My New Role Models' Combined Age Is 42
Turning my TV off after watching the final of the Women’s Skateboarding event in Tokyo I realized I hadn’t felt that kind of joy for a long time. I’ve felt joy obviously, but fleetingly. A great conversation or a beautiful evening sky. The conversations eventually end, the sun always sets, and I am left to be enveloped by the thick haze of disorientation and dread that has increasingly become my baseline over the past two years.
The last thing I thought that would possibly dissipate the fog was a group of teenagers riding skateboards. But it’s always the last thing you’d expect, isn’t it? That’s just how life works.
My fascination with the proceedings grew more complex the more I allowed myself to get sucked into the moment. At first, I just thought it was cool. I can count the number of times I’ve been on a skateboard on two hands. Most of those times ended with me suddenly off the board in short order. I wasn’t coming into the competition blind exactly, (I did play my fair share of Tony Hawk as a kid, thank you very much) but the extent of my know-how was that skateboarders did flippy thingies and grindy thingies and that they were somehow different. Chiefly, skateboarders served as entertainment when old people called the cops on them for practicing at the local library.
Then thirteen-year-old Rayssa Leal blew my mind apart like her board was a twelve gauge.
There was of course the initial excitement at her ability. Wow, she’s really good, I thought. That’s always an idiotic thing to think when watching the Olympics. My admiration for the talent on display grew with every competitor I watched. Then the second wave came when I started to notice how much fun she seemed to be having. That’s usually not a thought I have when watching professional athletes. There was focus and determination, yes, but mostly fun. Finally the third wave. This wave rolled over me as I finally read her infographic on the screen.
Wait, she’s how old? Thirteen?
Wait, there are two thirteen-year-olds?
Wait, they both just pulled off the trick the thirty-year-old busted her ass trying?
It is at this point I feel the need to give a shout out to the structure of the Skateboarding Street Event, because its role in my enjoyment (and seemingly everyone else on Earth’s enjoyment) is not insignificant.
In the event, skaters (boarders?) take two forty-five-second runs through a course that looks like every business park in America, pulling tricks on the hills, rails, and stairs of the course. Judges give both of these runs a score based on the skills pulled off and the business of the competitors. Then each boarder (skater?) gets five attempts to do a single trick. The trick can be anything they can think of, and it can change from attempt to attempt. The thing is, you only have five of these attempts. If you crash, you get big fat zeros. After these seven total runs are completed, the top four judges' scores are added together and that’s the final score of the round.
As a viewer, I spent the first 45 minutes or so watching the skateboarders in their natural habitat, meandering around a concrete jungle in their free skate runs. I started to learn how each person ticked during these runs. How they squinted when coming up with a trick on the fly, how they grinned after a crash, how they danced to the tunes in their head as they set up an approach. I found myself empathizing with people less than half my age, watching them do amazing things that were completely alien to my experiences. Simply put, thanks to the format of the event, in 45 minutes these competitors were humanized, their personalities highlighted by their talents.
Calling them competitors seems like a mistake, by the way. These were peers, each one rooting for the others to pull off something amazing. Congratulating each other after successes, comforting each other after failures. The comradery was particularly striking in the final five runs. On every attempt, everything slows down. Skaters line up just to the side of the course to watch, calling out encouragement. The skater about to go is lined up above the course alone with their thoughts. They each took a moment, then depending on the athlete, they gritted their teeth or nodded their head, or smiled at their feet before pushing off for their run.
More than half of the time on these final five runs they would wipe out. Their peers would clap and call out to them as they limped back to their boards which had skittered off across the park. We’ve all seen that same hobble from our friends or from kids after taking a tumble they didn’t regret. Sometimes though, the board would stay firmly underfoot and the place would go nuts. I was going nuts, making sounds usually reserved for questionable plays my favorite teams tend to make. To paraphrase Ted Lasso, my sounds were the same but were now different. It wasn’t fear, it was elation. I found myself rooting for every single woman in the final. Some more than others.
Among those getting extra squeals of delight was the before-mentioned Rayssa Leal from Brazil, a twig of a girl who has more confidence in herself than I’ve ever had in my life. I took delight in watching Margielyn Didal of the Philippines, who secured her spot in the final on the last run of her heat and immediately gave her coach shit for his prideful tears. There was also Momiji Nishiya of Japan, another thirteen-year-old magician who managed to fall on the same elbow, again and again, only to get up beaming, jogging back to the sideline to watch the next run. At one point the camera panned to her as a medic wiped the blood away from her elbow, Nishiya’s smile firmly affixed to her face, eyes lighting up as Didal came over for a fistbump in solidarity.
We often talk about an athlete’s passion as a drive or intensity that elevates them to greatness. With these skateboarders though, their passion seemed to go beyond the event. Skateboarding brought out a passion for life in them. An energy that we all have at their age, but for a lot of us, disappears with time. That unique energy that manifests when everything you dream about not only seems possible but probable. That energy was flooding into living rooms across the globe as these girls chased their dreams.
Momiji Nishiya ended up winning the first women’s skateboarding medal in Olympic history on home soil. As her victory became certain, her smile was exactly as it was when Nishiya was getting patched up, content to have tried her best.
I couldn’t fall asleep after that final. Not because I dreaded a return to the foggy darkness that had enveloped me earlier, but because the light driving that fog away was too bright to sleep in.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one.