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Vol. 9, No. 3
June/July 2006

  >>   On the Waterfront
  >>   Land's End
  >>   Diamond's Edge

King of the Hills 

story by Ric Valdez
photo by Sergio Goes


It’s just your basic Friday afternoon over at Justin Lono’s place in Papakolea, the Hawaiian homestead neighborhood that sits in the shadow of Honolulu’s Mount Tantalus: Reggae playing from the boom box; cans of Hawaiian Sun juice lying around; a small crew of skaters hanging in the backyard, eyeing the rain-heavy clouds and discussing the possibility of an afternoon run down serpentine Tantalus Drive. Among them is Darryl Freeman, who is currently lounging in a hammock under a large mango tree, both hands tucked behind a mane of curly blond hair and his left leg confined in a blue fiberglass cast.

“I was skating down one of my favorite nighttime runs,” he says with a mischievous grin, when asked of his latest incapacitation. He swings out of the hammock, balancing on his one good leg. “I went down on my first power-slide: at about thirty-five (m.p.h.) my front foot slipped off my board. I cracked my ankle and caused extensive soft tissue damage. It’s been a few months since I walked, but I tried skating yesterday—I can’t walk, but I can still roll!”

Out of the water, stand-up, downhill skateboarding—“bombing”—is the closest thing to the thrill and danger of big wave surfing, and Honolulu’s Darryl Freeman is one of the sport’s kings. Since 1998, he’s been competing on the professional downhill skateboard circuit, covering the globe to challenge the best in the world … and winning: In 2002, he took a gold medal at the Gravity Games, which are widely considered to be the world championships of the sport; that year, he finished the world tour at first overall, a placing he would narrowly miss two years later.

All of which is pretty remarkable considering there is not one officially sanctioned downhill race in all of Hawai‘i—in fact, depending on the place and circumstances, street skating of any sort is only marginally legal in the Islands … and bombing is not at all. Let’s just say it: Most Honolulu residents, if they were to see Darryl on their street, would think he’s just another punk.

Bob Freeman says his son has always been fearless. “At three or four he would slide down the stairs on a boogie board, crash into the walls and do it again.” Darryl grew up on Maunalani Heights, at the top of Wilhelmina Rise—one of the state’s longest, straightest and steepest paved strips. When he needed to get down the hill, he simply skateboarded to the bottom. Long before he was competing, Freeman became a fixture on the hills of Honolulu, adorned in his helmet and thick welding gloves (far superior to standard skating pads when it came to breaking his falls), carving his way down at all hours and in all conditions.

But the world of professional downhilling is miles away from Wilhelmina Rise, both literally and figuratively. Founded in 1996, the International Gravity Sports Association’s world tour now covers the Continental United States, Canada, Europe, Brazil, Japan, Australia and South Africa. In the controlled racing world, competitors can reach speeds of more than seventy miles per hour on roads that are closed off and lined with hay bales to absorb the shock of high-speed crashes. Racers wear aerodynamic helmets and full-body leathers similar to those used by grand prix motorcycle racers. The courses themselves sometimes hit grades of up to twenty-five percent—by way of comparison, in most towns the steepest roads are in the six percent range; in Hawai‘i, to find roads that hit twenty percent, you need to climb Mauna Kea or descend into Waipi‘o Valley.