Interview: Jay Balmer

I can’t remember exactly where and when I originally met Jay but he has had a huge influence on my life and business. We worked together for many years as he was the executive producer of Slam City Jam and we were the guys that were designing and building the course. During the course of that event we had a short time running ‘The Project’ together which was an indoor skatepark in Burnaby and the headquarters of Slam City Jam for a brief time. Jay was also the key driver behind getting ‘Skateboard Week’ officially established in Vancouver and getting skateboarding legalized as a legitimate form of transportation in the City (which eventually led to the symbolic moment of the last 3 skateboards ever confiscated being handed back to a cheering crowd at Slam City Jam by the chief of police).

Jay has always been a high level thinker and encourages people to think and dream big. He has always had a huge heart for the global skateboarding community and is still pushing hard to see that we are represented well in the eyes of the world.
–Kyle Dion, New Line Skateparks

Where did you grow up and when did you start skating?

My kid years were spent in Kitchener, Ontario. Dad brought home 3 skateboards for himself, my brother and me.  It was 1976 and I was 5 years old. My first board was a yellow banana board and then I moved up to a California 500 with a nose and kicktail. Since then I have always had a skateboard ready to ride.

Our family moved to Calgary when I was 12. It was there that I was introduced to the wide boards of the 80s and it quickly went from fun hobby to my obsession.

Riding his first skatepark in 1977 in North Carolina

Was there a reason you started skating?

Skateboarding really was a gift from my Dad. He had a beautiful aluminum Quicksilver himself and we all rode together in our driveway and on trips. He would take a group of us to the mall on weekends to ride the loading ramps.

For me it was the simple joy of rolling and carving that was my reason to skate. I feel blessed to have started skating before I was exposed to the tricks and possibilities. It was just about the fun with no expectations beyond turns and crazy turns.

First session on the Snoboard Shop ramp in the backyard, pre-stain and railings

Can you tell us more about the ramp you had in your backyard? Was it before or after the ramp bylaw was put in in 1986?

We did have a ramp in our backyard. It was actually the Snoboard Shop ramp, but they had to move it out of their parking lot. My brother and I were both part of their team and our house was nearby on 11th Street in Kensington.

We had some inside knowledge that the bylaw was coming and we moved it the day before the bylaw was passed. It was grandfathered as a pre-existing ramp so we could keep it, as long as they didn’t get complaints.

Our parents made sure we talked to all the neighbours before we moved the ramp in. We agreed on hours, maximum amount of time per day and that we needed to ask around before having a long day or late night session. We also sound-proofed it as much as possible with layers of carpet hanging under the transitions. We avoided complaints and the ramp stayed until after my brother and I had moved away.

Jay carving at Seylynn bowl (North Vancouver) on Canada Day during the Bowl Series

Where did you skate back then? Were there any parks?

My inspirations were videos like the Bones Brigade Video Show, Future Primitive, Wheels of Fire and Hokus Pokus.  So, skating was about the adventure of being out on the streets finding places to skate. That also meant a lot of night skating when the good spots were empty. The ramp was really just a bonus to come home to.

We skated downtown and the Kensington area mostly. Parking lots, parkades, Stephen Avenue Mall, City Hall, James Short, SAIT, Riley Park wading pool, Bowview Pool and the abandoned construction sites that were all over Calgary back then. One building was just a concrete skeleton and there was a ramp a few floors underground and obstacles a flew floors up. I think it is now the Catholic School Centre.

Calgary did have a mobile vert ramp program back then, but they were really sketchy. After Animal Chin came out we also started building launch and wallride ramps that we rolled to nearby parking lots.

Frontside air on the Imra ramp at The Clubhouse, opened by Jay and his brother after the first Slam City Jam

You moved out west. Why?

The simple reason for moving to Vancouver was for the skateparks, like Seylynn in North Vancouver.

On one of our family vacations in the 70s we drove past skateparks in North Carolina. The next year we brought our skateboards with us, but most of them were already torn down. We did find one that was closed and climbed through a hole in the fence. That was my first experience with transition and the magic of skateparks. Finding out there were skateparks in Vancouver meant that was the place I had to be.

With the skateparks, local hills for snowboarding and skimboarding at the beach, moving to Vancouver felt like moving to my home.

High speed double grab over the top hip at Seylynn (North Vancouver)

How did you start working in the video game industry?

After a few years in Vancouver, I started focusing on what I could do for skateboarding. That led me to become the Producer of Slam City Jam, to be a co-founder of New Line Skateparks and help cities like Calgary understand the reasons why they needed to build skateparks.

I felt like I had accomplished my goals for skateboarding when a friend at EA asked me if I was interested in a career in video games. As it turns out, they wanted to make a skateboarding game and were looking for someone to lead the charge. The result was the EA Skate franchise.

Slam City Jam 1998 course overview

What keeps you busy these days? What’s Session Games all about?

Four of us decided to launch Session Games in September of 2016. We all share a passion and background in what are often called ‘Action Sports’. At Session Games we created a place where we get to do what we like to do and work with the people we want to work with. Our primary partner is Red Bull. We have been creating a series of games with them and have more planned for the future.

It has now been 14 years in the video game industry and it has given me some great experiences. It also allows me to help out skateboarding when and where it makes sense without having any financial goals.

The announcement of skateboarding in the Olympics has definitely sparked a new round of excitement and interest in skateboarding. My hope is that it leads to fresh wave of new skaters and for cities to start supporting or building more indoor skateparks, like they provide indoor facilities for other ‘sports’. With all the new skateparks in Calgary there will be a lot of skaters looking to keep riding when the weather changes.

Do you still skate?

I do still skate and have no plans to stop. It is a less frequent now because I like to fully recover between sessions, instead of just charging everyday. There are still tricks I want to learn and places that I want to ride. Last year we went to Hawaii for a week of skateparks and ditches.  That little kid who got his first skateboard over 40 years ago is still in me looking for that next adventure and the next crazy turn.

Hawaii, carving the Stoker Hill ditch in flip flops

Any thank yous or shout outs?

I feel ridiculously thankful for all the places and experiences and friends that I have gained through skateboarding. My thank you list would be huge from my Dad who always supported our interests through to the guys who I still ride with and call me to get out for a session.

My shout outs are to everyone who has stepped up to make skateboarding better from C.A.S.E. to anyone who helps keep the parks clean or gets out there for some DIY, to the champions within the cities that help turn our dreams into reality and the crews that build the parks.

In the end, it will comes down to the survival of the fittest community and it is up to all of us to keep building our skate community. Keep killing it out there!

Recent Bertlemann tribute to Natas Kaupas at Bonsor skatepark in Burnaby, BC

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