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Skateboarding — a Pretty Good Sport in Social Distancing Times - Jumps Back Into the Mainstream

Elite skater Jordan Santana at Southside Skatepark.
Elite skater Jordan Santana at Southside Skatepark.
Photo by Jennifer Lake

Skateboarding will make its debut in the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and Houstonian Jordan Santana, 16, is a qualifier to the USA team. It took just seven decades and previous confinement to designated competitions like the X-Games, before skateboarding got the nod.

The addition to the Olympics signifies an acknowledgement that has been deserved for some time. “It had always been my goal to make it the X-Games before the announcement of the Olympics” says Santana.” “It was just that type of event, that if you could make it there it was like the ultimate contest.”

Now that ultimate has just been one-upped.

Experiencing a sudden revival in popularity, skateboarding is back in the mainstream. In addition to the Olympics acceptance, there is the current media takeover of icon Tony Hawk, including remasters of his best-selling 1990s video games, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater and the coinciding documentary.

All this coinciding with an activity that a person can do while remaining socially distant during a pandemic, has meant skateboards are flying off the store shelves.

"We've seen a pretty dramatic increase in business," says Eric Visentin, owner of Southside Skatepark. "It just happens to be this perfect activity that stays within these parameters of what you can do."

Skateboarding has had its ups and downs in popularity over its history — from a fad-boom in the '70s, to its ties with the punk scene in the '80s, its connection with pop culture in the '90s and its fusion with music and fashion in the new millennium.

And Houston has an even longer history with skateboarding culture, one that predates the '70s frenzy. Before the modernization of the board, skating was more comparable to “street surfing.” Instead of skateparks, riders would use concrete reservoirs and ditches such as the legendary, EZ-7 ditch. Located just northwest of the 610 loop, the site has been a monumental figure for the scene; legends, pros, local contests, magazine contests, all have graced the grounds.

“It’s the oldest and most legendary spot in the city,” says Michael Cotaya, filmmaker of the upcoming EZ-7 documentary Respect The Ditch. “City challenges, contests, the King Of The Road series, Tony Hawk & Mike V. [Vallely] It’s the spot. If you’re going to Houston, you’re going to the ditch.” 

Covered in graffiti, the steep concrete reservoir isn’t for the beginner rider. One wrong move will have a novice slung across the unforgiving broken cement.

“You don’t get bothered by anyone, it’s an unspoken understanding that people skate there, it’s just that perfect destination and it's stood the test of time.”

Director Michael Cotaya of the Respect The Ditch Documentary.
Director Michael Cotaya of the Respect The Ditch Documentary.
Photo by Jennifer Lake

While it may seem simple enough to let someone “play in a ditch,” skate spots in the city are an ever-changing organism. A newly found ledge or gap can have limited use time before the landscape changes or the area is mounted with anti-skateboarding brackets known as "skatestoppers."

Though the ample Jamail Skatepark resides in the heart of the city, the nature of skaters is to be innovative. Through resourcefulness and drive, a makeshift park has erected on the borders of the Second Ward. A crew of skaters, self-taught in the ways of designing, pouring concrete, and maintaining upkeep, have spent countless hours crafting the evolving skatepark from scratch.

Joshua Yelley, owner of Beantooth Skateshop, partially helps with the funding of some of the essentials through sales from the shop. He recently donated the profits from the sale of a special T-shirt design to go toward DIY projects.

Beantooth owner Joshua Yelly at the front desk.
Beantooth owner Joshua Yelly at the front desk.
Photo by Jennifer Lake

“Sometimes this is all they’ve got,” says Yelley. “The proceeds go towards concrete, tool rentals, water, food, whatever's needed. We make the older guys wait to take the younger ones so they can learn to make their own [ramps], it’s hard to get into those builds but some kids will never have that experience. There’s a huge underground community that wants to be involved and get things done and I’ll do anything I can to help these guys.”

While skateboarding thrives on its underground community and the “street” skating aspect of the sport, it is also nourished through the growth of its parks and teams. Moving up the ranks from street skater to amateur rider will likely land you on a sponsor team, allowing you to compete in more events and the opportunity to film parts for videos. Skate videos are a great way to get a lesser known rider’s name out for exposure and often will kickstart their following. Local skatepark Southside Skatepark, held a release event for the premiere of their video on June 13.

“Still Holdin’, we felt like it was an appropriate title given the way things are right now,” details Visentin. “And it has some of the best street skating in the city of Houston. The premiere turnout was great, we did a photo show of some of the stills and even had a booth out here registering people to vote.”

Home to a number of skateparks, Houston is limited to ramps for riders past a certain skill level. Graduating from street courses consisting of staircases to jump and rails to grind, one moves to concave “bowl” skating, and vertically inclined “vert” ramps. Most parks, including Southside, Jamill and the North Houston Skatepark, all feature a combination of street and bowl courses, however they lack a properly sized vert or “halfpipe” ramp for those in a more advanced league.

To combat this, Houstonian Scott Arnebold has constructed a state-of-the-art halfpipe ramp in the back of his property. This 13-foot-tall ramp is exactly what the pros are looking for to be able to perform some of the most difficult tricks in the sport. The likes of legends such as Tony Hawk, Bob Burnquist, and Danny Way are only able to perform their signature moves such as The 900 on vert ramps such as the Houston Vert Ramp.

The Houston Vert Ramp.
The Houston Vert Ramp.
Photo from Houston Vert Ramp Instagram

Closed to private sessions only, the monstrous ramp is for the top tier of skater, and that includes Jordan Santana.

Santana uses the size of the vert ramp to perform advanced moves like The 540, a trick that only six other female riders have been able to land. While the ramp gives Santana a chance to practice certain tricks, her preferred style is bowl skating, which The Olympics have dubbed “Park.” (The other being the “Street” competition.)

To much controversy, no vert competition will be held at the Olympics. Although there hasn't been an official announcement as to why, the most likely reason seems to be the competition's lack in popularity and ease of accessibility. While Houston now has an adequate construct, most cities aren't so lucky. Only a few skateparks across the nation have professional grade vert ramps, and the average skater doesn't have the means to travel, practice, and learn the demanding commitment it takes to plunge down a ramp of upward of 18 feet.

Still Houston's skateboard community will be more than ready for the Olympics to expand to vert ramp competition in the future and any other developments in the sport.

"A big wave has been coming," said Visentin. "If they [the Olympics] are creating more of an upwave, it's just helped us even more, because now once again, were anticipating it and it's taking over."

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