Local Matt Berger wasn't in attendance for the 2018 Tampa Pro, the first Street League Skateboarding (SLS) event of the year held in early March.
In fact, the 24-year-old pro skater might not make it out to any SLS events this summer. Despite that, he's feeling great about his future in the sport, having finally solved a nagging knee injury that had bothered him for the last three years.
Berger's knee started bothering him toward the end of 2015. After an MRI and some consultations, doctors couldn't figure out what was wrong with it, so he was allowed to keep skating. But after a few months, his knee felt worse and another round of trips to the doc's office resulted in Berger getting microfracture surgery to fix bone and cartilage damage in his leg. He missed the entire 2016 SLS season, returning to pro skating in 2017. Yet his knee troubles were far from solved.
"After one year of skating, it started to feel off again," he said. "I got another MRI and they basically said the microfracture surgery is slowly failing, so the best answer was to get this even more complex surgery. They actually take a bone cadaver from someone who has donated their body to medicine, and drill out the bad area of bone where the missing cartilage is and replace it."
The allograft surgery was performed by Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, a renowned orthopedic surgeon in the world of sports medicine, who has also operated as team physician for the U.S. men's national team and was FIFA's medical officer for the Brazil World Cup in 2014.
"The procedure is pretty crazy, they don't even offer it in Canada. Dr. Mandelbaum is one of the leaders in knee arthroscopy around the world. I mentioned his name to surgeons while I was in Canada and they were like, 'You know Dr. Mandelbaum!' It was pretty funny that they had that fan-out moment. I'm pretty happy because I feel like I got all the cards in my favour and things are feeling pretty well," said Berger, who is back in California rehabbing.
A radical procedure has a natural fit in Berger's story, as his journey from Kamloops to his new home in Hollywood has been pretty far-out.
Berger's grandmother bought him his first skateboard when he was four years old. But he didn't truly get the bug until his cousin came over to visit his parents house in Juniper Ridge when he was five.
"For whatever reason, the house we bought had a 17x27 foot concrete patio. My parents never used it for anything. It just kind of existed in their backyard, and then one day, my cousin came over with his skateboard and started pushing around. Once I saw him do that and tried it myself, immediately I was like, 'Oh, this is it. This is my thing.' From then on that was all I thought about, all I cared about, all I did."
Soon, Berger was spending all his time skating in his backyard, at friends houses or down at the old skate park on River Street. As often comes with the territory, he also caused a bit of ruckus around town.
"I was known on a name basis with all the bylaw officers," he said. "It was pretty funny at 14, running away from them, but my parents were bummed a few times. One time an officer hand delivered a $400 ticket to my house. They were not happy with me."
While $400 is still cheaper than a lot of other youth hobbies, Berger never saw skateboarding as just a way to pass the time. For him, he knew it was a calling.
"It sounds kind of outrageous, but I had so much love and obsession with it that by the time I was seven. I knew it was my path. It wasn't that I was even better than my peers. There were local legends like Beau Sorley, Stacy Gabriel, Derek Swaim and Jesse Robertson; all those people were way better than me. I just felt like I had so much passion that I'd figure it out and make it work."
Sure enough, he won his first skate competition when he was eight years old, a local contest called "battle of the boards." After that his parents started taking him to competitions around the area, going as far as Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.
"I was super lucky to have a family that was supportive of my skateboarding, and if they could afford it then they would take me out to competitions."
Eventually, he landed the support of sponsors and began travelling all around North America as an amateur skater, with his only goal being to improve each day. Berger spent years getting better but didn't have his breakthrough moment until four years ago at the 2014 Phoenix Am.
"It's probably one of the biggest amateur skateboard competitions in the world. I'd gone to it seven years in a row and never placed, and then that year I actually ended up winning it," he said. "When you win something of that calibre, you have new eyes on you and there's new support that can come into play as long as you're a pretty level-headed dude. So that was a really cool period because that was the whole beginning of the path to becoming pro."
One of the opportunities that exposure afforded him was truly unique, and he was sure not to waste it. An organizer from Monster Energy (one of Berger's sponsors) had a chance to add him to the Los Angeles SLS Pro Open as a wildcard. The contest features 22 pro skaters that aren't in the SLS and the top three finishers earn a spot in the league. Berger was the only amateur in the contest. A few days later, he was the first amateur to qualify into the SLS. The win couldn't have come at a better time.
"Before I got into that competition, it was the first time in my life I thought I was going to have to call my parents and ask for some money or fly home because I was broke. Then I got into that competition and it was like, 'Hey I can pay rent now, or buy a car!' I lived in my suitcase for a year and a half before that and ran my funds into the ground, but I managed to get the money back in time," he said.
Now an established pro, Berger can't wait to get back to out there and do what he does best. His knee is supposed to recover to 100 per cent in 10 months, but with all his time devoted to rehabbing, he thinks he'll be back a lot sooner. And because of where he was born and raised, he's not at all worried about losing his edge during a long layoff.
"Once you've learned certain tricks, they're always there. It's kind of like riding a bike. Growing up in Canada, you're usually spending at least five months a year off your board and in spring, you've got to restart building the confidence and getting the tricks back. Dealing with that every year, it'll be second nature getting everything back," he said.