith' Was Skateboarding's Definitive Avant-Garde Moment

Jamie Thomas's slam at Point Loma High School was a piece of art.

|
Jan 22 2018, 2:47pm

All photos by Grant Brittain

Twenty-one years ago, a man on a skateboard fell down a 17-foot drop at a schoolyard in San Diego and changed the world forever.

Known as the "Leap of Faith," the stunt was featured on the skateboard company Zero’s seminal 1997 video Thrill of It All, and immediately made the sport’s history books. Overnight, the guy behind it, Jamie Thomas, a 22-year-old from Dothan, Alabama, became an industry celebrity. Two years later, he was immortalized as a character in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, the sequel to which featured a level with a gap named after his famous slam at Point Loma High School. Back in real life, other skaters began gathering at the location hoping to best him. Some results are now online, including footage of Richard King, who broke his leg after plummeting like a rock to the concrete.

In comparison, Thomas’s attempt is masterful. As he approaches the handrail separating him from potential oblivion, he crouches and calmly executes an ollie melon. Then he descends. For what feels like eternity—actually just over a second—he hangs in the ether, floating on four wheels. An aura of tranquility surrounds him. Everything is silent except for the sound of photographer Grant Brittain’s camera. It’s all going perfectly. But as Thomas nears the tarmac there’s something amiss; his feet are an inch or so too close to the middle of his board. On any other day, such a small error would be inconsequential. But at this height, the impact is magnified a thousand-fold. As he lands, his board snaps, and his body folds like a tin can. Yet as he falls, he still maintains an air of grace, tumbling onto his shoulder and sliding out of frame with finesse. In the background, onlookers begin to cheer. A legend is made.

In 2005, the school built an elevator on the site, ensuring that no one would ever throw themselves down the drop again. Unlike the famous El Toro stair set, or the Carlsbad gap, with which countless skaters made names for themselves by doing bigger and gnarlier tricks than those who came before them, no one will ever throw themselves down the Leap of Faith again. The spot belongs solely to Jamie Thomas.

The story behind the event has only enhanced its status. At the time, Thomas was taking a risk with his career as well as his body. Since 1995, he’d been sponsored by the fabled Toy Machine skateboards. While there, he’d directed videos, acted as team manager, and earned the coveted final section in one of the decade’s best skate videos, Welcome to Hell. Then, in 1997, he gave up everything to start his own brand, Zero. Thrill of It All was his entry into the business, and Zero’s success rested on him. Whether he realized it at the time or not, the Leap of Faith was at once a display of skill as well as a publicity stunt. Photos of the dive—emblazoned with "JAMIE THOMAS RIDES FOR ZERO"—appeared as a full-page ad in Transworld Skateboarding. Zero was very much on the map.

Commercial concerns aside, the event seemed preordained. In a 2013 interview with King Shit magazine, Thomas recalled that prior to making the jump, he discovered someone had written his name on the handrail. Fate works in mysterious ways.

In many respects, the Leap of Faith was also the embodiment of an emerging type of street skating that combined dexterity, mortal risk, and spectacle. At the time, the discipline was evolving, and people were still discovering what their boards and bodies could achieve. Thomas’s wipeout was therefore important in two ways. Firstly, it charted the limit of gap jumping—no one has verifiably skated a drop that big since. And secondly, it solidified an era—already burgeoning since the days of Frankie Hill and the Gonz—in which street skaters focused on big tricks on big things. For at least a decade, skating (and dressing) like Jamie Thomas became one of skateboarding’s most dominant styles.

In 1998, for instance, Birdhouse released The End, a video boasting a young Andrew Reynolds frontside flipping a 13-step set of stairs, and Heath Kirchart boardsliding El Toro dressed like Michael Jackson. That same year, Jeremy Wray made history by clearing an 18-foot gap between two 40-foot water towers in Rowland Heights, California—another one-off. Fast-forward to 2002, and Flip’s equally iconic Sorry video offered Geoff Rowley’s "gnarliest" moments, as well as Ali Boulala’s failed attempt at clearing the 14.5-foot Lyon 25 (a feat that would go unaccomplished until Jaws nailed it in October 2015).

This style only became more prominent during the early 2000s, a boom era for daredevil street skating. It was during this time that skateboarding began to truly test its boundaries, and countless skaters made a name for themselves based on their willingness to jump down ever-larger staircases and handrails. The list of important tricks from this time period is long, and yet not one of these makes is as fabled Thomas’s fall. And, because of how skateboarding is consumed now—immediately, and usually on Instagram—it seems unlikely that any future trick could have the mystique and anticipation needed to make a similar impact.

In recent years, skateboarding has arguably evolved beyond the era of Big Shit. Skaters, perhaps having found the ceiling of what they can physically withstand, have largely stopped hunting for ever-bigger drops. Instead they’re bringing increasingly complicated tricks—the 90s-era technical flips and spins that fell out of fashion during the shift from fresh to hesh—to the big spots of yesterday. The slaying of hazardous landmarks is alive and well, it’s just that 2017’s Thrasher Skater of the Year did a frontside crooked grind in the same place where a lipslide was once mind-blowing.

Thomas’s influence remains indisputable, yet it still seems as if skateboarding has failed to grasp the Leap of Faith’s avant-garde significance. Skate videos may customarily exist merely to illustrate talent and promote brands, but Thomas’s exploits in San Diego were so inimitable that they are worthy of the consideration usually reserved for aesthetic objects. Skateboarders are fond of saying that their hobby is not a sport but an art, so it perhaps shouldn’t be too surprising that the closest comparison to Thomas’s Leap is not an athletic feat but a piece from the Met Museum’s collection —Yves Klein’s 1960 photomontage,Leap into the Void.

A French judo master, Klein’s work focused on representing the unrepresentable, challenging Western principles of imitative art. As a child, he began painting surfaces in monochrome blocks as an attempt to articulate the “pure freedom” of “existential space”—a place in between life and death. Later, this practice developed into his signature shade of blue. Leap into the Void, depicting the artist seemingly swan diving from a wall, was an extension of this project. Composed of two superimposed images (Klein was caught by friends who were then edited out), it was initially distributed in a newspaper alongside the demand that to paint space one must “go there by his own means, by an autonomous, individual force.” But despite having the realistic appearance of a photo, what it depicts did not occur.

In many respects, the Leap of Faith is similar to Klein’s artwork. On a very obvious level, both depict men jumping from great height and both have the same word in their titles. Moreover, both have encouraged people to make leaps of their own. In Thomas’s case, he pushed skateboarding to dangerous new heights; in Klein’s case, he enticed his audience into believing his trompe l'oeil. But perhaps the most persuasive similarity is the way in which Thomas’s jump resembles the French artist’s advice to aspiring painters. In those iconic closing moments from Thrill of It All, Thomas is figuratively delineating space through his own force, charting its unrepresentable dimensions via his body and movement. And more importantly, as he flies through the air, he is caught between life and death, suspended in the void of nonexistence—the ultimate Kleinean motif.

Follow Huw Nesbitt on Twitter.

More VICE
Vice Channels