By Christine Yu
From its epicenter in Southern California to the streets of New York City and San Francisco to skateparks in Brazil and Sweden, the renegade culture and creative spirit of skateboarding reign supreme. For many, it’s a way of life.
“I like the ability to express myself in a different way, so that I can have my own style on and off my board,” says SoCal’s Brighton Zeuner, 15, who became the youngest champion in X Games history at the age of 13.
While riders are often seen as rebels, the sport is more than just scooting around on a deck attached to four wheels. It’s full of acrobatic tricks that require unparalleled athleticism. Soon, top riders will compete on the biggest stage when skateboarding makes its debut at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Riders in the Gym
Unlike in other sports, skateboarders have typically not worked with coaches or spent hours doing drills, according to Kevin Banahan, founder of SKATEYOGI in Brooklyn.
He says that in terms of developing a solid push and good balance, “there still is no substitute for spending hours on the board.” After learning to turn, stop and perform basic moves like kick turns, shove-its, ollies, frontside 180s, backside 180s and kickflips, riders build up to more complicated tricks.
However, with a bigger spotlight on the sport thanks to recognized (and televised) competitions, more pros are now working with trainers and coaches on and off their boards, according to Lincoln Ueda, former pro skateboarder and current coach at CA Training Facility, a high-performance training center in Vista, California.
While there’s no substitute for board time, hitting the gym can help skateboarders improve their explosiveness, stamina and balance.
For example, Zeuner regularly works with a trainer on functional fitness and higher-intensity aerobic training to build stamina for the short but intense competition runs. Pro skateboarder Jordyn Barratt, 20, focuses on injury prevention moves with her trainer like resistance band, balance and dynamic jumping exercises to strengthen her ankles, knees and hips.
Skateboarding demands balance, agility and coordination as well as power, strength and endurance to perform high-flying and technical moves with precision.
Skateboarders need to build leg strength to jump and absorb the impact of landing as well as explosive hip extension for a powerful push, says Cameron Yuen, PT, DPT, CSCS, a senior physical therapist at Bespoke Treatments, which athletes can develop with exercises like heavy-weight, low-rep goblet squats and high-effort, low-rep box jumps.
Elevated split squats with lower weight and higher repetitions “will improve your stance-leg balance and endurance while kicking with your push leg,” says Yuen. Ueda says many athletes also work on a trampoline to prime their legs and develop body awareness for the mid-air twists and turns. And Banahan adds that yoga complements skateboarding by building flexibility and balance.
For many skateboarders, the ankles and hips can be weak spots.
To shore up these areas, Yuen suggests exercises like standing barefoot on one leg with your eyes closed to develop foot and ankle proprioception, or awareness of where your body is in space. Resistance band moves like ankle eversions—turning your foot outwards with a band looped around the outer edge of your foot—and lateral walks—moving sideways to one side and then the other with a mini band around your legs—can build strength in these joints.
Ankles and hips can be weak spots for boarders; that makes balance work, such as standing on one leg with eyes closed, crucial.
While skateboarding is physically demanding, it also requires mental strength. “Even with all the preparation, when they call your name and you have 40 seconds to show your skills, you’ll have butterflies,” says Ueda. “You need to be able to relax and skate.”
Athletes have begun to add more mental skills to their toolboxes. For example, Zeuner has begun experimenting with meditation, visualization and breathwork to help her stay calm before competition and recover from the stress afterwards.
Hitting the Streets on a Onewheel
A cross between a skateboard and a hoverboard, Onewheel is the latest in powered rideable gadgets that mimics the feeling of riding a snowboard on any terrain.
While it looks like it takes crazy balancing skills to stay upright, the board is self-balancing. Once you have your feet on either side of the go-kart wheel, Onewheel senses your body position. Then, look in the direction you want to go, lean forward, and you’re off. Apply slight pressure on your toe-side or heel-side to turn, and lean back to slow down.
The Onewheel XR (starting from $1,799) can reach speeds up to 19 mph and take you between 12 to 18 miles. With a sturdy base and wheel, you can take the XR off-road, too. The Pint (starting from $950), which was introduced this past summer, is a lighter and more nimble ride. It will go between six and eight miles and tops out at 16 mph—perfect for coffee shop runs or quick errands.
Of course, athletes are racing Onewheels. During Race for the Rails in August, approximately 100 riders rode the boards down the mountain bike trails at Northstar California Resort.
The attention drawn by skateboarding’s entry into the Olympics has propelled the sport to the next level.
“It’s drastically changing the way people have looked at skateboarding all these years,” says Arizona pro boarder Jagger Eaton, 18. “Athletes who want to compete for a living now have a chance to compete on a world stage.”
Olympic acceptance has increased the visibility of female athletes, too. “Skateboarding is a male-dominated sport. To have a platform like the Olympics has helped make the sport more equal,” says Barratt.
The 2020 Olympics will feature two skateboarding disciplines: park and street.
The park competition takes place in what looks like an empty swimming pool. Athletes drop into the bowl and launch themselves into high-flying maneuvers off ramps and other obstacles, gracefully stringing together one trick into the next.
In the street competition, riders perform technical tricks off rails, ramps, stairs and benches along the course, like they would on a real street. Athletes are judged based on the difficulty, originality, speed and flow of their performance.
Summer 2020 is the first time skateboarding will appear as an Olympic sport; there will be two specialties—park and street.
In March 2019, USA Skateboarding announced 16 members to the first-ever national skateboarding team—including Barratt, Eaton and Zeuner.
But that doesn’t discount non-team members from vying for an Olympic spot. There are a total of 80 skateboarding slots available at the Summer Games: 20 for men and 20 for women in each of the two disciplines. Countries can send a max of three men and three women for each.
Here’s how the 20 slots break down: The top three finishers at the 2020 World Skateboarding Championships automatically qualify. An additional 16 athletes can qualify based on points earned for their seven best results in World Skate-sanctioned events through May 31, 2020. Finally, the host nation is allocated one slot.
Most importantly, the Olympics will introduce skateboarding to more people.
“In the majority of countries globally, where sport is funded by government, there’s now a concrete reason to support the development of skateboarding. Kids everywhere, who might not have ever had the opportunity to experience the fun and freedom of skateboarding, will now get a chance to feel the joy it can bring, and that makes the world a better place,” says Josh Friedberg, CEO of USA Skateboarding.