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Skate or die: Thrasher culture and how it could change future Olympics

Tampa Bay skateboarding figures reflect on their sport and the gravity of its Summer Games debut.
Cory Juneau of the United States competes in the men's park skateboarding final at the Tokyo Olympics on Aug. 5. The sport made its debut at the Games, moving a bit more the mainstream. But the sport's individualism and independence remain.
Cory Juneau of the United States competes in the men's park skateboarding final at the Tokyo Olympics on Aug. 5. The sport made its debut at the Games, moving a bit more the mainstream. But the sport's individualism and independence remain. [ KYODONEWS | ZUMAPRESS.com ]
Published Aug. 23

To the outsider’s eye, St. Pete Skatepark looks a bit like organized chaos.

Rainbows of residue from the underbellies of board decks streak the rails around the park. Cigarette butts litter the ground in direct defiance of the “park rules” sign at its entrance. Tropicana Field sits prominently in the surrounding cityscape.

Cans of Monster energy drink, Michelob ULTRA and White Claw are strewn around the 28,000 square-foot premises. Stickers from local skate shops — several rendered unrecognizable by merciless Florida storms — are plastered on the sides of ramps.

Blocks of gray and black paint signal graffiti coverups that missed a few spots.

If you look closely, you’ll see blue painters tape sticking out from the speckled gray concrete. It is arranged in arrows, which direct traffic inside the bowls at the park.

Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, peeks through the trees and over a ramp at St. Pete Skatepark.
Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, peeks through the trees and over a ramp at St. Pete Skatepark. [ ARIELLE BADER | Times ]

Order in eclectic disarray. But that dichotomy sums up skateboarding pretty well.

It’s where the anti-establishment go to establish themselves.

A counterculture so powerful it has attracted enough kindred spirits to become a robust culture in its own right. But don’t tell half of the movement that the sport at its center has defected to the mainstream.

What started out some 70 years ago as California surfer bros attaching wheels to wooden planks so they could “surf” the concrete when the waves weren’t gnarly enough has evolved into a worldwide phenomenon. From the West Coast to the East Coast to the rest of the globe.

Coinciding with its international status, the sport made its Olympic debut last month, marking the beginning of a potentially mutually beneficial relationship. The Games could legitimize skateboarding in the eyes of parents all over the world, enabling and inspiring the next generation of skaters. But skateboarding also could teach the Olympics a thing or two about valuing athletes for who they are rather than what they can accomplish at competitions.

No groupthink here

Rob Meronek and Ryan Clements, who now live and work in Tampa, started skating in the 1980s. The same decade Thrasher magazine came onto the scene, and the same decade legendary skater Stacy Peralta first took Tony Hawk — who Meronek and Clements now sit in on the occasional conference call with — under his wing.

Meronek, a military brat growing up, said skateboarding gave him structure. Everywhere he moved, he found a built-in group of friends at the local skate park.

Clements, like many others, was drawn to the sport as a teenaged misfit. He felt he didn’t belong anywhere and couldn’t understand why. But one day in his Plantation neighborhood, a man in a trench coat with band names scribbled all over its khaki exterior rolled by on a pink Powell Peralta board.

“I was like, ‘I want to do that,’” Clements said.

The pair has been involved with the sport for nearly four decades with no signs of slowing down.

“It’s my living, it’s my hobby, it’s my passion,” Clements said. “There’s no separation.”

The two skate rats’ paths crossed at Skatepark of Tampa (SPoT) almost 20 years after they found the sport. In the entrepreneurial spirit of skateboarding, they left in 2013 to create The Boardr, a company based in Tampa that hosts and organizes competition series and manages professional skaters.

Amelia Brodka is well known in skateboarding circles for helping establish an international competition just for women.
Amelia Brodka is well known in skateboarding circles for helping establish an international competition just for women. [ MICKAEL CHAVET | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

A unique attribute of the skating world is that if you don’t like how something is run or wish to do something differently, just go out and do it. Since there’s no league or governing body, there is absolute athlete autonomy.

Want to see more opportunities for women in skateboarding? Amelia Brodka did, so she founded Exposure, an annual event that brings in female skaters from around the world to California.

No one has to, or wants to, do things the same way. And that’s what skating’s all about.

“That’s the kind of personality that skateboarding attracts,” Meronek said. “The person that felt like we did when we were 15, where it’s like, none of these paths I’m getting told you do when you’re an adult fit where I really want to be.”

So you make your own.

Skateboarding is about independence just as much as it’s about the community. You do your thing, and I’ll do mine. We may not agree, but if you’re willing to shed literal blood, sweat and tears for this sport, I’ll still respect you.

This applies to the community’s opinions on the Olympics, too.

More than the win

There seems to be three schools of thought surrounding skateboarding’s place at the Summer Games. One group is all for it and eager to show the allure of their lifestyle. Another is indifferent. The third is vehemently against it, true to the sports’ fringe roots.

Meronek and Clements fall into the first group. If watching Olympians rip in Tokyo inspired someone to join the skateboarding community and get a taste of the invaluable experience they’ve been lucky enough to have, they’ll be ecstatic. They willingly admit, though, that their younger selves would have fallen into the third group, which was exactly how they felt about the X Games in 1995 and ESPN putting competition skating on TV.

“It’s a crazy subculture that has a bunch of subcultures within it,” Meronek said. “You have your opinion, and it’s still one community.”

The first-ever Olympic medalists for park skateboarding: Gold medalist Keegan Palmer of Australia, center, with silver medalist Pedro Barros of Brazil, left, and bronze medalist Cory Juneau of the United States.
The first-ever Olympic medalists for park skateboarding: Gold medalist Keegan Palmer of Australia, center, with silver medalist Pedro Barros of Brazil, left, and bronze medalist Cory Juneau of the United States. [ KYODONEWS | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

The skateboarding community is diverse in ideas and identities.

It’s one of the most accessible sports there is, allowing people of various socioeconomic backgrounds to be involved. All you need is a board and a slab of concrete. It’s also one of the least expensive youth sports, coming in just behind only flag football and track and field in annual total cost, according to a study by the Aspen Institute.

Skating values individuals on all levels, not just what they can do with two 45-second runs and five tricks.

“Other scholars would argue, ‘Oh, it doesn’t matter. It’s all about competition,’” said Neftalie Williams, Ph.D., a skater and skateboarding scholar who studies sports’ effects on global citizenship. “Well, that’s because that’s the only framework you have to know what a person is.”

Skateboarding is media. It’s music. It’s art. It’s fashion. It’s relationships. It’s a lifestyle. It’s “having a damned good time,” as Clements and Meronek said about their goal during the early days of the Tampa Pro and Tampa Am competitions at SPoT.

Inspiring the next generation

Osprey's Jake Ilardi was part of Team USA's street skateboarding team at the recent Olympics in Tokyo.
Osprey's Jake Ilardi was part of Team USA's street skateboarding team at the recent Olympics in Tokyo. [ ENRICO CALDERONI | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

Just a few blocks from St. Pete Skatepark, under the overpasses of Interstate 275, Jay Turner runs Anchor Skate Supply.

Turner started skating in 1985. Now 48, he serves generations of skaters. Parents call, asking if they can sign up their 3-year-olds for lessons (though he tends to not allow children under the age of 5 to partake), and customers buy boards from him at age 60.

He has seen the sport grow from a club of outcasts to more mainstream riders with the X Games and the summer Olympics. This summer’s big event was “good for skateboarding overall,” he says. He wants those against it to remember that skateboarding has been “mainstream” since Tony Hawk’s first video game hit the shelves.

While it’s still too early to tell how skateboarding’s Olympic debut may impact sales, Turner said the lessons his shop hosts were sold out every week this summer. When street and park skating were broadcast on NBC, the children seemed eager to learn and told their instructors they stayed up late to watch guys like Florida natives Jake Ilardi (Osprey) and Zion Wright (Jupiter).

A sport, a summer fling or your essence. Who knew a wooden plank on four wheels could be so remarkably malleable?

Turner sums it up. “Skateboarding is whatever you want it to be.”