Keith Poncher cinches his helmet tight then tips his skateboard over the edge of the cloverleaf bowl at the Ann Arbor Skatepark. Momentum carries him far up onto the opposite wall, where he slingshots around and heads back down into the bowl. Crouching as he climbs the wall, he suddenly snaps his legs straight. His speed increases dramatically, and he soars up past the rim and into the air. Twisting like a cat, he lands with only the back four or five inches of the board on the precipice. He balances there briefly before plunging back into the abyss.
The “air-to-tail” is one of Poncher’s signature moves–but he’s not the only one in his family who can do it: his sixteen-year-old son, Draven, performed it at a competition at the Skatepark last year. Draven’s been skateboarding since he was a toddler, and Draven’s friends may have exerted some peer pressure to cop his old man’s best move for the show. (Draven’s sister Zyla, thirteen, has been to the park a few times, but prefers scooters.)
Slender, with a touch of gray in his goatee, Poncher is forty-four, and he has been skateboarding for thirty-eight years–an older cousin got him started as a six-year-old in California. In high school, he went to several magnet schools that required him to go long distances to a bus stop. His trusty skateboard provided the means to get there.
He says his only serious accident was at about age fourteen: “I was skateboarding down a hill, and I hit a moving car and got a concussion. Which is why I love the skatepark, because kids are safe from traffic.”
As he grew into adolescence, cars and music competed for his attention. But he says he still enjoys the sport for its exercise and cardio benefits and for how “it teaches you to focus yourself in the moment.” The exhilaration and thrills are a bonus.
Fans regularly travel to the state-of-the-art facility from Detroit, Grand Rapids, Cleveland, and farther. But the Ponchers are lucky: “We are eleven houses from the park!” he marvels. He and his wife, Stasia (a paralegal who’s active in the Zen Buddhist Temple), live with Draven and Zyla in a modest 1940s house on a quiet dirt road off Dexter Rd.
The skatepark, all 30,000 square feet of it, is packed with features designed to challenge the abilities of skaters of many levels, but there are two main areas. The area closest to Maple Rd. is the domain of the “street” skaters. It has stairways to leap (“ollie”) down, and railings and slanted concrete structures (“hubbas”) to slide on. It is rare to see anyone over thirty in this section of the park, and no one over forty would last long with the wear and tear on ankles, knees, hips, and back.
The other section comprises the swimming-pool-like bowls and the undulating concrete transitions among them. The top edges of the pools and transitions have “copings,” reinforced seams of steel tubing or masonry, like the one where Poncher balanced at the end of the “air-to-tail.” The lexicon of the skater has many colorful terms, including “boneless” (grabbing the board and lifting the front), “Bert slide” (turning the board on its side and sliding the wheels), and “fakie” (skating backwards).
The skatepark is governed by a (somewhat) fluid etiquette. Users are good at taking turns, and skaters in close proximity try to make sure they aren’t heading for the same point at high speed–though if that happens, they are usually quite adept at avoiding collisions. The majority of accidents are the result of young kids riding scooters who haven’t yet learned how to interact with other people in motion.
Poncher is also a musician, playing percussion for Jive Colossus, a local ten-piece funk and world beat band, and the Saints of Soul, a rhythm-and-blues outfit. He got started in music early, too: his father, Don Poncher, is a highly respected California drummer who played and recorded with Arthur Lee (of the band Love), the New Buffalo Springfield, Joe Cocker, Lenny & Squiggy, and others; in fact, he was in a recording session when Keith was born.
Poncher is a pretty mellow and laid-back guy, but after the 1994 Northridge earthquake destroyed his apartment and his car he started thinking about leaving California. He worked on vehicle braking systems for parts makers there, and continued after the family moved to Ann Arbor in 2003–he’s currently vehicle testing supervisor for ITT Motion Technologies in Novi.
A founding member of the Michigan Electric Auto Association–it started with seven members in 2006 and now is more than 1,000 strong–Poncher commutes to work in a 1974 Fiat Bertone sports car that he converted to run on electric power. He’s put more than 35,000 miles on it, and recently made a reservation for his first new car–a Tesla Model 3.
Unlike out-of-town visitors, the Ponchers don’t need a car to get to the skatepark. But they don’t need to go even that far to skate. Though meticulously designed, the skatepark, to some users’ regret, lacks a “half-pipe”–a symmetrical U-shaped ramp. So Poncher recently built a wooden half-pipe in his own backyard.
Poncher’s style is cool and understated and not uncommon in the skateboard world. Asked how age has affected his skating, he replies, “My lungs aren’t what they used to be.” How much longer does he see himself skateboarding? “I don’t see stopping. You stop when you accept that your body is giving up but not until then.” What would he say makes him a good skateboarder? “I don’t consider myself good.” (Others say that he and Draven are one of the most talented multi-generational teams at the park.)
Draven, who’s listening in, seizes the chance to register a complaint. “It is annoying,” he tells his dad, “when you get up early and go to the park without me.”
The skatepark hosts the Dave Tuck Skate Jam on Saturday June 11.