COLUMBIA – The silence of the deserted parking garage is replaced by the sound of urethane wheels carving concrete. One rider shifts his balance from his heels to his toes as his skateboard serpentines down the decline. The other follows close behind. What once was a parking garage has been transformed into a concrete ocean.
"There’s something about when you’re on that board carving,” Jason Zoellers said. “There’s a freedom, and this feeling like you are surfing concrete.”
This feeling is what brought Zoellers, a 36-year-old counselor from Columbia, and Deron Rehma, a 48-year-old sales consultant from St. Louis, back to skateboarding. It is a sport they fell in love with as children, and returned to as adults. They have not always skateboarded, but the sport has always been a part of them.
Zoellers began cultivating his interest in skateboarding as a teenager in St. Charles. His parents supported it, as long as he performed well in school and stayed out of trouble. He recalls a launch ramp his father constructed to resemble the one in his favorite skate movie, “The Search for Animal Chin.” Zoellers’ father took the ramp away after two neighbors suffered injuries. Eventually, Zoellers’ interest in skateboarding was also taken away by the excitement of getting his driver's license.
Rehma still thinks about the time he lost. “I quit skateboarding for 25 years. I just wish I could have five back,” he said.
When it came time for Zoellers to attend MU in 1992, he no longer skateboarded, but he maintained an interest in the sport. He credits his love for punk rock music to the skateboard culture. His passion for punk led him to an interest meeting at the KCOU radio station his freshman year. The then-Amy Satterfield also attended the meeting. She had always liked the way skateboarders carried themselves, especially the way they cut their hair.
“I would peek over and be like, ‘He has exactly the kind of hair that I love best.’ He had like the floppy skateboarder hair,” Amy Zoellers said. “I thought, I would never forgive myself if I didn’t marry a skateboarder. I had always thought skateboarders were cute when I was in high school.”
The couple began a nine-year friendship that led to marriage. The two never officially dated. Four years after their 2001 wedding, their son Clyde was born.
Before heading to the parking garage Sunday, Zoellers and Rehma stop at Tiger Plaza to talk to Peter Ramey and his 3-year-old daughter, Aglaia as they make their way to ride the concrete figure-eight sidewalk that dissects Carnahan Quad. Ramey and Zoellers go to church together; Aglaia Ramey and Clyde Zoellers are friends.
“Peter used to surf,” Zoellers said.
Zoellers hands Ramy his LongBoardLarry custom skateboard and lets him try it out. Aglaia gets her chance too, riding on her dad’s lap as he sits on the board and pushes with his hands.
Zoellers has never surfed, but it led him back to skateboarding. He watched the surfing movie, “Riding Giants” and admired the skills of surfers like Laird Hamilton. He began researching surfing on the Internet and came across the Silverfish Longboarding website. This kind of boarding was not for the ocean, but designed for the streets. The longer boards allow surfing-like movements on wheels. The Silverfish site claims to be “everything longboarding,” and connects longboarders worldwide through forums broken up by geographical regions. Through the forum for the Great Plains, Zoellers met Rehma and other members of the St. Louis Old Man Skate Cartel in 2008.
That year, Zoellers packed up the first longboard he owned and drove to St. Louis for his first attempt at a parking garage. He was less experienced than the group he met, and found himself at the back of the pack. Rehma slowed down to join him.
“I kinda hung back and started talking to him,” Rehma said. “He was super nice, and I think he mentioned he was a Christian, which I am as well, and that gave it a little bit more of a boost to the interest.”
The friendship forged in a parking garage continued to grow. Rehma met Zoellers' parents, his wife and son.
Zoellers and Rehma continued to longboard together, also making regular trips to the skatepark in St. Charles with shorter skateboards.
For Zoellers, skateboarding was more than just a hobby. It was a release from the troubling things he had to listen to at his job where he works primarily with troubled youth.
“When he first started doing it again, I thought it was great,” Amy Zoellers said. “I thought it was important to him to find outlets considering his job.”
Jason Zoellers was making trips to Cosmopolitan Skate Park at 6 a.m. every day before work. He found that his skateboard not only offered an escape from work, but a tool he could incorporate into his counseling career.
“A lot of times with teenagers you have to take an indirect approach,” Zoellers said. “You can’t let them know what you’re up to because they will smell you right off, and shut you right down.”
Something as little as noticing a pair of Etnies skate shoes on a client, or relating skateboarding to bicycle motocross can lead to a connection that breaks the ice.
“Skateboarding has been really good because it is a way to get a kid not focusing on why they’re at the counselor's office,” Zoellers said.
From St. Louis to his annual skateboard trips to Southern California, Rehma has also discovered younger skateboarders accept and embrace him.
“There’s a mutual respect that goes back and forth,” Rehma said. "They don’t just say, ‘Oh he’s some old dude, who cares?’ They seem to think it’s cool.”
With the respect, comes realization. The men have learned to recognize their limits.
“The fear level as you get older goes a little bit higher,” Rehma said. “When I was 17, my fear factor was pretty low. You don’t think about falling, and when you do fall, you get right back up. Part of it is because you only weigh 72 lbs. Now I weigh 172 lbs. When you fall now, it’s like somebody throwing a bag of bricks to the ground. I mean … you fall hard.”
Zoellers fell hard at the St. Charles Skate Park in June of 2008.
"I come up and turn and all of a sudden I hear this ripping sound in my knee,” Zoellers said. “I tore my ACL completely in half, fell 8 feet on the concrete.”
Rehma came to Zoellers’ aid.
“I didn’t see it happen, but I walked over and saw him laying in the bottom of a giant bowl. We put him on my skateboard and pushed him to his car,” Rehma said.
“Skateboarding has been great to me, but it’s also been horrible to me. My knee was wrecked,” Zoellers said.
Zoellers did not step on any kind of skateboard for a year.
“When he hurt himself it was a hardship because we don’t have good medical insurance,” Amy Zoellers said.
That summer was more than financially stressful for the Zoellers. Amy was left in charge of taking care of Jason’s recovery as well as 2-year-old Clyde.
The day Jason returned from the hospital was the same day his new, custom made LongBoardLarry longboard arrived at his doorstep.
“I told my wife to burn it,” Zoellers said. “I never wanted to see it again.”
Jason never burned the board, and eventually regained the desire to step back on, this time with a different approach.
“Since then I’ve really mellowed out,” Zoellers said.
He no longer park skates on the smaller boards, sticking to less dangerous rides on his longboard.
“In a way he has to be more careful than I do,” Rehma said. “If he could cut loose and this was his last day on earth, I have a feeling he would let it rip quite high, but he’s got to take care of things.”
Amy Zoellers is at ease.
“With the longboard, I don’t really worry,” Amy Zoellers said. “He has explained the distinction to me, and I know that he has got the common sense to realize that he’s 36 and he’s not going to be doing any of those ramps.”
Zoellers and Rehma are ready to call it a day. They stand atop the fifth level of Turner Avenue Parking Garage. It is the second year the two have met on Independence Day to ride the abandoned MU campus, and they both plan on continuing the tradition.
There were no mindboggling stunts, no kickflips, just long, graceful curves on concrete.
“The bottom line is, skateboarding has had the biggest impact on how my life has turned out,” Zoellers said.