Calm, Cool, And Carefree: The Legend of Tom Penny

by Mackenzie Eisenhour

“Hammers don’t talk. Hammers don’t try. Hammers don’t promise. Hammers just do.”-Old Viking Proverb

Born on April 13, 1977 in Oxford, England, Tom Penny may be one of the most mythical, revered, and naturally talented individuals ever to ride a skateboard. He is also-seemingly adding to his secretive cult status-one of the most difficult individuals to pigeonhole. Very few skateboarders incite the near religious following that Tom has managed to build since his emergence from the cold hallways of Radlands Skatepark in Northampton, England back in the early 90s. His fluid motion and stream-of-consciousness smoothness often seem to imply a complete separation between Tom’s brain and the simple, nonchalant execution of tricks he has amassed on his board.
Tom has been a shaman of sorts, even for the many years that he spent in exile, living with his mother in St. Victor, France. His disciples are scattered far and wide-pledging allegiance regardless of his whereabouts for what he did, does, or is doing. They include some of your favorite pros-old and young alike. His rà‡sumà‡ of footage, handily YouTubed or assembled and recorded deck-to-deck on old-fashioned VCRs stands taller with each passing year, seemingly immune to the sands of time. Tom is a natural. Skateboarding is his sixth sense. He is a man possessed with the talent to roll. The following is the story of his journey.

The first glimpse the world got of a young Tom was in ’93 via a Wheels Of Fortune in 411 Issue 2. Clearly still in his formative years, yet already rolling up a doobie whilst being interviewed at Radlands, Tom threw down some of the pantalooned, XXL yellow T-shirt adorned switch backside double flips and other hot tricks of the day. Yet, even at the tender age of sixteen, glimpses of Tom’s magical abilities found their way through the haze of one of skateboarding’s darkest tech/rave-infected periods. Check à‡S’ Menikmati DVD bonus section (2001) compiled by “French” Fred Mortagne for the most comprehensive look at Tom’s early days along with the evolution that followed. In the same year he appeared in 411, undaunted by heckling from various U.S. pros, Penny won the annual ’93 Radlands pro contest with a single run. The following year, with the hecklers suitably hushed and converted to fans, he handily won the Radlands pro comp again. He was, after all, on his home court.
Yet, by ’95, Penny left that home and made the move to Southern California along with English company Deathbox-turned-Flip Skateboards and released his first full-length video part via Etnies’ debut video High Five (1995). With a mix of ridiculously casual hammers, ranging from the now-legendary annihilation of the San Deguito rail in Encinitas (switch flip over the rail the hard way), kickflip back tail reverts in a Chicken’s pool, and a gravity-defying back tail up a ledge and set of stairs at Huntington Beach High School, Tom was firmly cemented into legend status. His punctuation mark of an ender in Flip’s 411 Issue 11 Industry section, around the same time, with a to-this-day butter-dripping switch frontside flip over the Carlsbad gap and the Earl Warren downhill handrail back tail line only poured gasoline on the fire-as did his quick appearances in TransWorld’s Uno (1996) and later-chronicled, Rob Dyrdek-narrated (TransWorld, Anthology, 2000) “closing down” of San Diego’s chain-to-bank spot that same year.

Outside of his ridiculous footage during his early days in The States, one example of the types of urban myths Penny spawned was one that I happened to experience firsthand. In early ’96, West L.A.’s Hot Rod Skateshop had rented a warehouse downtown, built a pretty decent mini ramp, and threw a party to inaugurate/celebrate the whole thing. With jam-packed platforms and anywhere from two to four skaters dropping in at the same time, the session was extremely heated. With his trademark beanie pulled well below eye leve Penny embarked on his run-of-the-mill tranny destruction run, miraculously dodging the likes of Mike Carroll, SAD, and others as he casually cruised the ramp until he was alone. At pretty much that very moment, every light in the warehouse blew a fuse and the entire party was left in pitch black. However, through the darkness, the discernable noise of Tom’s trucks hitting the coping did not stop. For nearly a full minute, until someone found the fuse box by way of a lighter and some luck, Penny kept skating, either unaware, or simply unaffected by the lack of vision on the ramp. Precisely as the lights came back up, a stunned crowd watched in disbelief as Tom was frozen mid-frontside flip, floating over the ramp completely undaunted by either light or dark-sixth sense indeed.
By ’96, Tom was on top of the world. With fame and fortune firmly tucked in his billed beanie like just another feather, it seemed as if the era of Penny had just begun sprouting buds. Then, he all but vanished. In his own words, “I never really made any decision to leave The States or the spotlight. Right before I left, I was living with (Sean) Sheffey for a couple of weeks and he was like, ‘You’re not coming back.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I am. I’ll be back in two weeks. I’m just going to the contests and then I’m coming back.’ He was like, ‘No, you’re not coming back.’ I went to all the Euro contests and just ended up in London. I saw all my old friends again and ended up staying there for a while. It just happened.”

Sheffey was right. Tom disappeared from the mainstream radar for the next four years. With scattered bits of footage or a “who knew when it was shot” photo keeping the candle of his legend healthily burning, he was rarely seen. It was as if his mythical status grew exponentially with his disappearance. Like a rock star who died young, Tom Penny felt like skateboarding’s Jim Morrison. Every shred of coverage Tom eked out became ever more precious. A TSA ad from France here, an à‡S ad from Denmark there, some footage in a Digital video-Tom became an enigma that skateboarding’s entire collective followed religiously. After some extensive traveling and skating across Europe, Tom set up camp and built himself a mini ramp at his mother’s house in the Southern French countryside, just outside Bordeaux.

All the while, Stateside, rumors of Tom’s whereabouts and exploits circulated like old wives’ tales. One such rumor, which in fact turned out to be true, was Tom’s decision to send a torn and tattered Timberland boot to à‡S as the model for what was to be his first pro-model shoe. Apparently, Tom had taken to skating solely in the same pair of Timbos for nearly a year-obviously, much to the amazement of those around him. Don Brown, senior VP of marketing at Sole Technology explains, “Penny went through one of his many vanishing missions in England, and eventually he was spotted at South Bank in London, kind of raggedy looking and rocking a pair of Timberland boots with a small heel. He basically closed down the session and left everyone in typical Tom Penny amazement-not just from his amazing lazy style and perfection, but from that fact that he did everything in a pair of Timberland boots!”
After being repeatedly asked by Sole Technology for some direction on his first pro shoe to be, Tom eventually sent in one of those very boots. Former Sole Technology Designer Franck Boistel elaborates, “For the record, I think Don Brown brought the boot to us. We were asking Tom if he wanted to design a shoe for years. Then we got this beat-up Timberland that Tom obviously skated in. You could see tons of tear and wear on the ollie area and the bottom was falling apart. We nonetheless did come up with some sketches.” The craziest thing about it all? That forever-rumored and all-over-the-message-board lore proved wrong. It wasn’t even a Timberland at all-it was a Columbia hiking boot.
Tom continued to stoke the rumor mill from afar with a seemingly out-of-the-blue à‡S ad depicting him casually throwing down an Indy 540 on vert in ’98-something nobody in there right mind had any expectation of seeing and subsequently the only mainstream vert photo published of Tom to date. Again, not only was the trick ridiculously amazing, but the story and circumstances that went along with it nearly rivaled Tom’s skating. According to Tom, it was the first and only time he ever attempted a 540 and, of course, in perfect Penny couldn’t-care-less-ness, he neglected to bother calling up a filmer, even though he was technically filming for Menikmati at the time. In addition, between each attempt, Tom took a breather most wouldn’t consider much help-balance-wise. Penny explains, “I would drink a beer between every try. I think I drank something like eighteen Elephant tall-boy Carlsberg beers before I finally landed it. I manual rolled the flatbottom and manual rolled up the other side. It was pretty crazy.” Amen.
As Tom finally began to emerge from his long exile and returned to screens via Menikmati in 2000, then Sorry in 2002, Penny fans hailed his return to the spotlight. He even fathered a son, Nicholas, in ’03 in California, and decided once and for all that sobriety was the best course for his skateboarding’s future, having pretty much run the gamut in terms of intoxication. That same year, Tom put out his Really Sorry part and again proved that the Penny magic was still inside him. By ’05, and after ten years on à‡S, Tom left Sole Technology and joined his longtime homey Chad Muska over at the KR3W-backed Supra Footwear. Having finally received his permanent U.S. resident’s visa in September of 2006 and skating more than he has over the last five years, Tom currently resides in Newport Beach, California and is far from being done writing his own legacy. And regardless of what Tom Penny does today, tomorrow, or the day after, he will forever take with him the fact that he did more in one day over a chain on a skateboard than most will do in a lifetime riding one.

om afar with a seemingly out-of-the-blue à‡S ad depicting him casually throwing down an Indy 540 on vert in ’98-something nobody in there right mind had any expectation of seeing and subsequently the only mainstream vert photo published of Tom to date. Again, not only was the trick ridiculously amazing, but the story and circumstances that went along with it nearly rivaled Tom’s skating. According to Tom, it was the first and only time he ever attempted a 540 and, of course, in perfect Penny couldn’t-care-less-ness, he neglected to bother calling up a filmer, even though he was technically filming for Menikmati at the time. In addition, between each attempt, Tom took a breather most wouldn’t consider much help-balance-wise. Penny explains, “I would drink a beer between every try. I think I drank something like eighteen Elephant tall-boy Carlsberg beers before I finally landed it. I manual rolled the flatbottom and manual rolled up the other side. It was pretty crazy.” Amen.
As Tom finally began to emerge from his long exile and returned to screens via Menikmati in 2000, then Sorry in 2002, Penny fans hailed his return to the spotlight. He even fathered a son, Nicholas, in ’03 in California, and decided once and for all that sobriety was the best course for his skateboarding’s future, having pretty much run the gamut in terms of intoxication. That same year, Tom put out his Really Sorry part and again proved that the Penny magic was still inside him. By ’05, and after ten years on à‡S, Tom left Sole Technology and joined his longtime homey Chad Muska over at the KR3W-backed Supra Footwear. Having finally received his permanent U.S. resident’s visa in September of 2006 and skating more than he has over the last five years, Tom currently resides in Newport Beach, California and is far from being done writing his own legacy. And regardless of what Tom Penny does today, tomorrow, or the day after, he will forever take with him the fact that he did more in one day over a chain on a skateboard than most will do in a lifetime riding one.