Presented in partnership with The Undefeated on ESPN+
Earlier this month, Gui Khury became the first skateboarder to ever land a 1080 on a vert ramp during a competition when he nailed the trick at the X Games—a feat that ultimately led to him walking away with a gold medal after topping a field that was home to legends including Bucky Lasek and Tony Hawk.
A little over a week later, Japan’s Momiji Nishiya earned a gold medal of her own at the women’s street competition at the Summer Olympics—an event where Rayssa Leal earned the right to take the silver back to her native Brazil.
Simply snagging a piece of precious hardware that signifies you’re one of the best skateboarders in the world is an achievement that speaks for itself. However, it’s particularly impressive when you consider both of the aforementioned Olympians were 13 years old and Khury earned the right to call himself the youngest gold medalist in the history of the X Games by securing the honor at the ripe old age of 12.
Khury’s victory could’ve been written off as an anomaly, but the events that unfolded in Tokyo cemented this changing of the guard as a veritable trend. Based on the expertise of a few people who are intimately familiar with this new generation of skaters, we’ve only gotten a brief glimpse at what promises to be the future of the sport—one formerly defined by barriers that have started to crumble with the help of the innovators making it more accessible than ever.
If there’s one takeaway from the games, it’s certain that this next generation of skaters is very different from the caffeine-fueled X Games of yesteryear.
For a history lesson, the Black skateboarding experience, specifically, is examined in ESPN+’s latest episode of Black History Always. The 30-minute doc – dubbed MONOCHROME – is filmed in black and white, dissecting opportunities earned and denied because of a skater’s environment and skin color.
Skating legends like Ray Barbee, Sal Barbier, Atiba Jefferson, Kareem Campbell, and Stevie Williams explain the history of street skating, paired with the experiences of Adrianne Sloboh, Samarria Brevard, and Zion Wright – skateboarding’s generational talent.
MEET THE ROLE MODELS LEADING THE CHARGE
Tim Ward is intimately familiar with how much skateboarding has changed since he secured his first board at the age of nine after getting his first taste of the culture while growing up on the outskirts of Chicago:
“My older brother had a group of friends that he skated with around town. I have a couple of memories of watching them skate and wanting to do it. I ended up buying a skateboard from him for five bucks, and I’ve skated almost every single day since then.”
Ward’s passion for skateboarding is intrinsically linked to the path he’s taken through life since hopping on that board more than 25 years ago. He eventually traded Illinois for Arizona (a move motivated by his desire “to get out of the Midwest and go to a place where I can skate all year round”) and has spent almost a decade serving as an ambassador and role model to the kids he’s mentored as the founder of the Skate After School program, which has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 2012:
“The initial spark was a field trip to a community center that had a youth program for a sociology class I was taking. There was a wall with stuff like remote control cars and basketballs, so I asked the woman who ran the program if she thought the kids would want to try skateboarding. She had this amazing reaction and was like, ‘That would be awesome. The kids ask about skateboarding all the time, but we don’t know anything about it.’
At the time, I worked at an indoor skate park. I made a donation bin, put out some social media posts, and took some of my own stuff that I was just sitting on. I started building boards specifically for this community center and dropped them off—and then I started stopping by to try to help the kids learn how to ride them, because I realized that I was just dropping them off without giving them any guidance.”
Ward suddenly found himself balancing the program with his day job and the classes he was taking on his way to earning a sociology degree at Arizona State University. He spent a sizeable chunk of time juggling all three before he was eventually approached by a couple of his friends from the local skate scene—including pro Ryan Lay—who offered to help him take things to the next level. It was a tipping point that resulted in the passion project transforming into a full-fledged non-profit that’s continued to flourish without ever straying from its roots or abandoning its core mission: making skateboarding as accessible as possible for as many people as possible.
DEMOLISHING BARRIERS AND SHATTERING STEREOTYPES
“Having a skateboard” is obviously the most notable (and expensive) prerequisite when it comes to getting involved in the sport, and Skate After School hooks up all its participants with a deck with all the fixins’ (as well as the requisite safety equipment). However, there are some less obvious issues that can be almost as prohibitive when it comes to pursuing this particular pastime:
“The biggest issue for kids we serve is that the skateparks in Phoenix are mostly scattered on the outskirts. They’re not the easiest places to access for the kids in the communities we work with; they either have to get a ride on the weekends when their parents aren’t working or they have to take multiple buses. What limits the kids at this point is they have access to skateboarding through our program, but they just don’t really have anywhere else to do it.”
Those communities (and many of the students who hail from them) grapple with an inordinate amount of adversity compared to areas where the typical kid can easily snag a lift or take a quick walk to the nearest skatepark. However, as Ward pointed out with pride, Skate After School hosts an incredible array of students from all walks of life:
“Our kids are shattering stereotypes. They’re an extremely diverse group. A lot of kids are from families of refugees from all over the world. We have a huge number of girls; almost half of the kids are non-male identifying skaters. Programs like ours do a lot to change the idea of what does a skateboarder is supposed to look like.”
Many of the program’s participants know little to nothing about skateboarding when they initially enroll in Skate After School. It’s a reality reflected in by the mentality that unites the bulk of the students; one defined by open-mindedness and their almost unconscious acceptance of anyone who shares their earnest appreciation for skateboarding (and virtually absent of the countercultural tribalism once associated with the scene):
“They just show up and they’re like, ‘Oh, skateboarding is fun.’ They don’t know any pros. They don’t know what companies are cool. They’re like, ‘I want the board with the cat on the bottom.’ There’s very little talk about If skateboarding is for boys or girls. I even have to tell some of them to wear shoes instead of sandals. They’re not roped into what a skateboarder is supposed to look like or what brands they wear.
I also think that programs like ours have been helpful in shifting the public perception. We’ve shown school administrators and parents that skateboarders aren’t just stoned teenagers; they can be people with degrees who run a non-profit like ours.”
Based on the feedback Ward has received, programs like his could also play a role in producing a new generation of leaders like that.
For all we know, there’s a burgeoning gold medalist currently honing their craft on the equipment Skate After School provides. With that said, there aren’t many jobs out there where you’ll be asked to land a kickflip during the interview. However, that doesn’t mean the lessons learned and the confidence gained can’t be deployed in other realms:
“Teachers have told us how their kids start to be bolder, more confident, more willing to raise their hand and take a risk by answering a question. We personally see their confidence go up week after week because they’re getting better and progressing at something.
At some of our schools, the teachers will come out and try to skate with the kids, which gives the students a chance to flip the script and start to teach their teachers.”
Ward also thinks he’s identified one key trait shared by most of the program’s participants that helps set the youngest generation of skaters apart, saying:
“A lot of the kids have a fearlessness that is really valuable if you can harness it and combine it with a skill set. A lot of my time in the program is spent trying to prevent kids from getting hurt by doing things that are way beyond their scope. A lot of them just want to just head straight to the ramp and drop right in.”
Will a program like this produce a future Olympian? Only time will tell—but you might not want to bet against it.