The American Dream (part 6 of 6): Chany Jeanguenin
The American Dream is a series of six interviews with European pros, looking back at their experiences of moving to California to pursue skateboarding careers.
Interview by Will Harmon
Before you went to the States for your first time, what did you know about it? What were your preconceptions?
Chany Jeanguenin: Ok so we’re talking the early nineties here, so this was before the Internet, before cell phones, social media, etc. So what I knew from the States is from what I saw in the movies and of course VHS skateboard videotapes. So for me, it seemed like it was the mecca of skateboarding: skateparks everywhere, street spots, it was the driving force of skateboarding. If you want to be a skateboarder then that’s where you want to be. But for me it seemed unreachable, a place that only existed in movies. I went from thinking I could never actually get there, to being there. Everything happened so fast, also I didn’t know the difference between the East Coast and the West Coast or what was in San Francisco when I first arrived there.
So your first visit was in ’92 I believe you told me before, and you flew straight to SF. Why did you choose there? Did you know anyone?
So I was sponsored by Real through a European distributor called Brazil. My friend Yves here (in Switzerland) was the distributor for Real, World Industries, etc. and he had been taking me around to all these European contests and I was doing quite well and I was pretty much a vert skater at the time. I mean I could skate street, but at that time it had turned to all these pressure flips and tech tricks so I just preferred vert back then. I won the European championship in Belgium in vert in ’92 and then I did the Munster European championship and I got fourth in vert, this is the year the ramp broke down in the qualifiers.
The ramp broke down?
The platform deck fell down and a bunch of people got hurt. Rune got first in that comp, but anyways I was doing well in these contests and that same distributor I was talking about did a tour with Salman Agah, Karma, Ron Chatman, John Cardiel, the Gonz and he took me along the tour with them. So Yves was in direct contact with Deluxe and one day he told me he had sent a tape of me to Real… But I hadn’t remembered filming anything! So it was a mystery to me what he even sent, I’m still trying to find out, ha ha. And I don’t wanna say he was full of shit, but he says a lot of stuff. So I was like, ‘what tape did you send? I never filmed anything!’ And he says, ‘they saw your run in this contest, blah blah blah, you should come to San Francisco with me. You have a chance… Maybe they wanna do a board with you for Europe…’ So he convinced my parents, he convinced me and I believed everything he said. He kind of sold me a dream and I had just gotten out of high school and I was starting an apprenticeship to be an architect.
Yves said: ‘Hey come to SF with me; I can get you a ticket through the Swiss Federation,’ or something because I was champion a few times, and then the next thing you know he has the plane tickets. I was two and a half months into a 4-year course, so I had to leave before the 3-month trial period ended. Then a few days later we were on a flight to the States; it was so sudden.
It does sound pretty spur of the moment.
I was stoked, I thought I was gonna get to skate that skatepark that Aphonzo Rawls and Danny Way were skating (Mike McGill’s skatepark) and all these vert ramps I’d seen. So I knew nothing about geography and where all the stuff was, but I knew I was on a flight to San Francisco and I was gonna be there for three months. I was planning to go there to skate, learn some English, then go back to Switzerland to resume the apprenticeship.
So when I got there, I couldn’t speak English so I couldn’t communicate with people and I realised my friend hadn’t planned on where I was gonna stay. I thought he had been talking to Jim Thiebaud and these guys, but I had to stay at Shrewgy’s house for one night, then Dave Metty and Jordan Richter’s house, just all the skate houses and I would stay on the floor; nothing was really planned. I was 17, I didn’t speak English, and I had to get a letter from my parents in order to pass the border with Yves, and then the next thing you know after a few days he’s like, ‘hey yeah I guess I found a spot for you, but I have to go to LA for a trade show so I’m leaving.’ And I was like, ‘wait, what? You’re not even gonna be with me for a week?’ So he dumped me, just left me there in SF…
Ah man, brutal. But were you skating with everyone there in SF?
Yeah I was skating and all these guys were super-nice. And they knew I liked vert, but there was no vert ramp there. Of course I could skate street a little, but I wasn’t on the level at the time. When I went to Embarcadero I was so psyched, like ‘Oh EMB!’ as I had no idea it was there in San Francisco.
Ha ha ha…
And I thought the ramp in the New Deal videos that Neal Hendrix skated might be there, ‘where’s this one? Where’s this?’ And they were like, ‘oh that’s the other side of the US.’ I was clueless. But I did get to see Mike Carroll filming lines at Embarcadero for Virtual Reality, so that was sick. Also I was there when Salman Agah switch ollied the fire hydrant (in the first Real video); I was in the van with Edward Devera and Kelly Bird, but I didn’t film anything then. My street skating was not up to par back then and also I was super-shy. So there came a point where I really wanted to skate vert and the guys suggested San Diego, because of the YMCA vert ramp. So I stayed a month in San Francisco and then I journeyed to San Diego, which was scary, as I didn’t know where to stay.
Had you picked up any English yet? (Chany spoke French)
A little bit from staying with the Real guys, but not that much. Also trying to get on a payphone to try and ring my parents was a nightmare. Also I didn’t really want to tell them about my uncertain situation and it got worse when I got to San Diego…
Ok tell us about that.
So I tried to meet up with my friend Oli (Buergin), who was hooked up with Santa Cruz at the time, as he said he was going to San Diego. I don’t know how we communicated back then with no cell phones or email… Fax machine or some shit? Anyways I decided to take the flight down there to San Diego. From the airport I took a bus up to Encinitas and showed up at Street Life (skate shop) with my suitcase trying to find the YMCA ramp. RP Bess, Jason Maxwell, (Chris) Lambert and all these guys were there and they still remember this. I somehow found my friend Oli and we rented a hotel room for two nights and skated the YMCA vert ramp. But then he left, just before Christmas Eve he flew back to Switzerland. So I’m alone and I had to check out of the hotel because I couldn’t afford it on my own. My next plan was to meet up with Ocean Howell, because I had met him on a Birdhouse tour in Europe with Willy Santos and he had come up to Dave Metty’s when I was staying there when in SF. He and Marcus Wyndham had come to SF for a week and we skated together and they gave me a number and said if I ever came down to San Diego to hit them up. So I had their contact and I thought I could stay with them, so this was in the back of my head, but in the end I couldn’t get in touch with them. I had to stay at the homeless centre at the YMCA on Christmas Eve, my Sony Walkman got stolen and there were all these gnarly dudes there…
In the morning the people at the Y were like, ‘what are you doing here? You’re not homeless…’ I’m a 17-year-old kid that didn’t speak English staying in this hostile environment, because there were fights there and stuff. So the people that were serving food on Christmas took me to their house after, and they were all opening presents as I sat there and watched Jeopardy and I couldn’t understand anything.
They felt sorry for you.
Yeah for sure… So I stayed at their house on Christmas Day and then the next day I was able to get ahold of Ocean. He said for me to come down to Hillcrest in San Diego. So the people dropped me off at the bus stop in Oceanside and I took the bus back to San Diego and I was able to find Ocean and Marcus in Hillcrest. I pretty much stayed two months at their house, which was really awesome. This is where I would say I crafted my street skills, because those two were on fire back then, and we’d skate through Hillcrest everyday. I wanted to learn switch so I had this route where I’d skate switch all the way to the Balboa fountain spot.
So this was early ’93 now…
Yeah. Then eventually Ocean gave me a pep talk like, ‘hey you need to bounce…’
Yeah I guess you’d been at their place for two months and worn out your welcome…
Yeah, but I had nowhere to stay. I would take the bus to the YMCA and skate the vert ramp once or twice a week and I would try and meet people but then the whole thing got sketchy… I was trying to get back to SF but my friends there said their houses were full. So the next thing I know I was on the streets again and I had to try and find a new person to stay with every night. But I was still really grateful for Ocean and Marcus letting me stay. Years later Marcus told me, ‘I felt so bad that we’d left you in the street; we told you that you had to go…’ But I was like, ‘no, thank you! You have no idea. I didn’t know any better and you guys were super cool.’ Then it was all survival, but at the same time I’m skating every day, I’m skating all these spots I’d seen in videos, Greyhound bumps, etc. and it was amazing! I wasn’t bummed. It was definitely a mission, but being in California and seeing all of this… It was definitely worth it to me.
So after three months weren’t you meant to leave? Like go back to Switzerland?
After three months I just decided to stay longer. I was too scared to tell my parents the truth. Vert skating was dead… I just wanted to skate because I’d lived and breathed skating for so many years. At one point Yves came back over for another trade show or something and he’s like, ‘how’s it been going with Real?’ I mean I talked to them a bit and got product, but I never talked to them about any deals because it was too awkward and I realised that as a vert skater, what was the point? Also I think I was too intimidated to talk to Jim Thiebaud, Tommy (Guerrero) or Jeff Klindt… But they did hook me up with this thing to do demos in China for three weeks. It was with Max Schaaf, Remy Stratton and some BMX riders and it was good money. So when I first got to San Francisco Max had a ramp, but Max was like, ‘ah no one skates my ramp and definitely not this random Euro guy…’ But then we went on that trip to China and Max and I got along really well and we skated vert… It was a sketchy-ass setup on carpet, with Star Wars music, crappy vert ramps, it’s not like the China you see these days with all the marble plazas, this was the early ‘90s… Anyways the whole thing was insane, but then after three weeks of those demos Max invited me back to San Francisco to skate his ramp.
Ah nice. So you went back to SF from SD?
Yeah I went for a week or two and skated Max’s ramp and (Jake) Phelps’ ramp as well. And there a cool thing happened: I shot a sequence that got ran in Slap. It was a backside 360 ollie to fakie on Jake’s vert ramp. And Max told me that Phelps even said, ‘that’s my favourite sequence on the ramp.’ I don’t know if it’s true, but it meant a lot to me.
So you’re finally getting some validation from the big names.
Yeah he validated me. And I was still technically with Real so I was in the mix, so they knew of me. Getting that sequence helped me I think as later on I was invited to go with Deluxe to the ‘Shut Up and Skate!’ contest in Texas. So I think they were really starting to like me and the funny thing is, at that contest I decided to enter the street comp, as I had been skating street a lot more down in San Diego, but I just blew it in my run. Then I entered the amateur vert contest there and I won it, ha ha! I did a switch flip on the vert ramp and some 360s or something and it’s in an old 411VM. Then right after that Real put my name in one of their team ads, even though they misspelled it, ha ha.
I’m sure your name has been confusing Americans for years. That’s still pretty sick though!
So all that happened in my first year there.
That’s amazing. So did you extend your visa or something? How were you able to stay longer?
It was definitely easier back then. I went to some office in downtown San Diego and just sorted it so I could stay for a year. Things were still kind of sketchy but I eventually linked up with Mike Crum and Steve Berra, also Jeff Taylor, Jason King, etc. Those guys helped me so much; it was a game changer. So finally I ended up with the right people and they looked out for me, so that’s when I decided I wanted to stay. These guys like Richard Angelides, James Riff and these skaters from Texas were doing the same thing as me, just hustling to try to live in Cali. So they got an apartment with like 12 people in there and I just stayed with them and sometimes Berra also. Some of the guys were on Planet Earth so I got into their inner-circle and I even got a job there…
Yeah what did you do for money this whole time? Did you have savings?
My parents had given me their credit card and they told me, ‘no more than $500 a month,’ but I spent very little because I thought that if I spent too much they would tell me to come home. That’s why I didn’t stay in hotels; I’d stay at homeless shelters and spend very little on food. And then I got that money from the China trip, that was $800 and I knew that would last me a few more months. So when I linked up with the Planet Earth dudes I got a job there, wait, was I getting $5 an hour?
Ha ha, that long ago, probably.
Ha ha, I think that’s what I got, anyways I had the part-time warehouse job and I’d skate with them every day. I was still riding for Real, but I’m in the Planet Earth Industry section (of 411VM) skating at the warehouse doing a pop-shuv or something and it says ‘warehouse worker riding for Real’ by my name.
So then you just made the switch to Planet Earth?
Well let me backtrack a bit, shortly after the Shut Up and Skate comp I was at this street comp in San Luis Obispo and I was skating this mini-ramp and I broke my foot.
The contest that Guy frontside flips the spine? And all the Girl guys were wearing the Girl shirts as they’d just started the brand?
Yeah that’s the one! So I broke my foot at that contest and Salman picked me up in his arms; I was crying… I’d never hurt myself like that before. Things were going so good and then the next thing I know I’m in a cast and I had to go back to Switzerland as it was close to a year since I first got to the US.
So when I left I had no idea if I was gonna come back and I didn’t talk to Real about what would happen next or whatnot. And the Planet Earth guys were really sad to see me go too, as we had a really good relationship. So I’m back in Switzerland and I didn’t know if I was ever going to go back to the States. I had an incredible year, I skated amazing spots, met great people, learned English, but I was kinda thinking maybe I should start that apprenticeship again.
So what did you decide?
Well when I went home (to Switzerland) of course I kept in contact with the Real guys and the Planet Earth guys wanted me to come back, so I think I called Jim Thiebaud and I was trying to get help for a ticket to come back and I didn’t get a good feeling, or maybe not that, but just that I felt that they weren’t so invested in me. But then I had all the Planet Earth guys in my ear like, ‘ah come back! We’ll set you up! You’ll ride for Planet Earth!’ I had to quit Real; it was awful. It wasn’t about money, because I was an amateur, but they offered me a place to stay and to really be part of the team… So I made the decision when I was back home healing my foot in Switzerland. I was back for three months and I decided I needed to get back to San Diego. It was Jason King and Felix Arguelles that really convinced me. I don’t know how I convinced my parents to let me go back again, but I did.
Sick, so you’re back in SD, on Planet Earth…
Yeah I was back and a full amateur on PE. I got the cover of Transworld with Grant Brittain and we did a big Planet Earth tour around the US and then we filmed for the Hiatus video.
Yeah you had the last part! And you were an amateur! Did you go pro after that?
I didn’t go pro for Planet Earth; I went pro for Felix’s company Rhythm, a branch off of PE in ’95. I was 19 years old.
I remember the Swiss Army knife board.
The whole thing was such a surreal experience. It was my second time ever being on an airplane when I first came to SF, I didn’t speak English, I didn’t know anyone, I was homeless for a bit… Then a couple years later I have loads of friends, I’m skating all the spots I used to have photos of hung on my wall, I’m living in San Diego, I got the last part in the PE vid and then I turn pro for Rhythm.
You really made it! You were living the American Dream. Were there any things you didn’t like about America once you’d been living there a bit?
No, absolutely nothing, ha ha. I just loved it there. I was so stoked on all the junk food: PB Max, Hot Tamales, Del Taco… There were no pro skateboarders in Switzerland, no skate houses back then. I remember thinking, ‘what skaters are just living together? Skating and eating fast food and just going out all day and skating the streets?’ It was my first time even seeing skyscrapers… I grew up in a forest (a small town called Bienne) with no skate spots at all. We had no skatepark. I don’t even know how I got into skating. We could only skate on weekends because we had school, so we’d take the train to this vert ramp. But sometimes when we got there it would be wet and we’d get toilet paper from the ice skating rink and try to dry up the ramp. Sometimes there was even ice on the ramp so we’d buy rubbing alcohol and light it on fire to burn the ice. We just went through so much crap to skate… So living in California when it was sunny all the time and there were no winters… It was just so great.
So after another last part (in the Ty Evans produced) Rhythm Genesis video you left Rhythm to become one of the first riders on the newly formed Expedition team, who you rode for the remainder of your pro career… But I want to ask you about the point where you didn’t make enough money through skateboarding, and what you did to get by then?
Well the whole Expedition thing was complicated; so when we formed Expedition I was a part owner, so I didn’t take a paycheck at first. I invested a lot of my own money into that company. But at the time I had a contract and a shoe on Converse so that’s where 90% of my salary came from. I was also getting money from other sponsors like Droors clothing, so I was doing fine. Then Converse ended their skate program in 2001 and then 9/11 happened and it was a tough time. But this whole time before that I didn’t spend that much money, and I had bought a house and maybe it was my Swiss upbringing, but I actually had saved money every year I lived there since coming back that second time. I was renting rooms in my house so I was always able to make it. When the Converse thing ended I wasn’t really good at selling myself and asking for stuff so I called Kelly Bird. He had previously asked me to quit Cons to ride for DVS so I wanted to see if they still had a spot for me, but now their team was full and my value was kinda going down as Expedition wasn’t doing any tours or even taking out any ads at that time. But I did manage to do some commercials around then. I was part of SAG and I did 3-4 commercials for like Chili’s, Propel Water/Gatorade, etc. and it was good money.
Ah that’s good. Yeah those things generally pay well.
Yeah during that time that saved me because Expedition wasn’t paying me and shoe companies weren’t exactly knocking on my door until Osiris did a few times. After months of thinking about it I reluctantly decided to skate for Osiris as they gave me an offer. I respected Tony Magnusson and Brian Reid, but I wasn’t so into Osiris to be honest. I just didn’t have many options then. I went on the Aftermath tour and that was amazing, plus I got along with the team, so I thought maybe I could help change the brand’s image… But I never wanted to wear those big logo t-shirts, also I’d never had ankle problems before and I sprained my ankle in those shoes three times in my first year riding for them, ha ha. So I eventually quit after a couple years. And so I was still putting my own money into Expedition and not getting much back from it, so finally in 2007, after years of arguments I said ‘no more!’ and I wanted to leave, but then they gave me a pay raise and I started doing the team manager role as I said they needed that as that job was never done right. So I went from almost quitting, to taking the reins back.
Yeah there was a little resurgence of the team around then. Joey Pepper and Rob Welsh got on, Enrique Lorenzo, Kenny Hoyle, Spencer Hamilton, Kelly Hart, etc.
Yeah I helped get those guys on. I rebuilt the team, but still things weren’t perfect. There were always sticks in the wheels from Troy (Morgan). But things were a lot better and I was really hyped to start new and then I tore two ligaments in my knee and never fully recovered from it. But we had a really good team and Expedition was back, even with the stick in the wheels we did amazing stuff, for almost seven years.
So what year did you finally say ‘enough is enough’ and leave Expedition?
That was the end of 2015. So much shit was happening, but yeah, at the end no one was getting paid, the team or me… And the team guys were calling me up asking where their checks were, but I’m not getting any answers, I was just the middleman. And then I was told there might have to be pay cuts, and then even after that happened the guy upstairs didn’t even write the checks!
That’s when everyone quit? The mass exodus…
I actually quit before them, not many people know that. So I was technically a part owner of Expedition and Kayo for almost 20 years so things were blurry, but I just had to call it quits and I told the dude off. And it’s a real long story how it got to that, but I won’t go into it all now, that’s for another interview. So I started being an Uber driver for a bit and then I had been practising martial arts for 15 years and they always wanted me to be an instructor, but I couldn’t take the certification classes as I was skating. So I thought, ‘fuck it, nothing is stopping me now.’ So I ended up doing that and I started teaching. And also right as I left Expedition my marriage was ending (I was married for five years) so I had to move out of my house as well
Ah man, real life-changing time.
Also I had started taking photos of skating a few years prior and I was shooting the products for Kayo. I actually shot the sequence of Ryan Gallant kickflip back noseblunting Clipper.
Oh wow, I didn’t know that, sick!
I had taken a few classes at community college too about Photoshop so I got into real estate photography as well. I did some construction work with a friend and I was on Craigslist every night to try and get a Photoshop gig… I even taught some French lessons. I really had to find a way to make money… I felt like I was in survival mode again like back in ’92. I had to move out of the place I had with my wife, so all of the sudden I’m on my friend’s couch again. And I had never thought about this before but at that moment I was thinking, ‘this is how people shoot themselves.’
Ah man that’s heavy. But then I want to jump to the summer of 2017 where we met in Amsterdam and we judged the Damn Am contest there together. You seemed in good spirits as you had been back in Switzerland for a few weeks visiting family. Was that visit what made you ultimately decide to move back?
As much as a tough situation I was in at the time, I did feel quite free. I didn’t have any kids, I was divorced, I sold all my properties a while ago and I felt really good that I was only responsible for myself. Also I was teaching martial arts at that time so that really kept my head straight. So when I saw you I had just been in Switzerland and I was talking to friends to see what it would be like if I moved back; like what I would do for work and how it was like to live there and stuff. So after that whole trip I decided I was gonna move back and that’s what I did in April 2018.
After 25 years in the States…
Yeah I lived there longer than I did in Switzerland. I also had never lived on my own or had a job there in Switzerland.
So what are you doing now?
One of my friends knew this young, visionary guy who was starting an action sports/skate project at this famous ski resort in the Alps. So when I moved back I went to check it out and then the next thing you know he hired me to start as a skate coach in a few months time.
So since January 2019 I’ve been working there. There’s a skate shop there too that I help with the buying and they’re trying to make it into a Woodward type of thing. We’ve developed skate camps and I’ve been shooting photos of the kids as well as teaching skating… I had learned a lot about how to teach through my martial arts experience so I just translated that to skating. We also take the kids snowboarding; we’re getting a surf wave pool in May… The resort is called Alaia and I live in the little village there with only about 500 people. I can just cycle to work; it’s so close. I’ve been skating and snowboarding a lot too; my knee’s doing a lot better now! I’m still teaching martial arts and Tai chi on the side for a couple hours a week.
Well sounds like you landed on your feet over there!
Yeah I’m pretty happy, I feel free.
So do you think you’ve lived the American Dream?
Yeah I’ve lived it. My dream was to skate and I lived off of my passion for so long… I got to live my childhood dream: I got third place at Tampa one year, I got covers of magazines, I met my idols, I even beat my hero Christian Hosoi at a vert contest once, ha ha… I went on all these tours to all these countries, had a few pro shoes on Converse, did commercials at Universal Studios, I was on Good Morning America, Tony Hawk wrote me a letter for my green card, I was a two-time home owner, an X-Games judge, I got married, got a black belt… And I was only homeless for a few days ha ha! I mean I didn’t get rich but I feel rich in experiences and I have all these great stories and met so many great people and I feel like I got to be a part of skateboarding. What more can I ask for?
And you’re only 45…
Yeah I have a lot more life to live.