He calls out: “O.K., Noah, do it. Really grab it!”
A handful of pre-teen-aged boys on boards rush by in slim black jeans, strands of hair flying out from under their stickered helmets.
“Some of these kids get good fast,” explains Lee, 21. Like many, Sammy refers to the sport (some say art) of skateboarding as ‘skating.’ “It’s so rad, looking at these kids. It reminds me how I felt about skating when I was first starting out. “
An eleven-year-old glides along a rail at the street course, landing on the ground with a thump. Sammy Lee smiles like a Cheshire cat. “That noise–the ping of the truck (axel) sliding on the rail. I could go to sleep with that sound.” A young skater nods in agreement.
“Skating basically saved my life,” says Lee whose mother died when he was twelve; his father passed on three years later. “Skateboarding kept me out of trouble. Any kid has the potential for trouble. But if you give ’em enough outlets, they’ll go home tired at night.
Sammy turns back to the course and calls out: “Kyle, as soon as you feel yourself pop off to the top, lean forward. “
If you don’t know much about the fastest growing sport in the nation, you couldn’t find a better place to see it in action than the Encinitas YMCA. The facility has reached near iconic status in the skate world, where Tony Hawk and Shaun White are claimed as homeboys. It’s a hidden gem, tucked away in a corner of the Y’s massive sports complex, close to Interstate Highway 5 and downtown Encinitas, CA.
“There’s so much young talent here,” says Mike McGill, one of the most innovative skaters of the 1980s and a driving force behind in establishing the park in 1989. McGill continues to be one of its most enthusiastic supporters. “These kids really inspire me,” he says. “They’ve got a lot of enthusiasm and creativity.
Shawn White and lots of other top pros train at the Skatepark. It has a street course, two world-class cement pools (bowls) and a vert ramp that was used at the 2003 X Games and designed by Tony Hawk. Parents can’t seem to say enough good things about the Skatepark’s exceptional facilities and staff of skaters who monitor sessions, oversee the after-school program and teach classes to kids as young as age three. Beginners learn how to step on a board, balance, and push themselves up a ramp. The Skatepark is run by co-directors Heather Randant and Mike Wilson.
“It’s hard for the little kids at the city parks; they can get pushed around,” says Jeff Timpson, a father who helped build the ramps. Jeff’s 12-year-old son, Zane, was recently featured on a show for Fuel-TV. “The Y’s young adult staff has taught so many kids how to skate. They pump ’em up and give ’em confidence. ”
Jeff recalls a time he saw a young kid skate the cement bowl for the first time, a scary moment for anyone:
“Mike Wilson was standing at the bottom, inside the bowl, holding his index finger up towards the kid and said: ‘All you have to do is track my finger,’” explained Jeff. “ The kid did what he was told and was off. It’s wonderful to see the kids conquer their fears and challenge themselves. That’s an exhilarating feeling that will stick with them all their lives.” The Y’s rules are strictly enforced. Everyone must wear helmets and youngsters under-18 have to hear elbow and knee pads. There’s also no swearing, bullying, smoking or drinking. Still, the Ecke YMCA Skatepark maintains enough of an edge to appeal to kids.
“This place is unique,” says Mike McGill who continues to skate there regularly. “There’s no other park around where parents can have confidence and kids can have fun.”
“There’s a saying,” says Y staffer Sammy Lee: “’ A little nonsense is cherished by the wisest of men.’ Adults sometimes forget what it’s like to have a good time.”
Long-time skaters say some of the brightest, most creative people they know grew up skateboarding. Many liken the ramps and bowls to a canvas. There’s a lot of freedom, style and imagination at work.
Skate pro Andy MacDonald agrees. “Skating is about self-expression; it’s about being creative. I grew up playing team sports, but skating
is different,” says Macdonald. “Once you learn the basics of skateboarding, there’s no right or wrong way. It’s all trial and error. You learn at your own pace.”
Articulate but unassuming, Macdonald won the World Cup Skateboard series eight years in a row. He has competed in every X Games since it started and landed more medals than any other pro skater.
“You won’t find a lot of rivalry and competition at this park. It’s like a family or a club,” said Macdonald, who started skating at the Ecke YMCA in 1992.
McDonald is amazed by how fast today’s young skaters learn new tricks and make innovative changes to old ones. “I didn’t start until I was 12. But the age keeps going down. Kids are starting at six or seven–or younger. They skate like they’re made of rubber.”
Television and skateboarding video games get some of the credit for helping kids execute tricks that took the previous generation of skaters years to invent and perfect. They say the visuals give young people something for their minds to chew on.
“The kids will see a skate video that a dude worked on for over a year to get right,” explains Sammy Lee. “He’ll be doin’ gnarly things, going really fast. Kids will watch the video and study it. The ones who feel ready to take it on will say: ‘O.K., let’s go out and try it.’ “
Twelve-year-old Sammy Schoonderwoerd is one those kids. An Ecke Y regular, Sammy recently mastered the McTwist, a 540 degree backside aerial turn, well-known to insiders, that was invented a quarter of a century ago by Mike McGill.
“At first I was just messing around–it’s a really hard trick,” confides Sammy. “Then I got serious. One day, I landed it but slid. A few days later, I landed it after about ten times. After that, you pretty much have it. My record is three times in one day.”
Sammy may be one of only five or six kids his age who can do the McTwist. It doesn’t hurt that he shares the vert ramp with the guy who invented the trick. Skate videos also help. “I can slow down a video and zoom in on a certain position, maybe see where they’ve got their shoulder when they go into a turn,” explains Sammy.
“It took me six years six years to do the McTwist,” says Andy Macdonald. “It took Sammy three weeks. I can remember so clearly the satisfaction I felt the day I got it down. Here at the park, I get to know the kids and see them progress as they take their tricks to the next level. That inspires me.”
The inspiration works both ways. “Skating alongside so many pros, seeing them try the same trick over and over again…an environment like this creates a lot of passion among young kids. It motivates them and gives them a sense of determination.” says Sammy’s dad, Rick Schoonderwoerd, who helped build some of the Skatepark’s ramps with Jeff Tinsdale and others. “Some days there’s so much talent at the park that I feel I should pay to watch.”
Parents say the pros that skate at the Y are genuinely nice people, many of them fathers themselves, who are generous with advice and support. They search for an equivalent. The Lakers shooting hoops at a neighborhood court? Tiger Woods practicing alongside amateurs?
The experience can be invaluable. “One time I saw a kid go off the vert ramp– it was his first time,” says Zane’s dad, Jeff Tinsdale. “He ‘squashed the bug,’ which means he fell pretty hard. The kid sat on the bench and sniffled, trying hard not to cry. Andy McDonald went over and brought him his board. Andy said: ‘Hey, I’m proud of you, that took a lot of courage,'” Tinsdale recounted. “Can you imagine what it meant to that kid for one of his idols to say that to him?”
Kieran Anderson, 12, knows what that feeling is like. He credits pros at the Skatepark for teaching him almost everything he knows. He learned the Miller Flip from watching Chris Miller at the park. Pro Josh Nelson gave him tips on doing hand plants.
Josh Nelson, a Skatepark regular, skates feverishly up, down and around one of the Y’s cement pools, grinding the edge with a ferocious
sound. When asked what he is looking for in up-and-coming talent he replies: “I like a flowing style, a sense of fearlessness, a kid who’ll ride the whole bowl with a sense of power.”
Nelson grew up in Northern San Diego County. “It’s the birthplace of skate parks. The first cement pool in the world was built here. A lot of those early pools disappeared for insurance reasons. Now they’re coming back. I grew up skating with Tony Hawk. We all thought we’d be done early. But I’m nearly 39, and I’m still skating. Now these guys are fathers; they are coming back to skating, and they’re bringing their kids with them.”
Josh Nelson looks down into the bottom of the cement bowl and smiles at a handful of excited six and seven year olds, like beetles skittering on a hot sidewalk.
“The sport promotes a healthy alternative lifestyle. It’s becoming more acceptable. In our day and age, dreaming is so lost. Around here, there area lot of happy people because they are living their dream…Skating has never let me down.”