Two decades after Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, I finally got on a skateboard

Image: Vicarious Visions/Activision

The first day I wore my oversized Volcom hoodie to school, a floppy-haired boy with torn-up shoes told me I couldn’t wear it. He asked me, Do you even skate?

No, I didn’t skate. When I got home, I put the hoodie in my closet next to a pair of bright white DC-brand skate shoes and left it there. If this sounds like a meme, that’s because it is. Do you even skate? was the rallying cry of “real” skateboarders in the ’90s and early 2000s, a way to weed out the posers. The people, like me, who approached skateboarding now because it was suddenly mainstream and cool — thanks, in part, to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, which was released in 1999. The game, along with the X-Games airing on ESPN, brought the sport to new audiences who might not otherwise have participated. The first time I ever saw a woman skateboarding was in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater. I saw Elissa Steamer and thought, What if I tried that?

The shoes and my Volcom sweatshirt were my baby steps to a skateboard, but I never actually got on a board in my teens. I put the shoes and the sweatshirt into the closet, and I tried not to think about them.

It’s not a unique experience. Nina Moran, a skateboarder and actress who plays Kirt in HBO’s Betty, talked about her own experience in a TED Talk in 2017. “When a boy first starts skateboarding, nobody cares that he sucks — he just started,” she said. “When a girl starts skateboarding, she doesn’t even get the chance to try before getting judged by everybody. This is what makes it so intimidating to enter the skate park in the first place.”

And so, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, played on my cousin’s PlayStation, remained the closest I’d get to a skateboard — until I turned 31.


Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2, a remaster of the two original games, was released on Sept. 4. Coincidentally, or maybe not so much, this is also the year I started skateboarding in earnest. I actually bought a skateboard in 2017, but didn’t end up riding it much and soon put it into storage. When the pandemic lockdown began, I wanted to get a pair of roller skates — the same idea everyone else had. But I couldn’t get roller skates, because they were sold out everywhere. That’s when I turned back to my skateboard, and decided to try learning how to ride the thing for real.

Learning to skateboard at 31 is like nothing else. It doesn’t make sense. In the middle of a pandemic, it makes even less sense. Everything already feels out of control, so why not take on an arguably dangerous hobby? (At least, more dangerous than my other pandemic hobby, watercolor painting.) The thing is, skateboarding is really hard. It’s very unnatural, and every time I learn something new, it feels like I just shouldn’t be able to do those things — I’m on a small board with tiny wheels. And yet, after falling hundreds of times, I am sure that I’ll eventually make it. When I enter the skate park, I feel free.

This is a place where active failure is encouraged — it’s the only way to actually learn. In the middle of an out-of-control pandemic, my skateboard acts like a shield. Even with bruises and scrapes, I am in control of what happens when I’m riding a skateboard, how to move my legs in ways to go faster or more slowly. Which ramps to cruise down, which cracks I want to ollie over.

Image: Alison Rosa/HBO Max

It’s been nearly 20 years since that boy in school told me to take off the Volcom sweatshirt. I don’t have it anymore, unless it’s stuffed somewhere in my parents’ basement. But my created skater in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 does — it’s a generic sweatshirt, but it’s also my own personal fuck you to gatekeepers in any field.

Feeling unwelcome isn’t unique to women who want to skateboard. It actually reminds me a lot of my experience as a woman reporter covering the video game industry — both fields have a history of being male-dominated or downright hostile to marginalized genders, sexualities, and races. The industries both have the same tagline they attach to women who want to be involved: You belong in the kitchen. Moran brought this up in her TED Talk; it’s actually where the name Skate Kitchen (the 2018 film from which Betty was spun off) came from. Rachelle Vinberg, another Betty and Skate Kitchen star, came up with it after seeing people online commenting that skateboarding girls should be in the kitchen.


When I’m not skateboarding, I seek that same feeling of freedom through media like Betty and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 — but in different ways, of course. So much of Betty’s cinematography luxuriates in showing its women cruising around New York City. The Betty teens see the world differently, because to them, everything is a skate park or a prop they can play with. The show smartly balances these lush ride-alongs with depictions of optimistic and heartbreaking issues within the hobby, like racism, sexism, and sexual assault. The friendships constructed by the sport help support the weight of it all.

I take a spill while ollie-ing.
Photo: Nicole Carpenter/Polygon

The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater remaster, though, is a more idyllic world without any troubles, a place without the pain of falling or being told “no.” The game also showcases a better representation of the world of skateboarding by including a wider range of personalities, like Leo Baker, Leticia Bufoni, Aori Nishimura, Tyshawn Jones, and Nyjah Huston. (The original games’ skaters, too, are aged up, which is, frankly, inspiring.) I wondered, at first, if I could play the game realistically, as myself — you know, at my skill level. But I quickly realized that that’s not what the game’s for. After all, I can barely ollie. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 is an optimistic world without fear. As much as I embrace the pain of skateboarding, I do have to consider my body. It’s the balance between my current ability and where I could be that makes the sport thrilling, but also sort of scary.

My ability in the video game really has no bounds — at least, when it comes to my physical safety. Landing an ollie in real life or a 900 in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2 is absolutely not the same as doing it in real life, but it’s close enough to create that serotonin burst.

Despite skateboarding’s brutal reality, the vision embraced by both Betty and the Tony Hawk remaster helps me see a world where everyone is invited to the sport.

Comments

I loved this article Nicole, thanks for it.

It’s weird to me to hear that people, skaters of all, would want to discourage women / girls from skating. When I grew up skating, albeit late 80s early 90s, every guy I skated with always wanted their girls to join and get other women involved.

The industry I have spent most my life is motocross. In the 32 years I’ve been doing it, I never once saw men being anything other than welcoming and encouraging to women who want to ride. I mean how cool is it to share the experience with others?

Perhaps this is just indicative of the area I grew up in (PNW / So-Cal).

It’s weird to me to hear that people, skaters of all, would want to discourage women / girls from skating. When I grew up skating, albeit late 80s early 90s, every guy I skated with always wanted their girls to join and get other women involved.

I don’t think that culture of rejection and elitism was part of the skateboarding culture as much as it was part of the wave of younger people that discovered it with THPS and the growing popularity of the x-games.

I never really tried myself, but my brother was big into it in the early 90s so there were always a lot of magazines and videos around the house that Id watch. Early on I remember kids in school making fun of me for bringing skateboard magazines to school and then 1998 or so it was suddenly the coolest thing in the world to be part of, but it was those same people that were making fun of it a few years earlier so it’s like they had to continue to punch down so they didn’t have to backtrack on their previous attitude.

The funniest part of that whole era was that a significant amount of those kids couldn’t skate for shit. They’d be sure to always have their board with them, but they’d somehow have it for a year and never get a single scratch on it.

Can totally relate to this. I’m 40 and picked up a cruiser board a few months ago­. Having something different to do and getting myself outside is why I got it. Not even trying tricks, just doing my short circuit in the neighborhood every so often. I always feel awkward whenever I’m skateboarding past somebody and this is probably why I’m not doing it more regularly but I’m still glad I get to use it when I feel like it.

Yes! Great article and so creepily relevant to me.

I have been on the fence about purchasing my first ever skateboard at age 36 (mid life crisis). Back in the late 90’s/early 00s I got into roller blading and never touched a skateboard. Then got into snowboarding when I could go but living in the UK that basically stops when you have kids as for some reason they don’t fancy heading to the alps to watch daddy board.

So here I go – Wish me luck Nicole and thanks for final nudge I needed to do it.

PLEASE let me know how it goes! I want to hear about it!!!

Sure will! Once I’ve chosen a board that is…

I’ve been on the fence too about skateboarding! Long time snowboarder and really tempted to at least try out skateboarding, although the fear of falling on concrete is strong

I bit the bullet and board arrived two days ago. As a long time snowboarder you’ll find a huge amount that’s transferable. That’s what I’ve found anyway. I’ve been cruising around and carving pretty much from the get go and haven’t yet fallen off…really not looking forward to that but man, it’s so sweet carving down the road. It’s like being back on the slopes. DO IT!

Ok, I’m sold. Shopping now! Cheers

I got one Nicole. I am loving it. THANKS AGAIN for the nudge I needed.

Go for it! I’m in the same boat and picked up a longboard a month ago just to try to cruise around the neighborhood because 30 is legit too old for my body to handle a bunch of falls trying to do tricks, but it’s still been a ton of fun.

oh good someone already made this joke so I didn’t have to

Drinking a six pack of beer make you have to pee real bad.

At least that was my experience of my 30s.

I’m sorry to hear about your High School experience. I was definitely guilty of snubbing non-skateboarders for wearing skate clothes, but I can’t recall ever feeling that way towards a young woman. Had I, though, it wouldn’t have had anything to do with gender. Hell, anything that got more girls to hang around us at the time was a positive.

I started skateboarding in 1990 at age ten. Nine years later when it became popular, the same jocks that threw shit from their cars as they passed, called us unoriginal, homophobic slurs, and generally made our lives hell all started shopping at Zumiez and wearing fringe-skate brands (the aforementioned Volcom being the biggest culprit), and all seemed to get amnesia when it came to remembering how shitty they used to treat skateboarders. That’s where a lot of the vitriol came from. It was our culture, our scene, and now was being marginalized by people who hadn’t been on a skateboard since they got one for Christmas as a child.

This is why Thrasher has and always will be the go-to media outlet for skateboarders. Former editor-in-chief Jake Phelps (RIP) went on record numerous times describing his disdain for the popularity of Thrasher shirts being worn by people that had nothing to do with the culture. He didn’t care about losing sales; he wanted to keep his brand pure and true, and had zero issues calling celebrities and mall kids out for "talking the talk, but not walking the walk".

Great article except…

Where the fuck is your helmet? Like, I’m sorry, you’re 31, you should god damned know better. Setting a terrible precedent for young girls who might see you and want to try and think they don’t need one either.

Like, I’m really sorry, and I get that this whole story is about being judged, but at the same time I don’t care because, wear a fucking helmet. It’s one of the most dangerous sports you can do without climbing up something tall to jump off. The lack of pads is whatever, if your joints are more impervious than mine at 30 then go for it (personally my livelihood and all forms of entertainment I consume depend on my wrists, so yes, I wear wrist guards even when just long boarding, and they have served me well), but not wearing a helmet is lacking respect for yourself and those around you who might look up to you.

Personal choices that have nothing to do with you aside, if you want to talk about being judged, try showing up to a populated skate spot wearing a helmet. That shit works when you’re mongo-pushing around campus on your longboard, but helmets are usually reserved for enforced-parks, spawns of suburban Karens, and vert skaters. There’s no reason to wear one while attempting to learn flatground ollies in your driveway, and even if there was, it’s not up to Nicole to warn other people’s children about helmet safety. That’s a parent’s job. The woman is a journalist, and a damned good one, but that doesn’t mean that she needs to be a responsible role model for other people’s children.

Personal choice? True. Intelligent? No.

Being judged by dumbasses trying to skate with concussions isn’t a valid excuse for joining them.

If you’re this serious about helmet safety among skateboarders – a culture that you don’t seem to have anything to do with (longboards don’t count and they never will) – start cracking those knuckles. You have a lot more angry ranting ahead of you.

Lol, c’est la vie~

"Bad thing exists so how dare you criticize it!", a pointless, worthless comment that shows up every time someone has no other argument.

I feel like I expressed my side fairly well; if you don’t skate, don’t lecture people that do/want to about safety, particularly a journalist. The same goes for any other activity deemed dangerous. Do you think that this guy goes on scuba diver forums and warns them about the bends? MMA forums and head trauma?

Nice try on the bullshit quote, though.

if you don’t skate, don’t lecture people that do/want to about safety

Right, so because I don’t fly airplanes, I would lack the requisite knowledge to tell a pilot that taking a nap while flying is a bad, unsafe, and stupid idea?

Do you think scuba divers ignore safety guidelines and surface as fast as they fucking can or something? No, that kind of idiocy is reserved for children and childish manbabies who are too afraid of not looking cool and not fitting in when doing a sport that has roots in not doing the same thing everyone else does.

I’m being too mean though. From here on I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and recognize that you’ve quite likely hit your head a few dozen too many times to catch on.

The fact that you keep calling it a sport means that you still don’t get it and never will. Enjoy the longboard. I’m sure it looks awesome with your Birkenstocks and pooka necklace. Skate on, Chad (but wear a helmet).

The fact that you ignored literally everything I said really says a lot about how many falls you took without a helmet in your "glory" days, I guess.

Hey. Don’t forget my knee pads, old man cool kid. I mean, at least I’m still young enough to skate at all, without the arthritis getting me~

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