Sydney’s Inner West Council voted this month to build a skate park in Leichhardt Park – much to the dismay of local residents.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, they feared the park would attract clutter, antisocial behavior, and “young people who swear and move on,” as one resident said.
That’s despite councilors from other areas saying the skate parks being built on their site led to less antisocial behavior, especially among children and young adults.
Yet the locals are not convinced. After all, skaters have a history of being misfits.
But across Australia, many are challenging that stereotype – finding community, support, and mindfulness in skateboarding.
A mindfulness practice for any age
Photo: Keith Zgrajewskic
Keith Zgrajewski, 54, is often asked about his electric skateboard. Children to seniors want to know how it works. Ready to roll? That’s the skateboarders’ code.
Sometimes they just stop and smile at him as he whizzes past.
For Mr. Zgrajewski, skateboarding is an exercise in mindfulness.
“I had no idea before I started skating, but the smile puts it on your face. And people smile at you, too,” he told TND.
The Queenslander picked up his first electric skateboard four years ago. It frees his mind, he says and prevents him from thinking too much about a particular subject.
“When you ride one of those things, you do a carve, and that’s like a sideways movement back and forth, side to side. You can hear the tires hitting the ground, the engine – there’s a vibration,” he said.
What that does to your body and mind – Mr. Zgrajewski isn’t quite sure what it is, but it puts a “s***-eating grin” on his face.
“It can be dangerous,” he warned.
A year after Mr. Zgrajewski started skating, he broke his kneecap.
“I got off it at high speeds,” he recalls.
“I wasn’t wearing pads; I was just a guy. I thought, ‘I’ve got this — no, you haven’t, you idiot’.”
He spent the next few months in rehab, but his desire to skate never faded.
In full blossom
Skateboarding caused quite a stir last year after it debuted at the Tokyo Olympics.
“I definitely see more and more people doing it,” Luke O’Donnell, founder of Bloom Skateboarding, told TND.
Based in Newcastle, the non-profit organization uses skateboarding to promote the well-being of young people with disabilities and adults struggling with mental health.
Classes have easily doubled in size since the start of the pandemic.
“I know many young people now pursuing skateboarding as a sport. And I see many people coming into contact with it as something they can do on their own or with people they feel safe and encouraged with,” they said. Mr. O’Donnell.
He devised the idea for Bloom in 2019 while working as a disability counselor.
“What I’m trying to create in Bloom is a person-centered experience. It’s more about being able to express themselves and giving them much freedom to do that,” explained Mr. O’Donnell.
“It’s not prescription based — we don’t put up obstacles and tell them to do this or that.”
Mr. O’Donnell, who has been skating for 22 years, believes skateboarding is much more than just learning how to do it.
“You learn about who you are, how to build your limits, resilience, and confidence, and that really seeps into every facet of our lives — all the way into adulthood.”
One of the most rewarding parts of Mr. O’Donnell’s job is seeing the supportive community he has built. It’s telling a 10-year-old it’s okay to fall and hurt yourself.
“‘It sucks, but we’ll help you up’, you know? ‘This is what you need to achieve your goals or overcome that fear.'”
‘Level playing field’
Melbourne psychologist Tim Bonaldi, a skateboarder himself, said the history of the sport of being seen as something for misfits actually helps build a close-knit community, not an antisocial one.
“I think the idea that skaters are misfits or outcasts brings a little closer to the bond you share within the community,” Bonaldi told TND.
“You live a shared experience. Shared misguided judgments and public doubt can bring the subculture closer.”
In his experience, the skating community is relatively welcoming and inclusive.
Mr. O’Donnell agreed.
He described it as a “level playing field”, “where barriers are broken down”, while Mr. Bonaldi added that he sees a lot of promise in the community to become even more inclusive.
“It will take time to get to the level it needs, but it looks promising,” he said.
Join Sunset Skate Sessions.
Every Sunday, somewhere between 20 and 30, longboarders gather at IMAX Melbourne.
Longboarding is an offshoot of skateboarding, and because skaters use wider and longer boards, they can dance on them too.
The flat open space outside the cinema is the perfect meeting place for Sunset Skate Sessions, a longboarding crew founded by Jess Mooi 10 years ago.
In the beginning, she just wanted to exercise. But the more Mrs. Mooi skated, the more people she met who said, ‘ I skate too’.
“Sunset Skate Sessions grew organically — there was no marketing of any kind,” said Ms. Beautiful, 40.
“People just started noticing us.”
Before long, she had built a community where everyone felt they belonged.
Mrs. Mooi even made T-shirts. They have been decorated with the group’s logo: a sideways diamond with an image of a sunset on the highway. Longboards stick out on all sides, like swords on a family coat of arms.
“When you feel like you don’t fit anywhere, you feel united when you come out skating and put on your T-shirt. People watch out for each other, says Mrs. Mooi.
Brandon Yong, 28, is one of the organizers of Sunset Skate Sessions. He was one of the members who stepped in to help Ms. Beautiful when managing the group became too much for one person.
“Skating is a really good opportunity for us to relax,” said Mr. Yong, adding that many group members are in college and preparing for exams.
“It gives us an outlet to express ourselves creatively without the pressure of trying to live life normally.”
Even in lockdown, when life was far from normal, skaters in the community still kept in touch.
Whenever possible, one skater met another in their five-kilometer bubble. It might have only been an hour, but it was something they could do together.
“Skating on your own is fine; it’s good, but when you’re with someone else or a community of people, it’s so much better,” said Robert Gourlay, 24.
Mr. Gourlay, another group organizer, agreed that skating – like any other hobby or passion – is a great way to relax after a day of work or study.
“When you do something like painting, you’re mindful, you think about your strokes — it’s no different than skating,” he explained.
“I have to think about small foot placements ensuring the board turns the way I want it. I’m just at a higher risk of hurting myself, probably.”
That’s part of the tension.
“When you’re on a skateboard, you’re just rolling. Nothing else matters except the wind in your hair,” he described.
“That is until you hit a little rock and think, ‘Ah, this is life. I remember now.”
But that’s only part of the ride.