Alex Hallford is giving me a Zoom tour of the converted Ford Transit in which he has lived since the first coronavirus lockdown. “Let me tidy up a little bit,” he says before swivelling his laptop to show light pouring in through the open doors onto an unmade bed. Hallford – 28, cool, charismatic and sporting a moustache of which Tom Selleck would be proud – is in a jovial mood as he shows me the van’s other mod cons, which include a fridge, a sink and a shower that sits above the back door, but which hasn’t been used since summer.
Currently, the van is parked outside Nottingham’s Flo skate park. But when the mornings are lighter, Hallford prefers to park up near the bank of the River Trent, so that when he wakes, he can throw open the back doors and let nature flood in. “It’s just like, wow, you’ve got your own window to the world,” he says dreamily. With nothing but the river’s babble providing the soundtrack, Hallford would get on with replying to emails or dealing with life admin – an image that seems oddly prosaic for a man who embodies skating’s DIY spirit. Afterwards, he says, he might take his paddleboard out on the Trent. But right now, with Flo on his putative doorstep, he’ll start the day with a quick shred before clocking in for work at Forty Two skate shop in town.
Hallford’s shifts at Forty Two pay the bills, which have fallen significantly since he began living in a converted van – a move made out of choice, rather than necessity, at the beginning of 2020. But Forty Two is just the day job. For the past two years, Hallford, alongside four other British skateboarders – Sam Beckett, Jordan Thackeray, Alex DeCunha and the team’s only female skateboarder, Sky Brown – has been travelling the world, working to qualify for the confoundingly titled Tokyo 2020, the delayed Olympic Games expected to take place this year, which will be the first to include skateboarding as an official sport. During that time, Hallford, his fellow athletes and team manager, Darren Pearcy, have had to contend with limited funding, the absence of any official training facilities, plus lockdowns and second jobs. They have had to beg and borrow the kind of help that’s commonplace in most other elite sports. There are no physiotherapists, nutritionists or psychologists on speed dial to help Skateboard GB.
What British skateboarding does have, and has a history of, however, is style and pedigree. Some of the most renowned skateboarders of the past 20 years – people like Tom Penny, Alex Moul, Geoff Rowley, John Rattray – are British. Team GB’s current crop of athletes has style and pedigree, too. Beckett was the first UK skateboarder to win a gold medal at the X Games, ESPN’s annual extreme sports event. Meanwhile, as Pearcy explains, “When you speak to the judges, whenever Jordan or Alex drop in the bowl, they’re rooting for them. They shouldn’t be, but I know they are, because they’ve got charisma, they’ve got style, they’ve got this thing going on. You want those people to do well because they’re so true to the essence of it.”
The precise nature of that essence, however, is up for debate. Many insist that the Olympics won’t change skateboarding but, in reality, skateboarding is already changing because of the Olympics. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – publicity, respect, money and accolades are not unwelcome for people and a pastime that have never had it. But what Skateboard GB doesn’t want is for marginal gains and performance culture to detract from the spirit of the sport – or what some people refer to as skateboarding’s “beautiful chaos”.
What happens next is the interesting bit. Artists or athletes? Renegades or role models? The battle for skating’s soul is under way.
Rebels With a Cause
Before they can call themselves Olympic skateboarders, each Team GB athlete has to qualify for the Games. At Tokyo 2020, there will be two separate skateboard events: street and park. The street competition will take place on a course featuring obstacles that you’d find if you were skating in a typical urban environment, such as stairs, handrails, benches, walls and ledges. Alex DeCunha is attempting to qualify for that event. The park competition will take place in a bowl, a feature of many skate parks that emulates the backyard swimming pools that Californian kids first started skating in the mid-1970s. If they make the cut, this is where Team GB’s four other skateboarders will compete.
There are a few ways for athletes to qualify. They can place in the top three of the World Skateboard Championships, which are likely to be held in May 2021, or they can earn enough points at qualifying events to enter via the new Olympic World Skateboarding Rankings. Season one qualifiers were held around the world before COVID-19, and organisers are hopeful that season two will take place in the months leading up to the summer Games.
Beckett explains that these events have been similar to regular skateboard competitions, which have existed for decades, just with a little more pressure and more on the line. The difference is that whereas before athletes paid for themselves or were reliant on sponsors for funding, now they’re at the mercy of their nation’s resources. Teams such as the US, Brazil and France all have established federations and are well funded. The UK’s federation, Skateboard GB, is still in its infancy, having been set up in November 2017. Funding for the Tokyo Olympics amounts to £166,000 of what’s known as Aspiration Funding, which is enough to pay for one full-time team manager, and to transport everyone to and from events. But there isn’t a lot of change.
“The French team has been doing this kind of thing for a long time and it’s far ahead,” says Beckett. “We turned up at one of the first qualifiers and they’ve got a physiotherapist! They’re keeping everyone in the best condition. We’ve just about cobbled together a flight to send someone there. So there are definitely countries that are more on it.”
Even so, Skateboard GB isn’t quite the Jamaican bobsled team. British skateboarders are known all over the world, and more funding means more opportunities to skate full-time and a chance to focus on competition prep 24/7. But despite being Olympic hopefuls, both Hallford and DeCunha still have jobs at skate stores; meanwhile, though Beckett is able to support himself through skateboarding alone, his friends can’t, so he skates alone or waits for them to clock off before heading to the park.
In the long term, the hope is that the Olympics will increase their funding but, for now, team manager Pearcy has had to get creative in order to make more of the resources they have. He explains how he began logging data from qualification events: the tricks people had done, the runs they had put together, how much of the course they had covered and the success they’d had with each of those elements. “I’d sit with the guys and say, ‘Look, I’ve got this information. It’s not very skateboardy, it’s not really something we’d normally do, but I’ve got it. Let’s use it to our advantage when we go into competition.’”
Pearcy is keen to point out that the reason skaters such as Hallford and Thackeray made it onto the team in the first place was their ability and artistry – as he says, “They’re not the sort of people who would skate by spreadsheet.” But in skateboarding’s new performance-driven world, it’s something they’ve embraced. “It has been interesting to see the events from that side of things,” says Hallford. “Until now, I always thought of skateboard events as gambling. But now we’re talking about Olympic competition. It’s serious.”
Ramping It Up
When Alex DeCunha returned to his family home in Milton Keynes from his first Olympic qualifying event in London, he logged straight onto Amazon. Having seen how other skateboarders had been prepping for competition, he was inspired to start adding mobility work to his training. “I ordered stuff like resistance bands for stretching and building strength in my ankles,” he says. “I looked into workouts and exercise plans. Skateboarding is an athletic life, but I figured I could lead more of an athlete’s life.”
Part of every athlete’s life is injury. More than with most sports, injury is an inevitable part of skateboarding – especially in DeCunha’s field of street skating, where to fall invariably means a swift meeting of flesh and concrete. When vert (short for “vertical”, or ramp skating) legend Tony Hawk made his brief foray into the world of street in the 1990s, he suffered two ankle injuries, before slinking back to the ramps that he still skates to this day. He puts his longevity in part down to that decision.
That isn’t to say that park skating isn’t dangerous, too. For most of the first season of qualifying, Sam Beckett was troubled by a niggling knee injury. Whenever he’s been injured in the past, he has taken the approach – as, he says, many skateboarders do – of simply sitting it out and hoping that the issue resolves itself. But this time, with the Olympics on the line, he decided to ask for Skateboard GB’s help.
Pearcy and Skateboard GB arranged for Beckett to undergo treatment at Bisham Abbey’s High Performance Centre, where he became the first skateboarder to enter British Olympics’ Intensive Rehabilitation Unit (IRU). During his week-long stay, Beckett was put through daily workouts by a strength and conditioning coach and advised on what to eat by the IRU’s dietitian. He also spoke to a sports psychologist about how he could mentally prepare for competitions and received physiotherapy for his injury.
“Physically and mentally, I’m in a better place because I’ve had some of that help,” says Beckett. “Normally, when you pick up an injury, unless you get surgery, it just follows you around for a long time. Being shown another way of dealing with things has been an eye-opener. You learn that if you work hard, you can get back to where you were, or maybe come back stronger.”
Beckett may have been the first skateboarder to visit Bisham Abbey, but Pearcy is hoping that he won’t be the last. Fellow Team GB skateboarder Jordan Thackeray recently returned from a hip operation, and arrangements are being made to get him into the IRU. Support like this could help push British skateboarding forward. At the same time, Pearcy says, it will ensure that “someone like Sam can keep skating for the next 20 years if he wants to”.
Style and Substance
And then there’s Sky Brown. The 12-year-old prodigy is Britain’s best hope for a medal in Tokyo and, barring injury, is all but guaranteed a place at the Olympics. To put into context how good she is, Pearcy compares her talent to the likes of Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Serena Williams. Brown is already Nike’s youngest-ever sponsored athlete, but the hope is that once she competes at the Olympic Games, the world will know her name.
Excellence in skateboarders this young isn’t common. Skateboard GB is developing new talent identification protocols to find the next generation but, according to Pearcy, both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that skateboarders peak between the ages of 17 and 21. Before that, “They don’t necessarily have the power to navigate the courses,” says Pearcy. “Also, the style of the youngest skateboarder isn’t as developed as an older one’s, so your personality isn’t shining through in the way it does for somebody like Sam or Alex, whose trick choices and trick repertoires really stand out.”
To Pearcy, just as important as who skates for Britain, and at what age, is where they will skate. The majority of outdoor skate parks used by British skateboarders were built as community projects, not for elite athlete training. When something like a pandemic strikes, these are as inaccessible to the likes of Beckett and Hallford as they are to the general public. So, discussions are taking place about creating a National Skateboard Centre, a state-of-the-art skate park complete with performance-enhancing facilities. “It won’t be white walls and clinical finishes,” Pearcy says. “It’ll be something that speaks to the culture and our people. Crucially, it will be in a central location for skateboarders to use to improve – not just at skating but in other areas, too.”
It’s an exciting time for British skating and, gratifyingly for lovers of the sport, no one seeking to compete wants to win medals at the expense of style or swagger. Skateboard GB’s main objective remains to develop characterful skateboarders, not identikit Olympians.
“Skateboarding in a post-Olympic world could look very different,” admits Pearcy. “It could mean that future skateboarders, inspired by seeing it in this specific context, look at it from a performance point of view, rather than, say, a cultural one. They’d then align it with other sports, in the sense that they’ll think, ‘I want to be a skateboarder and go to the Olympics.’ That’s a great goal, as long as it’s not to the detriment of the spirit and ethos that make skating so special in the first place.”
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