Produced by: Dan Hwang
Written by: Jesse Carr
Nike began in the early 70s as a company built to serve the specific needs of track athletes. After rapid growth and branching out into other sport-specific models, Nike needed to branch out. In the mid-80s, Americans were hitting the gym and shaping up in record numbers, so the boys from Beaverton needed to crank out models to serve as multi-purpose kicks that could handle the treadmill, medicine ball, and asphalt all at once. In 1987, the iconic Nike Air Trainer 1 was born, and that shoe launched a line that later bore the signature of the ultimate cross-athlete, Bo Jackson.
In 1987, Bo Jackson had just been called up to the big leagues by the Kansas City Royals. It was during that same year that he joined the Los Angeles Raiders mid-season. With Bo’s name becoming increasingly recognizable, he later became a marketing machine because of his success on both the diamond and turf. But before Bo became the main Trainer advocate, John McEnroe began wearing the first Air Trainer. According to an interview with Sandy Bodecker that was featured on Sneaker Freaker, McEnroe said the sneaker was the “best tennis shoe I’ve ever played in.” McEnroe also affirmed that, at the time when it was first released, he knew he was a “guinea pig” to test the performance of the shoe, but found that the shoe lived up to its claim of aiding lateral movement.
The low top version was the one McEnroe wore, only after seeing it by accident. In the same Sneaker Freaker feature on the Nike Training line, John Barbour, who worked on the early trainer models with Tinker Hatfield, Nike’s most legendary designer, recounted a story that involved Nike reps showing some tennis-geared models to McEnroe. The hotheaded tennis star saw the Air Trainer 1 in the bag and was intrigued by its innovative design. The rep attempted to push the tennis-specific models, but McEnroe chose the Air Trainer 1. His endorsement of the Trainer as a Tennis shoe caused Nike to realize that they could broaden the perspective of what their court models could look like. 13 years after the first Air Trainer, Nike crafted the Air McEnroe Trainer featuring an inner tongue tag that said “Mac Knows,” a flip on the classic “Bo Knows” campaign for Bo Jackson.
Nike found a gem with the Air Trainer 1, which featured a full length air bubble and some midsole focal points meant to take a pounding. The forefoot features what is now a familiar hard plastic portion that would have been one of the highest points of stress for a tennis player moving laterally. The high top version also features a rubber strap near the toe which has since become the sneaker’s signature element.
Ever since the first model appeared in white, gray, black and “chlorophyll” green, the Nike Air Trainer 1 has seen a slew of releases both in it’s high and low top models. The Nike SB line also incorporated the silhouette for a few releases, including one for San Francisco’s HUF, showing the cult status of the model. Not only has the original model continued to come out in throwback colorways, but Nike has also pushed a newer, more technically-advanced series of models for the Air Trainer, which was renovated in 2009. The release of a Legacy Pack which had both the original 1987 and 2009 versions was released only at Nike Sportswear stores in LA and NYC in a limited number of 100, and it is now valued at well over $600.
With Bo Jackson, John McEnroe, and later Andre Agassi, Nike found a winning roster to endorse the Air Trainer models. With its consistent performance by wearers who needed stability in a variety of environments and the undeniable innovation in styling, the Air Trainer 1 remains among the most recognizable in the Nike catalog. And those who know the history of Nike Trainers are aware of the slew of beautiful releases of popular models like the Air Trainer SC (Bo’s signature model), the Air Trainer SC III, the Air Trainer TW II (released by Supreme in 4 colorways) and the Air Trainer Max all of which would not have been possible without Tinker Hatfield’s masterful design of the Air Trainer 1.
Original 1987 deadstock Nike Air Trainer SC II Low
Thanks to Mike Packer of Packer Shoes.