The punch to her face hit so hard that she collapsed and lay motionless on the ground. Immediately, mayhem broke out everywhere. Abuse began hurling through the air, followed by bottles and rocks. Fights were breaking out left, right, and center. In the background, the overbearing lights of the traveling carnival shone a faint warm orange across the scene. Amidst the chaos, Tommy ran towards her body. He dropped to his knees and shook her. No response. He shouted for help, but no one could hear him over the chaos. Seconds later, he picked up her lifeless body and flung it over his shoulder before running towards the park’s fence line, about 100 meters away, where his car was parked. A few others followed with panic in their eyes and anxiety in their voices.
And there was me, standing amongst it all, trying to make sense of what I had just witnessed. I could only have been 14 or 15 at the time. I had seen some crazy things happen at our local skatepark before—people bringing weapons, fights, drug abuse—but nothing like a fully grown man hitting a woman half his height and inciting a riot.
I look back on my memories of this concrete jungle — my second home — with mixed emotions. There are days that I hold as some of my happiest, and there are others, like that crazy night, that make me sit in disbelief.
One thing is clear, though: Skateboarding was my first love, and she taught me so much of what I know about life, people, and myself — the good, the bad, and everything in between.
I first picked up a board when I was around 10 years old, and I immediately fell in love with everything about it—the shape of the deck, the coarse feeling of the black grip tape on my fingers, the rainbow color of the plywood layers, the wild and creative designs that adorned the underside, the tiny flashes of color on the cases of the bearings that sat in the wheels, right down to the cold feeling of the metal trucks.
It blew my mind that so many different forms of manufacturing were combining to create something that enabled me to express myself and go where I wanted with complete freedom.
From that moment on, every penny I earned from my morning paper round was spent on skateboards. I’m proud of that resolve to this day; saving all of my $16 a week earnings took considerable dedication. I would visit the local skate shop all the time , even when I had no money , just to stare at the latest collection of decks up on the wall or the newest style of wheels and count the days until I could afford to buy them.
My friends and I began to learn the very basics of skateboarding in our driveways and streets. Every day we would go out, determined to progress even an inch. At night, we would watch various skateboard films and study the intricacies of the techniques on show. As we practiced day after day, we began to get a feel for how to control our movement and develop balance. We began to go down steeper and steeper hills, the breeze rippling through our hair, fighting against the speed wobbles as our momentum gained and gained. This practice wasn’t without its dangers — if you hit a stone at that speed, as we all did many times , it was lights out and a long walk home crying to mom.
Eventually, we felt brave enough to venture to the local skatepark. It sat about 15 minutes away from our neighbors. For an 11-year-old, the park itself was a terrifying prospect. As we approached its boundaries, it was immediately apparent that the ramps (or transitions, as I soon learned) went as high as 12 feet. The entire park was concrete, full of rough edges and cracks, and entirely unforgiving.
The first few visits were spent learning to navigate the high-speed traffic and complex social order of BMX bikes, rollerblades (they were cool then), other skateboarders, and children whose parents must have had a death wish for them. Trust me, watching a BMX plow through a child is something that sticks with you forever.
Despite the challenges, it was exciting. The atmosphere immediately induced adrenaline. Everywhere you looked, people were cheering each other on, banging their skateboards on the ground in applause. There was hip hop blaring out of boomboxes. People were flying past you at every turn. It was beyond exciting. I was in awe of everything. I wanted to be like these people. I wanted to be part of this so badly. And over the years, I did just that.
This place was a community, and day by day, my friends and I were slowly welcomed into it. The entire time I spent there, close to 8 years, I can’t remember anyone not being accepted. Who the person was didn’t matter. When you stepped foot onto the concrete with a board or bike in hand, you were part of the family. One of my closest friendships to this day was born through the bond of skateboarding. People came and went, but it was always the same. Everyone looked out for each other. Everyone had a voice. Everyone had the encouragement and support to practice their craft.
They are principles I hold to this day.
Even through the difficult times — and there were many — we always had each other’s backs. When the local carnival show turned up once a year, the mash-up of cultures that it brought with it always ended in carnage at the skatepark. If you’ve ever wondered what it looks like when goths, skateboarders, and ‘neds’ meet at a skatepark in the dark, fuelled by underage drinking, it resembles something like the opening scenes of the Football Factory. Sometimes people got seriously hurt. (For those of you wondering, the girl mentioned earlier recovered after a night in hospital.)
We never shied away, though. We looked after this place like a second home. We would be the ones there first thing in the morning with a brush sweeping away the broken glass bottles from the night before or filling dangerous cracks in the concrete. We cherished this place, and we didn’t let anyone disrespect it.
Whether it was learning to give it back when the joke fell on me, sticking up for myself in fights, or defending our territory, my skatepark years taught me a lot about standing up for myself and looking out for others, especially those more vulnerable.
When it came to the art of skateboarding, I put endless dedication into it. I flunked school to get more hours in (you can tell I had my priorities in check). Every single weekend and school holiday was spent the same way — at the skatepark. Most days started with a goal, usually dreamt up the night before. “By the end of today, I will have landed this trick.” I would spend hours pushing up to the same obstacle, trying the same maneuver over and over again.
Each time, the numbing pain in my joints got stronger, the cuts got deeper, and my t-shirt got dirtier. But the vocal support around you always pushed you to give it one more go. You realized that you weren’t just pulling this trick off for your sense of achievement — it was for everyone. It was for your friends, who kept picking you up or running after your board. It was for the ones around you shouting encouragement. We all started together, and we all progressed together. Many of us had met as kids and developed into young adults. We had experienced the highs and lows of teenage life together. Every win was a win for everyone and a sign that the hard work and perseverance were paying off.
Skateboarding taught me what it means to commit to something. When you push towards an obstacle and have to fight off every instinct in your body telling you to jump off. When you stand atop a 12-foot transition, one foot on the board, one on the top of the ramp, battling your mind, trying to convince yourself to put that other foot on and drop into it. When you stand at the top of a set of stairs, assessing how fast you’ll have to push and how likely you might be to die at the bottom.
It taught me how to pick myself back up, no matter how sore or how down or how angry I am. It taught me to go again and again and again because there is nothing better than the feeling of accomplishment.
A few years after I left my hometown for University, the skatepark underwent a rebuild. As the diggers and wrecking balls tore down the original, it took with it years of memories and battle scars. The nostalgic feeling I used to get when I revisited it in its final years isn’t there anymore. But it can never take away what I gained from my youth spent skateboarding.
I still occasionally pull out my old board and walk the same walk I took all those years ago to the park, stepping onto its concrete playground, adrenaline building. Though it hurts a lot more to fall at 28, there is still no better feeling than the sense of the freedom that something so simple as a bit of wood on four wheels can give you.