AJ NELSON INTERVIEW BY JIM MURPHY
PHOTOGRAPHY BY DEVILLE NUNES AND PETER FURNEE
Born and bred at the gnarly Kokomo Skatepark, AJ Nelson has been comin’ in hot every session. Whether it’s a concrete park, a big vert ramp, a backyard pool, a DIY spot or a jump ramp in a parking lot, AJ sends it with style and aggression with no ego and just pure love for skateboarding. After a pie to the face, christening his A team placement on The Powell Peralta team, AJ is in California making things happen! Be on the look out for this humble hardcore skater from the Midwest with a whole-hearted stamp of approval from the late Jeff Grosso.
MURF: Hey, AJ, I wanted to interview you because I’ve been seeing photos of you skating over the years and, knowing the guys in Kokomo, I heard you were a local there. Were you born and raised in Kokomo?
AJ: I was born in Kokomo in ‘96. I’m Indiana born and raised. I’m proud to be a Hoosier and represent.
What was going on in Kokomo when you were growing up? Were you getting into skateboarding?
I didn’t start skating until I was 13. Growing up, I was a kid that played every sport imaginable, from football to baseball to wrestling. You name it. I had the biggest yard on my block, so all of these kids would come and play in the yard. My buddy, Jerek Dockery, was a skateboarder and then he got my best friend, Hunter, into it and everyone started skating. I was the last guy to be playing baseball and football. I was like, “I want to hang out with my friends, so I guess I’ll start skateboarding.” Then my mom took me to this place called DK’s Skatepark and I got a complete. It was a tiny little 7.3 Starlite. That was in 2009 and it was on from there. I’ve been a skateboarder ever since.
So you started skating street with your friends and then looking for transition to skate after that?
Yeah. We would skate downtown Kokomo and these little spots that are pretty decrepit now. We have Pipeline, the Grindline park with the elbow full pipe, and I got into skating that when no one skated transition. There was only a handful of us in the whole state that really rode transition. It was pretty street-dominated. I skate street too, but I have more fun on transition. When I was 16 and 17, I’d just go to Pipeline when the sun came up and I’d skate all day until the sun went down.
When that park was getting built, did you hang out with the build crew at all?
No. They built that park in 2005 and the first time I went there was in the summer of 2009. I had this shitty complete that my friend threw together and, as soon as I got to the park, it fell apart. I set it down and the bearings blew out and I lost an axle nut, so I just sat and watched my friends skate. I looked at it and I was like, “Fuck. I’m not dropping into that.” Then I took my buddy’s board and started from the bottom and pumped in the deep end and just figured it out. Each time I’d go back, it would get better and not as scary but, when you’re a kid, everything is a thousand feet tall.
What did you think when you first saw that elbow full pipe?
I was like, “How did they build that?” Everyone’s first question is, “I wonder if anyone has looped it?” That’s still the question going around, but I don’t think it’s possible on a skateboard. That park is about 60% sandpaper now and three-inch black pipe coping. It will serve you and you will get smoked on it. It’s got tight trannies and steep walls. It’s one of a kind. They don’t build parks like that anymore, unfortunately.
Yeah. My friend Merk was the form guy and he built those wooden forms they needed to build that full pipe. That park is a Grindline legend. It’s just amazing because, when I went there, no one was skating it. When you started to ride it, was it so intimidating that people didn’t want to ride it?
Well, it is intimidating. You walk up and go, “What the fuck is this thing?” It is kinda far away from downtown, so a lot of kids wouldn’t have rides out there. It’s on the edge of town, next to the park, way off in the distance. There are people that have lived in Kokomo their whole lives and they’re like, “I didn’t know this place was even here.” It’s been there since 2005, but street skating is just more accessible. Kids go right outside their door and are like, “I don’t want to wait and get a ride.” They just want to skate whatever. I get it, but that park is sitting there waiting to be ridden and it’s just a ghost town. Me and a few friends would go skate there when it was nice out and we held it down and took care of it because the city had stopped. I had to bondo holes and cracks and the graffiti was out of control, but whatever. It builds character.
That’s a helluva place to start learning to skate. Were you hooked after you learned how to carve and drop in?
Yeah. When I figured out how to pump through a corner and carve, I was like, “Holy shit! You can skate the whole park in one run if you understand it.” I’d watch the BMX guys or the older dudes ride and steal notes from them. I did my first little frontside air on the middle bowl flat wall. After that, it was on. I was hooked as soon as I figured out how to ride that park like a bowl instead of just dropping in and mini-ramping everything. When I was 16 and 17, I really started skating it hard and I was up there every day by myself. A couple of friends would go here and there, but they’d just skate flat in the parking lot or watch me eat shit. Most of the time, I would go up there on my own or my mom and dad would drop me off. When I got a car, I’d go up there all day by myself.
I do stained glass restoration for a living and I go to Kokomo Opalescent Glass in Kokomo, Indiana.
Yes. It’s legendary!
That’s where people from around the world get their glass. It’s incredible. It’s bizarre because the kind of work that I do is really niche and, when you’re talking about Kokomo, it’s well known. When I heard that you grew up there, I wanted to find out more about the skate scene. When did you start skating with other skaters that could ride on your level that wanted to skate vert and bowls?
I was skating Pipeline every day after work and skating street sometimes with a couple of friends, and then my best friend, Hunter, and I went to this birthday party for his little brother at Ollie’s. I had never seen a vert ramp in person and I got up there and I was padless and I didn’t know shit. I thought, “I can drop in on the vert wall at Pipeline and that wall is 12 feet, so I can probably drop in on this.” I skated it and bailed and ran it out. I didn’t know how to skate a vert ramp. No idea. Then I met Peter Furnee and Todd Morrow. They were like, “You need to get kneepads and skate with us. You look like you know what you’re doing. Where are you from?” I said, “I’m from Kokomo.” Todd and Peter are from Westfield and I was in Greenwood, which is 45 minutes to an hour and a half away. After that, I got a Pro-Tec Full Cut helmet and some 187 kneepads and I started riding with Peter Furnee and Todd Morrow. They got me into vert and traveling. I’d never really travelled before that. I was just always in Indiana.
Then you learned the art of knee sliding?
Yeah. When I got the pads, I went to Pipeline and spent a few hours trying to learn how to knee slide. I would jump off the hip or just bail something and go to my knees. It pitched me to my face a couple of times and ate my shoes up really fast. That was a trick in its own, the knee slide. Once I had learned it, I realized that I could do more stuff. I just had to learn to knee slide first.
The fact that you were dropping in on the 12-foot wall at that Kokomo park is gnarly. What was it like the first time you tried dropping in that thing?
Well, I met Gradon McFarland there and we’d be the only guys skating. He’s two years younger than me and our parents would drop us off at the same time and he became a really good friend of mine. One day he was like, “Have you dropped in on that before?” I said, “No.” We both went up there and looked at it and it was definitely a contest between him and I from the get-go. The first time I dropped in I squatted it out. I should have ate shit, but I didn’t somehow and I rode it out. It was probably the scariest thing I had ever done in my life. He followed right behind me and we just kept going and kept pushing each other. I was 16 or 17 when I dropped in on that wall and it’s no joke. Pictures don’t do it justice. You’ve seen it. It’s insane.
Oh, I know. Was it a mental game for you just being up there and not knowing how you were going to pull it?
Yeah. I knew I couldn’t just stand up there forever because I would have freaked myself out. I looked at Gradon and I’m like, “If he’s gonna do it, I gotta do it.” He said, “You got it. Just don’t lean back.” I dropped in and somehow I made it. I should have smacked off the floor and I didn’t. Dropping in on that wall is scary because it’s concrete and there is hardly any transition on it and it’s like three feet of vert. It’s so other world.
After you made that drop in, did you feel like you had some shit figured out after dealing with that fear?
Yeah. It was like unlocking a door. There were all of these other possibilities now. You can go faster and higher. Once I dropped in and started skating the deep end more, I was like, “I can do more things.” There’s more to skateboarding than just mini ramp and street. There’s more substance to skateboarding and you rediscover it in a lot of ways. It’s like finding a new trick or a new thing to hit. When I figured the deep end out, I was hooked immediately. I like going fast and getting broke off is fun. It’s a reality check. I just want to haul ass and get scared. I like that feeling.
“I want to keep learning and progressing the best that I can. If I can get more people skating vert, that’s cool too.”– AJ NELSON
What was the evolution from there?
With the kneepads, I learned how to go faster. I was carving faster and doing longer grinds and faster grinds. The first invert I learned was after I started getting into skating vert ramps. At first, I didn’t understand inverts. I didn’t even know about that kind of skateboarding. I was just doing what I knew how to do with pads on, just on a bigger scale. I was doing little frontside airs and learning airs over the hips and doing longer grinds. Then I learned how to backside tailslide on the 9-foot at Pipeline. That’s because I had pads on. I remember that day. I just looked at my friend Hunter and I was like, “I’m going to try backside tailslides.” An hour later, I did it. It was just a three-inch little slide, but I took it. The concrete sparked under my wheels and I improved what I could do already on a mini ramp, but just on bigger deep end stuff.
Did you want a vert ramp to ride too?
Yeah. After I met Peter and Todd, I would drive down to Westfield, Indiana, and then I’d drive with Todd to Peter’s. All of the vert ramps around Kokomo were almost three hours away so, I was only able to skate vert once or twice a week, if I was lucky. Each session, I had to cram. I’d lose tricks since I was only skating once or twice a week, so I was losing stuff and learning stuff. I was like, “I want to learn to skate vert.” Meeting those guys was like another door unlocking and I was learning about vert skateboarding from these guys that had been doing it since I was little. It was just off to the races from there. It was a whole other scene.
It’s crazy because vert is so underground. You’ve got to be really dedicated to go through the pain and learn it. Were your parents like, “What are you doing?”
From the start, my mom has always told me, “Adam, you have one neck and one brain stem.” She’s always supported me but, when I got pads and a helmet, she rested a little bit easier knowing I was kinda protected. My friends didn’t really get it. They were like, “Oh, Tony Hawk, yeah, vert.” When you don’t know anything about vert, you just think Tony Hawk obviously. The first few sessions I went to I had never traveled that much and there was only three hours to a session once a week on Wednesdays or Saturdays after work. The first few weeks, I would get so amped up and scared. My mind was racing and I’d be so freaked out that I would throw up before the session. I’d do it so no one would see. To me, it was exciting and brand new. The dedication is real because there are no vert ramps anymore, and half of the session is just getting there. You have to want it and you have to be all in. You can’t half ass it. You gotta be there every session and keep everyone involved. There’s more than just you and a vert ramp. You’ve gotta keep a crew. It’s hard to skate vert by yourself.
“There’s more to skateboarding than just mini ramp and street. There’s more substance to skateboarding and you rediscover it in a lot of ways. It’s like finding a new trick or new thing to hit. I like going fast and getting broke off is fun. It’s a reality check. I just want to haul ass and get scared. I like that feeling.”– AJ NELSON
Yeah. Do you remember when you first figured out how to do a handplant?
The first invert I learned was a frontside invert. That came up in a conversation in the car with Todd and Peter because I did a little Miller flip on this wall ride and I posted the clip. They were like, “You could do a frontside invert.” I was like, “What is that?” They said, “It’s like a Miller flip, but you don’t flip around. You just pull it back in.” We talked about it in the car and then I spent that whole session trying them. I’d go up and fling myself up and I shot out and went upside down. You take that one good fall that throws you off balance because you’re upside down and don’t know how to get to your feet. Then I figured it out. My wrist kinda sat on my hip and I just did this little dinky one on the coping and pulled it in. That was my first invert at Ollie’s ramp. They were like, “Go fast and spot your landing and your hand placement and just go in.” Frontals are weird. My first invert was a frontal and a tiny one, but it was a make, so I’ll take it.
Frontals are sick. From there, you got the Smith vert down and the flapped over inverts. How did those first flapped over inverts go when you were learning those?
It was just building off of doing it each time and going a little bit farther back. I loved seeing photos of Jeff Kendall. He’s an Indiana legend. I looked up to Mike Conroy and he’s got great inverts. Rob Mertz has incredible Smith verts. I love all of the early ‘90s skateboarding. Mike Frazier is another one. I watched Grosso’s Loveletters all the time and the handplant episode was my favorite. I probably watched it a thousand times looking at all of the variations. Peter Furnee loves inverts and he was the first guy that I saw do an invert on vert. He would coach me through it and I’d try them and open them up a little more and twist them a little more. I was building off the last one like, “How far can I make this one go?” It was a building block game from then on. I watched footage and saw photos and thought of how they got there. I was watching and learning through visuals.
Then you were doing 540s. Learning a 540 is gnarly. What inspired you to want to do those?
Well, I can’t do a backside air or a mute air, but I’ve done 540s, like McTwist mute grab 5s. I can’t even do a backside air. I’m absolutely horrible at them and I’ve landed maybe ten in my whole life. I don’t understand them.
Why do you think that is? Why can’t you land a backside air when you’re already doing 540s?
People say, “That’s weird. You’re lying.” Every time I learn them, I can’t figure out the motion or I’m all balled up and I’ll snag or my feet come off. When you skate vert once a week, you gotta make those sessions count and make what you can. There would be days where I’d spend the whole session doing backside airs and I couldn’t land one. I couldn’t figure it out and I felt like I didn’t do shit that day. I just bailed for two or three hours straight, so I didn’t care to learn them that bad. Now I wish I had a backside air because it looks so fun. They look like the best feeling thing ever when you do them and you have them laid out right. Paul Zitzer has a great backside air. He’s got one of my favorite backside airs. He does them and I’m like, “That looks like fun!” I just never took the time to learn them. When I wanted to learn 5’s, I was going to the Florida Vert Series contests and seeing that some of the guys who were placing in the top five could do 5’s. I wanted to push myself and do that too. I showed up to the Horse Ramp in Cincinnati, which is this 13-foot tall 50-foot wide vert ramp. It was me, Peter Furnee and Mike Conroy. Mike coached me through it. Mike said, “I tried them on a 9-foot ramp in Virginia Beach back in the day. I was like, “That’s fucked.” He was like, “I’m going to show you how to do this.” He threw a few up to show me the motion. I do them on a 50-50 because I can’t do a backside air, so I haul ass on a 50-50 and launch. He was like, “Go up in the air and grab your shin and look under your armpit and tuck.” I did that a few times and then he was like, “Okay, start grabbing your board.” So I did that a few times. When I started getting comfortable, he was like, “Now really pull off the coping.” Then the next one I did I went up and didn’t pull off and smacked my shins on the coping and fell straight to flat and blew my left MCL out. My first day trying 5’s I got completely wrecked.
As you’re going home from that, were you thinking that you weren’t going to do that again or were you thinking that you were going to make it next time?
The first time I was trying them I was with Todd. He was driving me back home and my knee was swollen like a balloon and he was like, “You can probably do it, but it’s going to need some work.” I just wanted some ice. I was freaking out because I had never had a knee injury before and it felt like a thousand cigarette burns. I was like, “I just want to heal up and go back and do it.” Sure enough, four weeks later, I went back to the ramp and started trying them again. Mike and Peter were there and they started filming it and I threw it down. When I landed it, there was a Journey song playing. I just remember that.
“In Europe, skateboarding is treated like how we treat football and basketball here in the States. Skateboarding is so big there. Even pedestrians that aren’t skaters look at it like, “We’re going to go watch some guys skate at a contest!” It would be like, “Let’s go watch the Cubs play!”– AJ NELSON
What song was it?
It was “Separate Ways”. I rolled away from it and popped out and I was like, “Holy shit!” It was kind of a shitty one because my hand touched. Peter said, “You can do it way better.” So I went back up and did one next try. I rolled away clean and popped out and Devo was playing when I landed that one. When I popped out, I remember Mike Conroy saying, “Motherfucker!” Then we went and ate at B-Dubs. I was like, “I’m done for the day. It’s 100 degrees. Let’s get out of here. I’m so glad this is done.” It was a battle for sure, but I’m glad I figured it out. Everything is on Instagram now, so you can’t just say you did it. You have to have proof. All my friends back home were like, “Holy fuck!” When I did that 5, it was like, “I’m serious about this.” I’m pushing myself and I just want to do the next thing. I just want to stoke myself out and I want to stoke my friends out. That’s why I did it. I was like, “I’m going to do this 540.” I did it and it was terrifying, I’ll tell you that.
You took a beating to get there too.
Yeah. I still am.
From there, you’re skating with Furnee, Morrow and Conroy and going to vert ramps around Indiana. During that time, were more people getting involved or was it still just a skeleton crew skating vert? I remember the SuperSessions at that indoor ramp. What was that scene? Where would guys come from to skate?
I think I came in on Supersession V or VI. Peter threw it together and it’s not a contest. You just go skate and make friends and alliances. Guys would come from Florida, North Carolina, the Northeast, California and Texas. Dave Allen would come from England. It was a complete melting pot from every corner of the country that would come out and ride. There would be 50 guys on deck sometimes and it was so cool to see. It’s a bummer that place isn’t there anymore, but those memories are forever.
It was an all day vert session going down?
Yeah. It was always on Super Bowl Weekend. By the time you’re done skating, you go watch the game. It was just skateboarding all weekend.
Were there any particular sessions or moves that stood out to you?
I remember watching my good friend, Jeromy Green, skate and do a crooked cop and twist his body and go gumby and go five or six feet out. There were several dudes from the East Coast that ripped. Derek Krasauskas would come out and Bobby Taylor came out one year. There were so many good skateboarders. Andre, The Giant, from Canada, would come and do a thousand inverts. Jeff Hedges came one year. Alan at Speedlab and all of the East Coasters were so cool.
“It was like unlocking a door. There were all of these other possibilities now. You can go faster and higher.”– AJ NELSON
What was the vibe at Supersessions in comparison to a contest vibe?
Honestly, I could care less for contests, but big snake sessions and jams on vert are great. You just get your run in and go and get down. Contests are cool, but I don’t like planning runs. Any contest I join, it’s because my friends are doing it or I get to travel to a new place. I’m going to hit parks or ramps on the way and meet cool new people. If you take contests seriously, it’s good to plan around them. I like to have fun on a skateboard, so I don’t like to make it too serious. I like a jam snake session with a ton of people. That’s fun.
When you go to a contest, are there a lot of people that take it too seriously?
Oh yeah. There are definitely those guys and they have their place. I get it. They’re probably doing it for sponsors or whatever they want to do. With any kind of activity, there’s always one guy who is like, “I’m going to take the whole cake and you’re not getting a piece!” That’s okay. It’s motivation. It’s like, “We’re going to snake the shit out of this guy!” We find ham in it, me and my boys. We’re like, “Let’s just snake him and really piss him off.” It’s skateboarding. It’s fun. It’s a fuckin’ toy.
Yeah. You started off skating by yourself at this gnarly concrete park in Kokomo and now you’re traveling and meeting other people. Did you have any idea that world was out there?
I never thought that I would leave Indiana for skateboarding, let alone anything. It’s one of those towns where you’re going to work at the factory or join the military. It’s not like I had aspirations to be big in skateboarding, but, if you save your money, you can go to a lot of cool places. That’s what I did. I’ve saved some cash and bought a few tickets and filled my tank up a couple of times. It’s always a surprise to see what’s out there. It’s just one thing after another. We’re going here and we’re going there. Next thing you know we were going to Vert Attack in Europe and it blew my mind.
What was that like? Was that the first time you left the country?
It absolutely was. I went with Peter Furnee. I told Peter that I wanted to travel and he said, “Get a passport.” I was sitting on a passport for two years and then I got the call from him and he said, “Do you want to go to Vert Attack?” I said, “Yeah.” So I saved some cash and got a ticket. We flew from Indiana to Toronto to Copenhagen and hopped on a train and went to Sweden. We were skating the Bryggeriet park and it was complete culture shock for an entire week. It’s almost impossible to describe how I felt. It was the most surreal fun time I’ve ever had on a skateboard. Meeting all these different skateboarders from all corners of the earth was incredible.
How would you describe the attitude of European skaters?
In Europe, skateboarding is treated like how we treat football and basketball here in the States. Skateboarding is so big there. Even pedestrians that aren’t skateboarders look at it like, “We’re going to go watch some guys skate at a contest!” It would be like, “Let’s go watch the Cubs play!” They treat skateboarding with such high regard and respect. It’s a way of life there and it shows. The skateboarding is unbelievable with all of the different kinds of skateboarding. The street skaters are gnarly and the vert scene is unreal over there. I met a lot of really cool guys from Russia and Germany and all over Europe.
Did they tell you they wanted to come to America and check out the scene here?
Oh yeah. It was back and forth. The funny thing is that some of those guys speak better English than I do and I’ve lived in America my whole life. We’d trade stories and, even though we speak different languages, we all speak skateboarding. We all understood skateboarding and where places were and what things were. The divide was our language but, when we spoke skateboarding, we understood it. They were like, “I want to come skate the Combi.” Or “I want to go skate Kona.” They wanted to come check out all of these places. I didn’t know a ton about skate spots in Europe, so I’d just listen to them and share my own the best I could. They are no different than we are. They just skate and have a good time. They’re just across the water.
That’s so cool. Who else was out there?
I flew over with Peter Furnee and then Bucky Lasek was there and Ben Hatchell showed up and Auby Taylor was there. Rodney Mead was there and he did his run in his kilt. It was all WWE wrestling themed. I wrestled in high school, so I did my last run in my wrestling gear with my headgear on just to play the part. It was a fun weekend and there were a lot of good skateboarders there. Lars Stout, one of the locals there, skates that ramp all of the time. Noah Albrektsson is another one of the locals there. There are so many good skateboarders over there. It’s hard to name them all.
Did Nicky Guerrero show up and skate?
Nicky Guerrero was there and it was a treat to watch him ride. It was like he wasn’t even trying.
He’s so casual. Besides riding the vert ramp, did you go check out Sweden?
It was winter there and it was freezing cold, so we kinda stayed close. We skated the Copenhagen park with the outdoor vert ramp. The Vans outdoor park was there in Malmo for one of the Vans Park Series and we skated that. Other than that, we were on the ramp all week getting in the sessions. It was unreal. I had the time of my life.
Did you make some new friends?
Absolutely. We text and DM and FaceTime and stay in touch and it’s been awesome. That’s why vert is so different. I don’t think there is that tight of a camaraderie in other forms of skateboarding like there is in vert skating. It’s great. I love it. To ride vert, you have to be dedicated.
That’s right. When I first started seeing you skate, I was like, “Who is this dude?” Didn’t you go to in California in 2018?
Yeah. I had planned to live out there and I was there for about a month and it just didn’t work out and I ended up having to come back home.
Did you want to go out there and be part of the scene and get in the industry?
I just wanted to do something different. I drive a little hatchback, so I packed it up until I couldn’t see out the back window and I headed west. I stopped and stayed with a friend in Nebraska. The next day I drove to Colorado and stayed with my friend, Austin Skiba, and skated the Rosy bowl and the Arvada park. I hung out there for a few days and checked that out. The next night I stayed in Vegas and that was terrifying. I never want to go back there. It was weird. The next morning I was in Huntington Beach. While I was there, I skated the Vans vert ramp all the time, when it was at headquarters, and I met Grosso and became pretty close with him. He was one of the guys I looked up to. It was great and I met so many people and it did a lot for my confidence, doing something on my own and driving out there on a whim.