If you’re a kid growing up with aspirations of becoming a pro skateboarder, I would like to point at Russ Milligan as someone you should take notes from. I’m can’t think of many other skateboarders that have consistently put out so many good video parts and photos, all while staying humble and seemingly well-liked by all. Before talking to Russ, I went on a binge of watching his video parts, and in the following days I would keep thinking of or hearing about more of his parts that I forgot to watch. A bunch of them are linked in this interview, but there are even more if you dig around the internet or your VHS and DVD collections. With Russ recently moving back to Canada, we figured it would be a good time to have him reflect back on his career to date and give some insight into what his future might hold. –Jeff Thorburn
Tell me a bit about growing up in North Vancouver and how you discovered skateboarding. Yeah, so I grew up close to the Griffin bowl. Got into skating through my cousin, who’s a couple of years older, and just picked it up with a couple of friends. We used to skate around North Van, and sort of ironically I learned to skate at Griffin in the bowls, even though I can’t skate transition at all.
How old were you at the time? 12, I think.
Do you remember your first board? Yeah it was a World Industries “Scribble” board I guess. It had kind of a cursive scribble-like graphic. It was one of those cheap premade set-ups, with like Grind Kings and blank wheels.
Early on, who were you skating with that stuck with it? The guys I first started with, I don’t think most stuck with it. Two of them did though, Thomas and his little brother Mark. They still skate. I kind of lost contact with the other guys but I don’t think they are really skating very much.
The first time I remember seeing you skate was in Skate Canada 6, in the “Brodeo” section, and I think you were skating Ambleside in North Van in some Koston 2s, and maybe had glasses? Nah, no glasses.
I guess that part was fuzzy. The Koston 2s though, right? Yeah yeah.
What was up with Ambleside at the time? Was that the go-to spot? Yeah that was like the go-to spot for eight years or something. I remember that because it was right when they had just put me on RDS, so I was super stoked. I think they put me on the day before and gave me like two t-shirts. I think Syd Clark was like, “Try to film some stuff for Skate Canada.” So they came up to Ambleside, I think it was probably Mike Prangnell filming, and I just did a couple of tricks. That was the first thing I really filmed outside of just with my friends.
Did that RDS relationship start through the shop in North Van? Yeah we used to hang out at the shop all the time. We’d be in there every day watching skate videos. Hanging out with Syd, and Jake Stewart worked in there at the time too. I’m not sure how riding for them came up; I think I asked them. Obviously I wanted to skate for them. Somehow it came about.
Were they your first sponsor? No, I guess my first sponsor was a snowboard shop, like a mall shop, at Park Royal in West Van. It was Cypress Mountain Sports. I think they sold like a few skateboards, and that was the only place close to Ambleside, so we’d go in there if we broke a bearing or something. It wasn’t really a skate shop; they just had a little corner. I asked them if I could skate for them and they put me on.
How old were you? 14 or 15 I think.
What did being on the Cypress shop team mean or entail doing? Not very much. I mean I got cost on stuff. It was cool; they put me on a huge poster that they hung in the mall. I thought that was cool. It was one of those big mall display posters. My mom still has it hanging in the house.
Your parents must have been stoked. I’ve worked at enough shops and heard the constant parent jokes about how we should be giving them a discount because they spend some much money here. For you guys that actually happened, you got cost prices. Yeah, and you know, having something like a poster up in a skate shop is cool, but I think for parents it’s cooler if they are going Christmas shopping in the mall and see your picture. That probably seems like a bigger accomplishment to them, you know?
Totally. So did RDS come right after them? I’m trying to remember the order. I got on Monke. I think that was before RDS. That was definitely one of my first sponsors. United Clothing too. That came after I was skating for Cypress. Those three were all in the same year or two.
I’m thinking you were probably the mellowest Red Dragon ever. [laughs] Yeah for sure. I’m a pretty mellow guy. I don’t FSU too much stuff. But there were other mellow guys on the team. Like when Aaron Johnson first got on, I remember everyone would go out and kind of rage, and we’d hang back a little bit. It was a weird mix but it was cool. Those guys were cool and totally helped me out, so it was sick.
Outside of those clips in Skate Canada, what was your first real video part? Well the first video part I ever filmed was for Jeremy Pettit’s first video, Big Guns. I think that was even before I was on anything besides the Cypress shop. That was a small video that didn’t get out very much. Next was Big Guns 2. The first part that probably really got out there was the RDS video, FSU 2002.
Did you film a lot of that on RDS trips or more on your own? A bit of both. I think that was when I first started travelling, and I think we went like up to Calgary, Edmonton, and back to Vancouver a couple of times. We went to Toronto as well, and California, which was my first skate trip down there that wasn’t just with a couple of friends.
Did you feel like you had some expectations to live up to as a Red Dragon? Not really. I mean the one thing I found tough was that just hanging out with those guys made me feel like an extreme pussy. We would go on these trips to Calgary and Edmonton, with like [Paul] Machnau, [Glenn] Suggitt, Ryan Smith, and these guys were just crushing rails. I thought it was normal to skate 13 stair rails. The other new guy on the team with me at the time was [Mike] Hastie, and he fit the mould better. He’d be jumping on the huge rails, Nollie Crooking stuff, and they would try to appease me by taking me to a ledge spot, like, “Go ahead, Russ, do your thing.” [laughs] I felt like such a pussy, like, “Ok I’ll skate these tiny ledges and then sit out the next six spots.” That was the only weird thing though. It’s not like I was forced to go crazy. I was encouraged.
Not long after the RDS video, you had a part in Digital 10. You were jumping down a lot of gaps and stairs in that part. Yeah, I started going for it. I guess I figured out how to jump down stuff around that point. The middle of filming for that was when I got on all the Street Corner brands. So a lot of it was trying to get sponsored and then getting sponsored and trying to make the most out of it.
It’s definitely the part of your career where you tested your knees the most. Yeah I don’t think I jumped nearly as much after that.
In addition to jumping down a lot of stuff in that part, you also Frontside Flipped up the 5-stair at New Spot in Vancouver. I remember being pretty blown away by the sequence. Was that planned or spontaneous? Just spontaneous. All my early skating was like that; it wasn’t until later that I started planning shit out. That was a weird one to me, because I don’t ever remember being very good at Frontside Flips. I can barely Frontside Flip on flat right now.
You tapped out on Frontside Flips after that. I guess, but I don’t even remember being good at them before that.
It just worked, and with pretty minimal pivot. Straight and clean. Nice, thanks.
You mentioned getting hooked up by Street Corner Distribution. You were telling me before that you first met Justin Williams, the Venture TM, at Tampa Am. How did that happen? Well I went to Tampa with Habitat, because I was getting flow from there through Centre [Distribution] at the time.
You were probably riding for DC through Centre at this point as well, right? Yeah. So I went down there and stayed with the Habitat guys; that was sort of why I went down to Tampa. So then just while I was skating at the contest, Justin came up to me and told me they’d like to give me Ventures. I kept in touch with him from there, and then a few months later, maybe a year later, I went down to stay with him in SF and that’s when I met Tony Vitello. The Vitellos owned Street Corner. Shortly after that I was skating for Lucky Skateboards as well and fully hooked through Street Corner.
Did you spend a lot of time with Tony and his dad, Fausto Vitello? Yeah, I used to go down and stay at Tony’s house. We were both young and he lived with his parents. I’d go and stay at Tony and Fausto’s house and just like sleep in the guest room for three months. It was pretty cool.
That’s a pretty big deal. You were staying with one of the forefathers of skateboarding. Did it strike you as a big deal at the time? Yeah, for sure. I mean, of course, Fausto is like the godfather of skateboarding. It was cool. Me and Tony, we’re the same age, so we became good friends. He was still in school and was just shooting photos and stuff too. It wasn’t weird, we would just hang out and go skate. All my first published photos in Thrasher were shot by Tony. It seemed normal at the time. But yeah, being around Fausto was pretty crazy. He was a high-intensity guy.
Did you have any crazy conversations around the dinner table with him? Was he intimidating? A little bit. I mean, yeah, he was opinionated. He was cool, just a very stern guy. I’d have dinner with them, but Fausto was busy and he’d be in and out of the house. It’s not like I hung out with him to some crazy degree. I remember one time though he was trying to go to Canada for whatever reason. He got denied at the border trying to enter Canada. I didn’t even know he was going. I was staying in their guest room at the time. So I was just in there hanging out and he came home, and this is when I didn’t know him well enough to understand that he would be joking, and he yells out super loud, “Tell that fucking Canadian that he’s not welcome in our house.” I was just shocked, just thinking, “what the fuck?” I think I just hid in my room for a while. Tony came home later and told me what was going on.
Did that blow over quickly? Of course, he was just kidding obviously, but I was just wondering at the time, “what the fuck did I do?”
Rad. It seems like you blended right into SF. Before you met Justin and Tony and started going down there, did you already have a fascination with the city? Yeah, I went down there a few times before, just with friends, skating Pier 7 and other spots. I think I’d been down there 2 or 3 times before I went to stay with Justin. That was part of the reason why I took him up on his offer to visit without really knowing him. I wanted to go to San Francisco as opposed to like, the RDS guys always had houses in places like San Diego. I used to go down there before but San Diego just wasn’t my scene as much. I like skating in a city, skating downtown. It was too laid back down there in San Diego. So I always had a taste for San Francisco as a place to go skate when the weather in Canada got shitty. I was more than stoked to have my sponsors based out of SF, so I could go put in face time down there instead of having to do it in San Diego or LA.
Pardon the pun, but was it a steep learning curve adapting to the SF hills? Or did you bring some skills with you from North Van? Nah, like I still kind of feel like I never skated the hills in San Francisco. I’m not going to claim I’m good at bombing hills or I ever went out and charged gnarly ones. I don’t think I ever adapted as far as being an SF hill bomber.
You just tiptoed a bit? Yeah, I mean I’ve gone and bombed hills, but it’s not like I was seeking out the gnarliest ones.
Did you ever get into any hairy situations with cars on hills? I had one time, just one time. You know how you always treat four way stops as if they are a green light? But of course people in cars blow through four-ways all the time. So I had one sketchy situation that kind of turned me off and made me more cautious of bombing hills. Nothing too crazy though. I never had a really intense bail or anything.
Was that a situation where a car passed by you super close? Yeah I was going through the intersection and luckily wasn’t going like point-of-no-return speed. I had to do a pretty serious run-out. I could tell the car wasn’t going to stop. They had sort of pulled into the intersection and then instead of continuing to go they just slammed on the breaks when they saw me coming. I kind of had to run it out in front of the hood. If it was just timed a little differently I probably would have launched over the hood or something.
That’s sketchy. Yeah, but it’s nothing too crazy compared to what other people have done though.
It shakes you though for sure. Yeah, bombing hills is sketchy.
SF has always had a reputation as a tough city. Had it mellowed out a bit by the time you got there? Your association with the Vitellos must have helped either way. It’s not like it was the EMB days, where it was super vibe-y. I mean I was intimidated skating at Pier 7 for sure. When I used to go down there to film with my friends in the early days, we’d go at like 9 in the morning to film our shit. It was cool to skate there with everyone there, but it was just kind of weird to be busting out the camera when the whole crew was there, like Rob Welsh, Henry Sanchez, and all those kinds of guys. You don’t want to be the out-of-towner busting out the camera. But no, nobody was ever lame. Everyone was super cool. I met a ton of people through Tony and Justin, and then was skating with all the guys on the team, so it was really natural.
You were on Lucky for a minute, and then that transitioned into City. Was City a tight team? Yeah, I mean it was kind of a weird thing, I got on Lucky and that went out of business maybe a year after I got on. They were going to do another company, and it took a long time to get off the ground, maybe another year. In the beginning, the City team was entirely different. We had Mike Maldonado and Pete Eldridge, some of the Bootleg guys. That was sick, but then they had a falling out and left within a year. Then it kind of changed again; we put on Jim Cao, Eduardo Craig, and some other guys came in. It was cool. Right when it switched and we got that second wave of guys on, we started travelling way more. We were doing like a two week trip a month for a year. We covered lots of ground. Everybody was super cool and it was really chill at that point.
I heard you turned pro for City pretty unexpectedly. Yeah, when those guys left, I know they’d been arguing for a while, between Pete and Mike and Tony. So when they left, Tony just called and told me that Jeremy Reeves and myself were going pro, because we had no pros on the team. Really, I was kind of bummed; because I thought having my name on a board next to Pete Eldridge and Mike Maldonado would be cool because those guys are amazing. Then, when they left, and Jeremy and me were going to go pro, it was like, are we going to try to be headliners or something? But I mean I was stoked to get a raise and get a pro board for sure.
Did the Crime in the City video come out during that time? I think that timed that so it came out when we went pro.
So I guess leading up to the video you didn’t know you were going to be pro. Not really. We had talked about it happening at some point but it definitely got put into high gear when those guys left.
Was it still a natural filming process even though you were travelling so much for making of that video? It was a little bit different. Since we were travelling so much it’s different than my other parts, which were a lot of just being in Vancouver filming with my friends. We went through a bunch of filmers at City. When I look at that part, it just seems all-over, filmed in different places we stopped for a day and filmed by different people.
You’ve had very consistent parts over the years, and all of them really hold up well. There’s a lot of switch skating in them. You seem so proficient at it, but you don’t necessarily look ambidextrous like P-Rod for example. You have that different shoulder turn and foot placement. Does switch skating still feel “unnatural” to you? Yeah I never really thought about it. There are certain tricks I can do better switch than regular. Still, if I go skate down the street, if I’m pushing switch all the way to the grocery store, it’s not as comfortable.
It’s funny that doesn’t eventually become entirely comfortable. You can learn to skate one way as a kid, and that becomes comfortable, but skating switch, even steadily for 15 years, that doesn’t become as comfortable as your initial stance. Yeah it’s really weird. Even simple things, kickflipping up a curb or something, switch still takes more concentration.
When did you become a full-time resident of San Francisco? Five years ago.
When you were in SF, you lived with photographer Dan Zaslavsky for a lot of that time. You were a real connection for a lot of Canadians travelling down there for the winter. I’m thinking there were a lot of guys, like Kevin Lowry, Seb Labbe, Paul Liliani, and many more, that you really helped out with a place to stay, showing them around, introducing them to Dan and other guys that could help them out. Did it feel natural to just be helping out every guy that came through town? Totally, I was always stoked when people wanted to come down and skate. I liked having Canadians down, because they would be so pumped. They’d want to skate every hour of the day for the two weeks they were in town. I found it motivating to hang out with guys like that. Honestly, I think I met more Canadian skaters while I was living in SF than I did in Vancouver. Guys I had never met would be coming through and hitting me up, just friends of friends or whatever. It was cool.
When the City and Think teams merged, what was going on behind the scenes? Did you have some concerns? I think there were some hard times then, with the economy in the States at the time, everyone was having a hard time and things were slowing down. Even when it was happening, Tony told us not to worry. He told us he wasn’t really doing it for financial reasons, more just because it made more sense to be marketing one company instead of two. He could put more into it. I don’t really know if that was the start of the end, because it only really lasted a couple of years like that before it got sold. For sure when he first called and then sat me down to talk, I thought I was getting fired or the company was going out of business. We always knew that it’s a small company and it was kind of losing steam. I guess for a long time I was prepared for it to go out of business, or to have our pay cut down.
Do you mean preparing mentally, or setting yourself up for a future after City and Think? Just preparing mentally. At that point I was in no position to do anything else really. I would have hopefully just taken it and got another sponsor. It was a long period where, it was just a really gradual down slide for four years, until it went out of business.
During that time, the Business As Usual video came out, which was sick and probably changed a lot of people’s perceptions of Think. It seemed to really legitimize them again, because for a long time they just seemed like a discount board brand. Yeah, that was right when it got bought and had new owners. They really pumped us up on new things and gave us more freedom. I don’t know if they were just too busy or what happened, but there weren’t really new graphics or things coming out, and we just kind of took it upon ourselves to make a video. Justin Carlson was the filmer at the time and basically did the whole thing. He did most of the legwork to get the whole company cleaned up and usher in some better graphics, and put some new guys on the team. When that video came out, we got a really good reaction to it, and thought it could do us some real good. Nowadays though I guess when videos are forgotten so quickly, it’s just a tough game out there. It’s rad we put out a video that people liked, but I don’t think it had a crazy impact on sales.
Think stuck around for a couple of years after that video. What was it like at the end leading up to them calling it quits? It was pretty dismal I guess. I think we had a five-month stretch where a different guy quit every month. Down to the end where it was just a couple of us thinking, should we just end it? I needed the money still though. There were some thoughts to try to bring it back, we were looking at who we could put on, but it was honestly kind of a relief when they canned it. I had a huge panic obviously, wondering what I would do, but it had dragged on for so long with months we didn’t get paid, months they didn’t have boards, so it had been tough for a while and was kind of a relief at the end.
At that point, were you going to school? I was going to school maybe a year before that I guess. I’m in my third year now. I was meaning to go back to school for a long time. There was definitely motivation to do something else when we all saw that Think was going down. I’m 30, so I’m not going to try to like extend my skate career until I’m 45. I went back to school to figure something out, so when the times comes it would be an easier transition. It came a little sooner than I thought, but I’m glad I did it.
What did you enrol in? I went into web development at City College in San Francisco.
Did you have a prior interest in that? I knew some basic HTML, and it just seemed like something that I could do and enjoy, even do freelance while I was still skating to make a bit of extra money. I was really looking at different options, and that just seemed like something I could figure out.
You rode for DVS through Supra Distribution for a long time. When did that end? That ended right when the Think video came out. Within a month of that, Supra canned their Canadian DVS program, and that’s when I hit up the guys at Vans.
Your Vans welcome video was sick. Did Vans seem like a natural fit because you knew some of the guys or liked the shoes? I knew a couple of the guys on the team, but didn’t really know [Alex] Forbes [Canadian TM] or anyone else working there, so I just kind of found an email and reached out to them. I always liked Vans shoes and it seemed like they had a good program. They were my first choice and luckily it worked out.
As I said to you before, when I saw footage of you skating SF in a pair of Half Cabs, it just looked so classic. Half Cabs were one of the shoes I always wanted to skate, but I’ve had a shoe sponsor since I was like 15. I feel like with Vans I have the shoes on my feet that I would buy anyway, so it’s nice.
When did you hook up with Green Apple Skate Shop? And further, have you spent much time in Winnipeg, or even been to the shop? [laughs] No, I’ve never been to the shop. I went on a few trips with Mike [McDermott] right when Green Apple started, and we just talked about it. I was just into being on the team. It’s another cool Canadian company that I thought could grow.
Was the footage from your part in Video X from travels with Ryan McGuigan and the other Green Apple guys? No, that was all stuff that didn’t make it into the Think video. Basically. I filmed some stuff in between the two videos. I think we had switched to filming in HD after the Think video, so we had a ton of old VX stuff that we didn’t have anything to use it for. Most of that went to the Green Apple video.
How did you end up riding for Studio? Did you know Jai Ball and some of the other guys? Yeah, I knew Jai and all the guys on the team really. Obviously I know [Wade] Fyfe from back in the day filming for the North videos, and I’ve known [Bryan] Wherry forever. I was keeping an eye on Studio for a while before Think went out of business, stoked on what they were doing. So I hit up Jai and it seemed like it would be a good fit with me moving back to Canada. I was just stoked to be involved with a good Canadian company I could get behind.
Did you have any input on your first board graphics with Studio, the coffee can and the Hudson’s Bay pattern? They showed me before and I was down. I got on right before they put out a new catalogue, so there wasn’t a ton of time, but luckily they came through in the clutch. They turned out well.
Around this time, you and your fiancée decided to move back to Canada. Tell me what prompted that move and what the drive from SF to Toronto was like was like. We kind of decided to come back to Canada maybe a year before we moved. Things with Think were looking really shaky, and I was in school. I knew for what I was paying to go to school at City College down there, I could go to a way better school in Canada. We always wanted to come back at some point anyway. My fiancée grew up in Toronto, so it was a bit of a coin toss on where we would go. There are lots of good schools in Toronto though and employment opportunities after school, so we decided to give it a try. We got out here in August. We drove across the country, taking a bit of a southern route. We went from SF down to LA, over to Vegas, to the Grand Canyon, through New Mexico, Texas, New Orleans, and up through Mississippi and Tennessee. We took two weeks to do it and it was amazing. I saw a lot of the country that I hadn’t seen before on skate trips, and it was a good sayonara to the States.
I know winter hit not too long after you got settled in Toronto. Are you able to skate much right now? Since winter hit I’ve just been buckled down with school, but when we first got out here I was going to Dunbat a couple of times a week. We were still really busy trying to get set up in our apartment. That took up a lot of time. Now I’m living downtown close to Dunbat and lots of other spots. I can’t skate right now but I see lots of spots when I’m walking around.
What’s next year look like? Will you be finishing school and looking for a full-time job? What would be ideal? Yeah I’m done school in February. I’ll probably be looking for full-time work. I mean if I could work 3 or 4 days a week and make enough money that I can still skate a fair bit, that would be awesome. Hopefully I can still juggle the two. We’ll see. But after school I am definitely looking to get a job.
On the skate front, do you have any projects for next year? Yeah, Studio is working on a video or promo that should come out in the spring or summer, so I’m definitely going to try and get some stuff for that. We’re going on a three-week Vans trip to Europe in May. Other than that, just skating around here trying to get what I can for Studio.
Do you keep up with skate media stuff these days? Are you online watching videos a lot? Yeah I keep up. I check Hellaclips or whatever. I definitely still nerd out a fair bit. I just go on and see if there’s something new I want to watch. There’s something interesting most days.
Do you keep up with sports or current events? I’m pretty obsessive with watching sports. Current events… not so much. I definitely put a lot of my time into watching sports, probably too much.
Which particular sports do you like? I like it all really. I can get into anything. The one I’m into the most though is football. I can watch hockey, golf, tennis… sometimes I like getting into odd things, like I’ll watch curling or whatever. I can really get into anything if I have the time to focus on it. Football in the winter though usually, and in the summer it’s golf and tennis.
You’re a true sports fan. More and more as I get older. It’s kind of strange.
Will you be watching a lot of hockey and CFL football now that you are back in Canada? I can’t get into CFL, but hockey a little bit I guess. I was never a huge hockey fan, but I’m trying to get into it. CFL I can’t do though. There’s only like six teams.
The odds of winning the Grey Cup are pretty good. Yeah, your odds of making the playoffs are crazy.
On another note, I take you as a guy that probably hasn’t changed the specs of his set-up much over the years. Am I right or am I way off? Nah, it’s actually changed quite a bit. I’ve kind of stepped it up slowly, probably every year my board gets a little wider and longer. Back in the day I went from skating a 7.4” and slowly moving up to 7 ¾”. That felt huge. Then I made the big leap to 8”. I skate an 8.25” now but 32” long. Which, to me, doesn’t even feel big anymore. I probably won’t go bigger than that.
And trucks, have you stepped those up too? Or have you stayed on Venture 5.0s the whole time? Actually I did switch from the 5.0s to the 5.2s when my board got this wide.
Ok, I was wrong. It’s not a huge difference. More or less, besides the board, pretty minor changes. I think I went from like 51mm wheels to 52s.
Do you feel like you accomplished as much as you could in your skate career up until now? Did you get the shine you probably hoped for as a kid growing up skating in North Van? Totally, yeah, I am definitely very thankful for how everything turned out. I was able to live in San Francisco for five years and not work a job. I think it all worked out very well with the sponsors I had.
Last question. If you could only skate one ledge for the rest of your life, what would it be? I’ll say the medium box at Ambleside, because I spent eight years or something skating that every day. It probably has my best memories of skating.
And it doesn’t hurt that it’s on the beach. Definitely.
That’s it. Thanks for taking the time to talk. No problem. Later.
All photos courtesy of Terry Worona.