Our January 2012 feature on Greg Lutzka (“The Natural”) mistakenly said that Lori Lutzka was recalled as county supervisor. While recall papers were filed against her, the recall effort failed and she served out her term.
Photos by Bradley Meinz. For more photos, check out our gallery.
Flanked by two friends, his thin frame shrouded by an oversized red hoodie, Greg Lutzka enters 4 Seasons Skatepark like a boxer being escorted to the ring. The reaction is immediate: The once-raucous park goes still. Kids encircle the champ – he shakes their hands, signs some autographs, flashes some peace signs to their cameras – and just as quickly, things go back to normal.
The converted Menomonee Valley warehouse, a huge, high-windowed playground of ramps and rails and platforms, once again resumes its chorus of clangs and scrapes and thumps as 50 or so kids buzz about on skateboards and BMX bikes – launching off half-pipes and quarter-pipes and crashing back to earth, cheering for successful tricks and gasping for especially rough wipeouts.
Amid it all, Greg Lutzka skates, keeping mostly to himself. He looks at first like any other skater – gray, skinny jeans slung low, wavy brown hair hanging out of his black Rockstar Energy Drink hat. But there is an effortlessness to his style, a methodical elegance that stands out as he moves smoothly from section to section, focusing on one ledge or one rail – pausing only to catch his breath or offer encouragement to the younger kids – and continuing until he lands his trick. The sound of skateboards being banged on the concrete – a sort of skater standing ovation – claps at his every success.
After about an hour, without any fanfare, Lutzka heads out front for an impromptu meet and greet. Sitting behind a white plastic folding table, he chats up fans and signs anything – skateboards, trading cards, stickers, T-shirts, hats – until every kid is satisfied.
“When a lot of guys get to his level, they become unapproachable,” says Neal Levin, owner of 4 Seasons. But not Lutzka, Levin adds approvingly.
Lutzka, now 26, was once one of those kids, spending every free moment at 4 Seasons, endlessly riding the ramps and rails, dreaming of going pro and skating the X-Games. Those days must seem like a million years (and several million bucks) ago for him.
With two Dew Tour first-place finishes, two X-Games gold medals, a gold medal at the Globe World Championships, three Tampa Pro wins, two first-place finishes in the West 49 Canadian Open and, most recently, a $160,000 top prize at the Maloof Money Cup NYC (the highest cash prize for a skate contest), Lutzka is a world-class athlete. In 2006 and 2007, he was ranked the world’s No. 1 street skater by World Cup Skateboarding, the sport’s official governing body.
Gone are the outlaw days of the ’80s and ’90s, when skaters were looked at as slackers and degenerates. Skateboarding is now a $5 billion industry, according to CBS News, and firmly entrenched in mainstream popular culture. Contests have corporate sponsors like Mountain Dew, ESPN and the Maloof family (which owns the NBA’s Sacramento Kings) and are broadcast on network TV. It’s probably only a matter of time before skateboarding, like snowboarding before it, becomes an Olympic event. Counted among Lutzka’s long list of sponsors are non-skate companies such as K-Swiss shoes, Oakley sunglasses, Rockstar Energy Drink and Jose Cuervo tequila. Joe Simpson, father of pop star Jessica, is his agent.
“It turned into something more than I ever would have thought,” Lutzka says.
Just how did a skinny high school dropout from Bay View become one of skating’s elite? It certainly wasn’t easy. But to hear him tell the story, the future was never in doubt. Failing was never an option.
“I never cared about anything but riding my skateboard.”
The Silver Bullet
From the time he was a toddler, Lutzka was on the move. “He walked at 8 months and has never stopped,” says his mom, Lori. To channel that nonstop energy, his parents first strapped him into ice skates at age 3.
“He was 5 years old racing against seventh-graders on the lagoon in Humboldt Park and beating them by far,” his dad, Jeff, recalls.
When he was 9 years old, Greg went to a hockey camp at Michigan Tech University, a week spent practicing with the country’s top young players. His speed (his nickname was The Silver Bullet) and stick handling were rated as excellent. He seemed destined for a bright future in hockey.
But from the backseat of the family car on the ride home, Greg dropped a bombshell. “Ya know, I’m gonna quit hockey.” He wanted to take up skateboarding.
Blindsided, Jeff held up the evaluation form, “Well, this tells me different.”
But Greg was adamant. “He kept saying, ‘It’s not here. It’s not in my heart,’ ” Lori says. “Oh, we were devastated.”
Jeff and Lori both figured it was just a phase, that he was burned out after doing nonstop hockey from regular season to spring league to summer league, and that if they just got him a board, he’d “get over it.”
But once he got his first skateboard, “It didn’t leave my feet,” Greg recalls. After a year’s break from hockey, Jeff approached Greg again about signing up: “Nope, I’m gonna skateboard,” the boy insisted.
Although heartbroken, his parents remained supportive. When Jeff would be at the rink with Greg’s brother (a star goalie in his own right), other parents would badger him with advice. “How could you just let him quit?” they’d ask. “You don’t listen to your kid. You dictate.”
“Look, this is travelling hockey,” Jeff would reply. “I can’t force him to play if it’s not in his heart.”
For Greg, hockey was too regimented. He didn’t like how his success hinged on the performance of others. He didn’t like waking up at 6 a.m. for practice.
Skateboarding meant freedom: no coach, you learn on your own and practice whenever you feel like it. “And at the end of the day, if you’re not landing the trick, there’s no one to blame but yourself.”
Lutzka skated all over Bay View – Tippecanoe Library, Bay View High School’s parking lot and Fritsche Middle School were some of his favorite spots – and made homemade skate videos he sent to companies with handwritten notes saying, “Sponsor me.” Initially, his dad would film him. But after he taped a bit that involved Greg skating off a school roof onto a garage, Jeff had had enough.
“Your friends have to do this because I can’t get caught,” Jeff told his son. “It’s my duty to make you not do this.”
At around age 13, Greg was skating with some buddies when he heard the team from Beer City Skateboards was at the lakefront.
“They came looking for us,” recalls Mike Beer, owner of Beer City Skateboards. “He skated in front of us. He tried to do a trick on a ledge. It was pretty complex, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, for such a small kid, he’s really good.’ ” Not long after this, Beer City became Lutzka’s first amateur sponsor. (Low-level sponsors may pay for skateboards or clothes, and the value of sponsorships rises from there.)
“He was fearless,” Levin says of Lutzka. “He was never intimidated by anybody. Even if the kid was light-years ahead of him, he’d mix it up and learn from them.”
4 Seasons was still more than a year away from opening, and Lutzka had never skated at a park. But that didn’t stop him from signing up for the legendary Skatepark of Tampa amateur contest.
But his amateur debut was almost over before it began. Between runs of the preceding heat, Greg decided to warm up (against his father’s orders, Jeff points out). He gathered some speed and headed for a pyramid. As he launched himself over it, he lost his balance and crashed down flat on his back. He picked himself up and slowly skated up to his father: “I can’t skate.”
“My German temper kicked in,” Jeff says. “I said, ‘I didn’t spend all this money for you not to compete.’ ”
So, when his name was called, Greg skated. But once again, he wiped out. Coming up on a rail too fast, his board slipped from underneath him, popped up and hit him in the crotch. Greg spent the remainder of the contest in a hospital. But at the awards ceremony, he won Best Wipeout and made a cool $500. In his first contest, he’d lost yet left a winner.
There were times growing up when Greg’s parents thought he had a future in politics. His family, after all, has a long history in local government.
His grandfather was Dan Cupertino Jr., who served as a Milwaukee County supervisor of the 17th District for 24 years. After his 1996 death, Lori, who’d been working as a legislative aide to Milwaukee Ald. Suzanne Breier, won the seat in a special election. She served five years then was recalled for voting in favor of the infamously lavish pension plan of 2000. Today, she’s senior economic development specialist for the city of Milwaukee.
Lori was able to use her county position to help create a skateboard park in Milwaukee. “There were a lot of kids who were skating and they needed someplace to go,” Lori says. “Parents were frustrated their kids didn’t have anyplace they could skate.”
The county, at Lori’s urging, put out a request for proposal in 1999 looking for someone to build an indoor skatepark and offering a $40,000 Community Development Block Grant to help pay for it. Levin was intrigued.
Only 28, the onetime skater had already opened a skatepark and owned a manufacturing and distribution company in Montreal. He knew the Milwaukee skate scene having spent his teenage years here.
“Neal came in with a real good proposal,” Lori says. “He was real passionate, and he worked with community groups.”
After his rocky debut at Skatepark of Tampa, Greg had a better understanding of his competition and more confidence that he belonged. As he waited for 4 Seasons to be completed, he was hitting up the skateparks in Rockford, Ill., and Janesville. He entered two contests in Janesville and won both – in fact, when he entered a third time, he was told he could ride, but wouldn’t be eligible to win, as it wouldn’t be fair to the other kids.
By the summer of 1999, Lutzka had a second amateur sponsor, Illenium Skateboards. Under the tutelage of Illenium owner Al Partanen, one of the elder statesmen of Milwaukee skaters, Lutzka began making contacts.
“Al hooked me up with everyone I know today and who I still work with,” Greg says. “I’m a 14-year-old kid, and next thing I know, I’m on an airplane going to Australia. I’m going to Europe. It happened very quickly.”
Jeff remembers a representative from an Ohio skateboard company that stopped by with an interest in sponsoring Greg.
“He was like, ‘Look at him, he’s just a natural. Look at the stance on him, look how he lands.’ ” That’s when Jeff began to see his son could be a star.
Not long after that, Jeff left his job at Arandell, a printing company in Menomonee Falls, and began managing Greg’s career. Today, Jeff still handles all of Greg’s personal finances and travel. (“Everything except negotiating contracts,” Jeff says.)
“Greg doesn’t even pick up his contest money,” says Lori. “When he wins 160 grand, we wait for it for weeks.”
As his travel demands increased, Greg faced a conflict between school and skating. So, after two years at Bay View High School, Greg would spend his remaining years home-schooled.
“You know how schools are,” Greg says. “ ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ Man, I want to be a professional skateboarder. Well, they laugh at you.”
Through an alternative Milwaukee Public Schools program called the Outpost, Greg met with an instructor whenever he was in town. His instructor helped him use his real-life adventures in Australia or Japan and apply it to history or geography. He even let Greg count his skateboarding toward his physical education requirements. But at the end of his senior year, Greg still faced a conflict: He was in the middle of final exams, one test away from graduating, but Globe Shoes wanted him to go to Australia.
“If he didn’t go, they were gonna drop him,” Jeff says. “It was tough, but if we wouldn’t have let him go, he wouldn’t be where he is.”
And so Greg never graduated. Although she regrets this, Lori says: “You can always go back to school. But that opportunity may never come back.”
That was some 10 years ago, but Greg insists that someday, when he has time, maybe for his mom’s birthday, he’ll finish his degree and frame the diploma for his parents. “I wouldn’t want my kids pulling what I pulled.”
Besides, Greg adds, it would be an important message to the public that he went back and graduated: “This is something that’s going to drive me. It’s important.”
Much like Lutzka, Rodney Mullen began skating early at age 10. That was in 1976, and everything was oriented toward vertical skating in bowls, empty swimming pools and the like. There was no street skating. So, Mullen invented it.
Credited with pioneering dozens – some say hundreds – of tricks, Mullen is widely regarded as the Godfather of Street Skating. So in 2002, when Mullen approached Lutzka about joining his new company (soon to be named “Almost”), it was a no-brainer.
“He watched my skateboarding and was like, ‘Dude, you’re something else. I need you to be part of my program,’ ” Lutzka says.
Lutzka knew he was hitting a wall. Sponsors weren’t thrilled about paying for travel to and from Milwaukee. If he wanted to be a star, Lutzka says, he had to move to California, “the mecca of skateboarding.” So at 18, he packed his bags and headed west, but to this day, his cell phone still has a 414 area code. He got a one-bedroom apartment with some buddies (“We had three people in one room. I didn’t even have a bed.”) and went to work with Mullen and his crew.
“All I did was film, film, film. I had so much fire,” Greg says. “Nowadays, I wake up and I’m like, ‘Man, I’m sore. I don’t know if I’m going to skate today.’ Back then, there was no soreness, no nothing.”
A fish-eye lens zooms in on a fresh-faced Lutzka, smiling and shirtless. As the unmistakable opening of Jimi Hendrix’s “All Along the Watchtower” rips in, Greg runs and launches himself off a cliff and into a lake.
What follows is a flurry of action that, to the untrained eye, seems like movie magic. Lutzka flies spinning down a flight of stairs. He jumps onto a handrail, his board landing perpendicular, and rides the waxed metal pipe to the bottom. At full speed, he pops onto a picnic table and slides across its top, balancing on only the nose of his board. A nollie kickflip noseslide on a bench. A kickflip frontside boardslide down a rail. A frontside heelflip bigspin down some stairs.
As Lutzka glides between tricks, his legs slightly bent, a casual, subtle lean to his stance, he makes it all look effortless. The whole segment lasts just four and a half minutes, but it was four and a half minutes that forever changed Greg’s life.
“I was 20, and [Mullen] was like, ‘Greg, when this video comes out, you’re gonna be really big.’ I just laughed at him,” Lutzka says. “He was right. When it came out, it was over.”
Lutzka’s segment of the 2004 video Almost: Round Three took a year to film (which is actually fast for the average skate video). From scouting locations, setting up lighting rigs, making sure the cops aren’t around and then actually landing the trick, one five-second bit can take hours to film. But all the work was worth it, he says.
“Everywhere I went, kids knew who I was.”
Over the next year, Greg appeared more than two dozen times in various skate magazines – Thrasher, Skateboarder, Transworld – and he was able to move into a two-bedroom townhouse in Huntington Beach, Calif. A couple of years later, he bought the Mission Viejo, Calif., mansion where he now lives.
Like many in the public eye, Greg insists he’s misunderstood. They see his sunglasses and fedoras and assume he’s all style, no substance. They see him hanging out with rap musicians like Lil Jon and LMFAO and assume he’s gone Hollywood. They see him skip practice and assume he’s lazy.
“The reason I don’t like to go to practice is, I don’t like to put pressure on myself,” he says. “I like to wake up in the morning and just go skateboarding. Whether I’m going to a contest or to my backyard to skate on my miniramp, it’s all skateboarding to me.
“I like to win, I’m competitive, but I’m here because it’s what I love to do. It’s easier for me to win, because I let things flow. If you show up and say, ‘I have to win,’ you’re putting all this pressure on yourself, and you’re not really there to skate.”
That philosophy seems to help Lutzka deal with the unrelenting pressure of competitive skating. “When you win, it’s great and there are high-fives, but the next day, it’s all over, so you gotta win all over again,” he says. “It’s a cycle that never ends.”
Levin says that Lutzka has a “self-motivating fire.” Skating is a solitary pursuit, and to be successful, you have to be driven.
He’s always had that relentless drive, say his parents. “He has so much energy, he just beats you down,” Lori says.
“He doesn’t care what anybody thinks,” Jeff adds. “He’ll do what he wants, when he wants to do it, how he wants to do it.”
It may help Greg deal with the inevitable pressure that’s put on a celebrity athlete: You’re always getting pulled in a million different directions – by fans, sponsors or skateboard magazines. “You’re gonna have people that love you and people that hate you,” Lutzka says.
Meetings, photo shoots, demos, filming, appearances – the demands are fairly constant. Lutzka rolls out of bed around 11 a.m., and the first thing he does is check in with his sponsors. If he’s in the clear, then it’s out back to his pool, his miniramp and hanging out with friends. Not a bad life, but not enough for him.
“I still don’t think I’ve made it,” he says. “The day you think you’ve made it, you’re done.”
What’s his next step? Lutzka’s not sure. His own brand, a clothing company, maybe hats? Today’s top skaters are as much business moguls as they are extreme athletes. Guys like Tony Hawk or Bam Margera are equal parts entrepreneur, entertainer, philanthropist and even actor. And that’s what Lutzka sees for himself.
“I want to build something I really believe in. A skateboard company is cool, but I think I can take it bigger. I can take it to the masses.”
That’s how Lutzka has always lived his life, with an eye toward the next trick, the next competition, the next opportunity.
“My dad always tells me, ‘Greg, you’re never going to be happy because you always want more.’ It’s true.”
Evan Solochek is an associate editor at Milwaukee Magazine. Write to him at email@example.com.