How Learning to Skateboard Transformed My Life at 35

Macoia Richmond

Most of my friends and family thought I was “off the wall,” but on my 35th birthday, I gifted myself my first skateboard. I’ve wanted to learn to skate since I was a kid, but most of my time and energy throughout my youth and early adulthood was dominated by pursuing a future in dance. I always held a quiet regard for skaters. They made everything look effortless, much like a technically trained dancer. Skating seemed akin to a dance, where the board isn’t an instrument but a counterpart, forming a harmonious flow. I admired how skaters would immediately pick themselves up when they took a fall, again, and again, and again. Their seemingly endless well of ambition inspired me.

Initially, I intended to use skating as an unorthodox, fun form of physical therapy. I broke my hip, femur, and tailbone two years prior, falling down a waterfall in the Angeles Forest outside of LA. I went from using a wheelchair to hobbling on crutches to attempting to walk a block, and finally walking miles. Physical activity became all the more paramount in my life. A physical therapist once told me, “If you don’t use it, you lose it,” and for me, it’s especially true. To stay capable of doing the basics, I have to keep active. So why not make it enjoyable? I couldn’t afford a car, so it also seemed like an added perk to zip around town on a board. When I hit “order” on my first skateboard, I had no idea what an immense influence this little wooden panel with four wheels would soon have on my life.

Although I started skating for therapy, I never anticipated how much it would influence my life.

My friend and former coworker Macoia bought her first board around the same time. Learning together not only deepened our friendship but also helped us develop an extraordinary bond. We started documenting our “sk8 d8s” with a TikTok account, messing around and doing viral TikTok dances with our boards. The only goal was to explore and have fun.

One morning at Venice skatepark, Macoia and I bumped into some of the founders of GRLSWIRL, an international, women-founded skate collective. They were friendly and down-to-earth, and we immediately knew that we wanted to be part of it. Since then, we’ve attended GRLSWIRL swap meets and group skates, and we hope to one day join in on their surf-skate retreats. What was just a chance meeting led me to the community I’ve been missing my whole adult life.

Here’s the thing: attending group skate sessions can be really intimidating for beginners who aren’t confident in their board skills. It can be overwhelming to walk into a crowd of people who seem to already know what they are doing. But teaching yourself to skate not only means you’re missing out on community – which is a hugely rewarding part of the sport – but you’re also more likely to plateau in the beginning, and maybe even quit completely. When you have someone there who can correct you and give you tips, you end up with heaps more confidence. Yaya Ogun, actor, traveler, and Team Rider for GRLSWIRL, admitted to feeling the same way before her first group skate session. “I taught myself because I don’t like learning things in front of people. But if I had the community I have now, I wouldn’t have felt like I had to teach myself before I stepped foot in the park,” she says.

For a long time, I tried to learn skating on my own, too. I had zero idea what I was doing, and I always felt a little embarrassed when strangers saw me fumbling with my board or simply trying to maintain my balance. That fear of being judged has often deterred me from just getting out there for practice or when the mood struck. People who don’t skate might see someone with a board and start requesting tricks, and a part of me always felt a need to satisfy that. If you can’t “do a kickflip!” you’re a poser. I still struggle with it, but in those moments, I try to remind myself that you can’t let other people stop you from being better or doing the things you love. I’m out there to improve in something that I genuinely enjoy. My skill level doesn’t need to meet some stranger’s standards. Sometimes I’ll say, “I’ll show you my kickflip if you show me yours!” Most of the time, people laugh, and we go about our day. The reality is that we’re our own worst critics. Most people aren’t judging; we’re just being self-conscious.

Only recently did Macoia and I get the chance to take classes with Briana King, a pro skater and skate-competition judge at GRLSWIRL’s SurfSkate Fest – which marked my first official skate class. While everyone has their own learning style, classes have been a game changer for me in gaining perspective and confidence in skating. Before that, I watched YouTube videos and tutorials, but nothing can replace good, old-fashioned in-person direction. That’s part of what makes joining a group like GRLSWIRL such a great experience. Even if everyone there is better than you, they’ve all been in your shoes. It’s a supportive environment where people are eager to help and excited to see you overcome obstacles. You feel innately safe and understood.

Still, for me, there’s this nagging sense of imposter syndrome as a novice skater – and I’m far from alone in that experience. It’s why one of the central themes of GRLSWIRL is “it’s OK to be OK” and why, when you look at GRLSWIRL merch, you’ll see the slogan “World’s Okayest Skater” strewn across their T-shirts. It reminds me that it doesn’t matter my level or how long learning takes me; I’m just supposed to be enjoying myself. “It’s easy to think, I’m not able to do a kickflip or a 50-50 stall – I’m not a good skater,” Ogun explains. “And one of the really important parts of GRLSWIRL is that’s not what it takes to be a skater. We’re not all Tony Hawk. If you’re skating, you’re a skater.”

Although I started skating for therapy, I never anticipated how much it would influence my life. It opened up a new world of community, excitement, and possibilities. It gave me an outlet to overcome my mental and physical limitations while satisfying the need for freedom and creativity. I figured it would be fun to skate. I never considered bringing my board everywhere I went. I had no idea how much it would enhance my travels and introduce me to new people and experiences. I never expected to grow to appreciate board art and want to begin collecting it or feel such pride in identifying as a skater – or be encouraged to do so by so many people.

“We’re not all Tony Hawk. If you’re skating, you’re a skater.”

A big part of skating for me was overcoming my PTSD. Falling is a huge part of skating, and because my accident (a roughly 40-foot fall) was so traumatic, it was a tough pill to swallow. But the more I learn from every little fall – allowing my body to know that it’s OK, I can drop and get up again – the less my PTSD takes over. My first time at the skate park, I had an anxiety attack and had to sit out. But if I had thrown my hands up in the air and let that notion of fear keep me from trying again, I would probably be living the rest of my life in that same tortured state. The more I skate, the more unrestrained and healthier I feel: mind, body, and soul.

“Every skater has that moment where they [realize] no one cares how good or bad you are at skating because everyone only cares about themselves,” Ogun says. “You’re the main character in your life, which is how it should be. There’s no point comparing yourself to anyone else when you’re skating. That’s part of the beauty of this community. . . . The only competition is with yourself. And that’s so freeing.”

When Macoia and I got the opportunity to go together to SurfSkate Fest – GRLSWIRL’s biggest event, which included a morning group surf, skate competitions for all levels, vendors, viewing of GRLSWIRLxCarver’s new documentary, “The Swirl Effect,” and a closing dance party – it felt like our friendship had come full circle, as had my skating journey. What started as a fun event, turned into an initiation. Being surrounded by members of GRLSWIRL, renowned skate companies like Carver, and the skate community as a whole made me feel like I was finally “officially” a skater.

Just like it did for me and Ogun, skating has the potential to change so many lives. “Everyone can have the same life-changing experience if they get into some activity that’s more than just a hobby; something that’s a lifestyle, whether surfing, crocheting, or pickleball,” she says. “Shift your life and shake things up. Meet new people.”

I believe that restless longing for transformation and experience is what ties us together. It’s part of what makes us all skaters. I have many diverse friends and friend groups, but I never felt like I belonged to one. As time went on, the skate community became my North Star. It’s my Third Place. Skating guided me to close friendships, new goals, and even to the neighborhood I live in today.

When chatting with Ogun, I asked her to describe skating in just a few words. She chose ‘freedom,’ ‘chaos,’ ‘joy,’ and ‘accomplishment’ – “Oh, and ‘hard,'” she adds. For me, skating is a constant source of inspiration, aspiration, determination, and – more than anything – acceptance. It is a seed of endless hidden treasures from self-development, community, and joyful movement, to a more grounded lifestyle. It is a sense of freedom and adventure, paired with tremendous gratitude for the ground under your feet, the wind in your hair, and the feeling of being captivated by the world around you.

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