Skateboarding is not a sport

Skateboarding the Sacramento streets takes skill, balance and nerve. Just don’t call it a sport.

Mike Rafter, owner of Flat Spot skate shop, shows off the store’s custom deck designed by local artist Jay Howell.

Mike Rafter, owner of Flat Spot skate shop, shows off the store’s custom deck designed by local artist Jay Howell.

Photo By Larry Dalton

When school lets out, and the workday ends, skateboarders drift into Flat Spot skate shop. They slouch on the couch, watching skate videos and leafing through copies of Transworld Skateboarding and Thrasher. Some edit their own videos at the store’s computer stations or roll aimlessly up and down the sidewalk outside.

If the restless energy of loitering gets too claustrophobic, store owner Mike Rafter will say, “All right. Let’s go skate.” At 30, Rafter looks barely older than his mostly teenage clientele. The same skinned elbows and suntanned skin adorn his wiry athletic frame, along with the requisite loose jeans and oversized T-shirt, but six years as a professional skateboarder and twice that number as a professional skateboard photographer and videographer lend him an air of authority. And his easy smile amid so many affectations of cool shows that he’s learned not to take any of this too seriously.

Even after he’s extended the invitation, most of the skaters won’t move. Someone will lazily call out, “Where at?”

“Wherever,” Rafter will reply, jingling the keys to his van. Slowly, with supreme indifference, the boys will unfold their long legs, pick up their boards and head for his vehicle.

Sometimes they go to the skate park on 28th and B streets. It’s nearby, and they’re guaranteed to avoid a hassle with police there. Still, the park’s wooden hips and halfpipes aren’t as interesting to skate as the city’s stairs, handrails and curbs—the kind of architecture pros tackle in videos and magazines. Not to mention that most skaters would rather spend the park’s $3 admission on a slice of pizza.

Of course, skating on the downtown streets has its problems, too. On one particular afternoon, Rafter and three of his friends had already been chased off the planter boxes in front of The Sacramento Bee by a security guard. An attempt to skate on the abandoned concrete foundation at 21st and S streets was cut short when one of the skaters impaled his foot on a 3-inch piece of scrap metal that cut right through his shoe. Needless to say, the collective mood had soured.

Skate rats of all ages hang around Flat Spot in the afternoons.

Photo By Larry Dalton

With daylight fading, Rafter parked in front of the office building at 650 Q Street. The skaters surveyed the terrain: a set of stairs, two handrails, a lawn with a sidewalk perimeter, and 5-foot-high concrete ledges around the building’s edges. No one said a word, but the challenge was clear: Skate off the ledge with enough speed to clear the lawn and land on the sidewalk. Don’t hit a pedestrian or a parking meter, or overshoot and land in the street’s oncoming traffic. Oh—and do something fancy with your board while you’re at it.

There were several false runs before anyone dared to skate off the ledge. Those who did hit the sidewalk hard, and often on their asses. The skaters hardly paused to acknowledge abrasions and bruises before running to grab their boards out of the gutter and try again. Nearly an hour passed. No one landed the trick, but everyone was smiling.

Interesting architecture, a skateboard, good friends and no hassles—that is the cake. Landing the trick is the icing.

Of course, these young men throwing themselves onto concrete with single-minded purpose are just one facet of Sacramento’s skateboard culture. Look farther, and you’ll find adult women turning circles on top of a moonlit parking garage; a skater jailed for making a grind mark on a city curb; and pro skaters, fresh from world tours where fans waited in three-hour lines for their autographs.

What you won’t see, anywhere other than on your television screen, are skaters drinking Mountain Dew and leaping out of airplanes, skating towering halfpipes to an Avril Lavigne soundtrack or jumping grocery-store aisles for Doritos. Most of Sacramento’s street skaters bristle at the media portrayal of skateboarding as an extreme sport (or extreme marketing ploy).

Ask a skater what skateboarding is, and you’ll probably be treated to a list of what it isn’t.

Skateboarding is not a sport

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Flat Spot stocks skateboard decks in a riot of colors and designs, but one of Rafter’s favorites is a simple black-and-white board with a drawing of a referee blowing a whistle, crossed out by a red line. Below the image are the words “Skateboarding is not a sport.”

It’s a mantra repeated often by local skaters, and Rafter makes a good case for it. “There are no rules in skateboarding,” he said. “Nobody wins. There’s no time limit.”

When asked about skateboard competitions, Rafter just shrugged. “Competitions aren’t skateboarding. The stuff you see in skateboarding magazines and videos, none of that stuff takes place in a competition. It’s very rare that skateboarding competitions get any kind of skateboard media coverage, unless they’re big ones where someone is going to win $10,000. … They just mean very little in the grand scope of things.”

What matters, it seems, is the personal challenge of envisioning and executing a trick—be it jumping a set of stairs, barreling down a steep hill or grinding across a curb. Skateboarding is creative, an improvised dance on the city’s architecture.

“A lot has to do with the terrain,” explained 10-year professional skateboarder Matt Rodriguez. “There’s basic stuff that all skaters skate: rails, stairs, ledges, hips, banks, ditches. But to do something new on them that hasn’t been done, that’s cool. Some guys have been doing the same trick forever, but they do it in different spots, or they go faster, or they grind longer, or they go higher. There’s a style, a flavor, a character that comes out in their skating. It’s conviction, and that’s what grabs me.”

Rodriguez frequently uses the word “dance” to describe skating. The 29-year-old Sacramento resident is known worldwide for a uniquely fluid skating style produced partly by riding boards with extremely loose trucks (metal axles that attach the wheels to the board) and partly by an artist’s focus on grace and movement. “Sometimes I land a trick, and I feel like it was too solid,” he said, “so I’ll try again and let my natural body language and feeling come out. I try to make it look as natural as possible, not premeditated.”

Creativity in skateboarding extends beyond the choreography of tricks to manipulation of the terrain itself. Some Sacramento skaters, along with BMX bikers, have gone so far as to build guerrilla skate structures in public places.

Matt Rodriguez pops a huge frontside ollie at the 28th and B Skate Park.

Photo By Mike Rafter

“Skaters have been known to put on hard hats and orange vests and get away with some crazy stuff in the middle of the day,” Rafter related. With scrap wood, a few bags of quick ’crete, and a 5-gallon bucket for mixing cement, a guerrilla ramp can be erected in a matter of hours.

The West Sac Bank, a towering concrete slope made of concrete parking barriers affixed to a concrete hilltop in one of Raley Field’s overflow parking lots, was one such spot. Built in a day, word spread rapidly that there was a new skate spot in town. “The West Sac Bank was in every skate magazine for six months straight,” Rafter said. Flat Spot received phone calls several times a week from skateboarding teams and photographers who wanted directions to the site they’d seen in magazines. The bank lasted for a year before the site’s management jackhammered its surface to prevent skateboarders from being able to roll over it.

Another guerrilla ramp currently is being built in the back parking lot of a Greenhaven strip mall, among Dumpsters, warped chain-link fences and graffiti wisdom like “Pimp ’til I die!” The half-finished structure awaits a coat of Bondo, inexpensive putty used to fill in dents in cars, to smooth its roughened concrete slope and make it skateable.

“When it’s finished,” Rafter said, “word will spread fast that there’s a new fun place to skate, and that’s when the life expectancy of the place starts to drop. The more people know, the more noise they make.”

On some future day, when a car full of skaters drives by to find that ramp torn away, there undoubtedly will be others elsewhere in the city constructing the next personal challenge.

Skateboarding is not a job

For many, skateboarding is a career. Sacramento has nearly a dozen professional skateboarders and several retired pros. That’s more than virtually any city in the country outside of Southern California, where skateboarding was invented.

Omar Salazar launches a 5-foot-high method air over the pyramid at the 28th and B Skate Park.

Photo By Mike Rafter

“When I go to the park, I see young kids, and they’re always like, ‘Hey, Matt! How do you get sponsored?’” Rodriguez said. “I say, ‘Just skate, man. Travel through California and skate. By word of mouth, a lot can happen for someone.’”

The route to becoming a professional skateboarder has many levels. A good skater can join the local skate-shop team and receive merchandise at cost while perfecting skills and trying to get photos or video footage to submit to skateboarding companies and magazines.

“Say a pro is trying to land something, and he’s having a tough day,” Rodriguez explained. “You’re there, and you start getting crazy on this spot, and the photographer shoots it. If it comes out good, he’ll publish it. Every skate magazine has a check-this-guy-out section. You don’t even have to be sponsored.”

Building a local reputation and enough photographic evidence can lead to an offer for a factory or amateur sponsorship, where a skater is sponsored by a nationally known skateboard company. Team riders will travel the world, all expenses paid, doing skating demonstrations to promote the products. A factory-sponsored skater also receives all the company’s products for free.

However, true pro status only comes when a company puts a skater’s name on a skateboard, or other merchandise, and starts sending royalties. “Once you’re getting a paycheck, you’re a pro,” Rafter said.

Twenty-one-year-old Omar Salazar is the newest addition to a list of Sacramento-based professional skaters that includes Stefan Janoski, John Cardiel and Brandon Biebel. Salazar recently signed with skateboard manufacturer Rasa Libre and currently is touring the world making a skateboarding movie as part of the Nike SB team.

Salazar met with SN&R two days after he returned from filming for Nike at the world’s biggest skate park in Shanghai (and three weeks before he left to film in Barcelona). Compact and muscular, with olive skin and dark eyes that reflect his Chilean heritage, Salazar seemed both enthusiastic and incredulous about his recent success. He lifted a foot to show his scuffed turquoise Nike SBs, which he got for free from the company. “Someone just bought a pair of these on eBay for $2,000,” he said. “Can you believe that?”

The Sacramento skate scene is well-represented in the current issue of Transworld Skateboarding, with Omar Salazar on the contents page and a two-page spread each for pro skaters Matt Rodriguez and Brandon Biebel.

Salazar laughed as he described fighting with his parents about skateboarding as a teenager. “My dad wanted me to stop skating, because he thought it was all punks. He didn’t know how happy it made me. My dad would take my board away, and I’d sneak it back or borrow a friend’s board,” he said. When Salazar got his first factory sponsorship during his freshman year in high school, he had to hide the fact (and the large boxes of free products) from his parents.

After high school, he moved to Midtown from Roseville and began what he calls “the era of couch surfing.” He skated every day and slept in various friends’ living rooms, until the strain of poverty got too heavy. Salazar told his friend Janoski that he had to quit skating and get a real job, but Janoski had such faith in Salazar that he offered to support him financially until he went pro.

“He handed me the opportunity,” Salazar said with obvious gratitude, “so I took it. I skated every day, harder than I ever had, and I got all these sponsorships.” Salazar’s amazing stunts in Transworld’s First Love DVD, where he bombs down some of the steepest hills in San Francisco, proved he could not be ignored.

Now, just months later, he’s signed a pro deal with Rasa Libre, and he’s flying around the world, first class, with the Nike team. “They treat us like real athletes,” Salazar said of the Nike staff. “They respect us.”

Though still unrecognizable to most Sacramentans, Salazar is gaining an international reputation. He was stopped by a Japanese man in a Tokyo camera shop who recognized him from First Love, and he’s had people lining up for his autograph at skating demos worldwide. One kid in Japan, wearing a Rasa Libre shirt and Nikes and carrying an Omar Salazar poster, stood in line for more than three hours to talk to him.

“When I saw him, I took my skateboard apart and gave him my used deck, and he was so happy,” Salazar said. “It’s really hard for me to accept how people treat me now. I mean, I like it, but I can’t believe it.”

Skateboarding is not a boys club

“I haven’t met any girls in Sacramento that skate with the same intensity and need that I see in the boys,” Rafter said. “They don’t do the tricks that the guys are trying all day and slamming on their faces. It seems like, by the time girls are old enough to like boys, they start putting on skirts and makeup, and they quit wanting to get bloody elbows pretty quick.”

Top: The Thrasher Chicks fly through a parking garage after hours. Bottom: Who says skateboarding can’t be sexy? Bare-midriffed Erin Sowa poses with bundled-up Breege Tomkinson, bottomless Bill Duarte, voyeuristic Shari Lesniak, and the calm and collected Gale Hart.

A woman on a skateboard in Sacramento can seem like an unlikely sight, unless you know where to look. For instance, if you climb to the top floor of a Midtown parking garage after dark, you might find the Thrasher Chicks—in ponytails, hoodies and wrist guards—practicing 360s or testing their downhill speed. Headed by local artist Gale Hart, 49, the TCs are a group of women over 30 (plus token guy Bill Duarte) who meet weekly to practice tricks and catch downhill speed in empty garages.

Hart, whose cropped black hair, lithe frame and loose-fitting clothes lend her a tomboyish air, learned to skateboard in her 20s. “I actually met the guys in Dogtown,” she said, referring to the Venice Beach area that is considered the birthplace of street skating. “I skated in pools down there, back in the day.” This ’70s SoCal influence is evident in the way Hart sometimes bends to graze the asphalt with her palms as she turns her board, surf-style.

Over the years, Hart’s commitment to skateboarding waned as her artistic commitments grew. But this summer, she was inspired to rediscover her old love. She recruited Duarte and girlfriends Breege Tomkinson, Shari Lesniak and Erin Sowa. Tomkinson and Sowa had never skated before. “At first I was really afraid that they were going to hurt something, but they all got their balance really fast. I feel like I’m pretty much at the level where I was before,” Hart said. “Well, not quite. There’re some things I won’t do because I don’t want to get hurt.”

“We talk to kids all the time who are like, ‘I’ve broken this wrist three times!’” Lesniak said. “And we’re like, ‘Why don’t you wear wrist guards? I don’t understand!’ We’re the only ones at the skate park who wear pads and helmets even when they’re not required. They help the fear go away. We take a lot of risks, but they’re not crazy, stupid risks.”

Of course, safety gear is not the only thing that makes the Thrasher Chicks stand out. “Just as we were skating here, this guy called out, ‘I’ve never seen so many women skating before!’” Lesniak said. “And then we get a lot of older women who yell, ‘You go, girl!’”

Then there’s the age difference. “I was at the skate shop looking at wheels, and a kid came up to me and said, ‘Does your son skate?’” Duarte laughed.

Despite stares from the younger skaters, the Thrasher Chicks are determined to keep skating. The group has plans for road trips to several Northern California skate parks, and Hart is looking to buy a house with a pool she can drain and skate in. As Sowa explained, “Ever since I found this, it’s been my passion. It’s such a rush to feel yourself doing things you couldn’t do just a little while ago.”

Judd Hertzler pulls a frontside 5-0 grind in a local backyard pool.

Photo By Mike Rafter

“At first, I felt like the skating matriarch,” Hart said. “I’d go out there, and I’d have all these little chickens behind me, but now they’re not chickens. They’re full-on birds.”

Skateboarding is not allowed

Despite stickers, posters and T-shirts stating the contrary, it turns out that skateboarding is, in fact, a crime. “In the downtown district, you can skateboard as transportation,” Rafter explained. “Anything other than all four wheels on the ground and getting to where you’re going, they have a problem with.”

Illegal skating includes jumping over cracks or obstacles on the sidewalk (rather than stopping, picking up one’s board and walking around the obstacle), turning, riding over certain public property and any stopping maneuver that could be considered a trick. A ticket for skateboarding is a traffic violation, but skaters are more commonly cited for vandalism or trespassing—misdemeanors that stay on a skater’s record and usually carry a fine or a sentence of 40 hours of community service, or both.

Nearly everyone who street skates in Sacramento has interacted with the police at some time. “There are two types of cops,” Rafter said. “Some will just show up and say, ‘We got a call. You guys have to go.’ We say, ‘All right,’ and we leave. Then there are the police who pull up yelling, ‘Sit down! It’s ticket time!’”

Rafter and Rodriguez both related stories of confiscated boards, yelling, trumped up charges, violence and jail time. Rafter witnessed a friend clotheslined to the ground by a bicycle cop. “He rode after him and tackled him to the ground and arrested him. I mean, the guy was just standing on a skateboard, at a building that’s been empty for 10 years, the old Wells Fargo Bank at Capitol and Fifth.”

Rodriguez was arrested at the same site on another occasion. “It’s petty,” Rodriguez said of his treatment. “Go bust some crack dealers on K Street. We were just skating the curb in front of an abandoned building. We didn’t hop any fences or anything. The cop was like, ‘You know the deal. You’re going in.’”

Rodriguez spent the night in jail on charges of vandalism but was ultimately released. “They had to let me go because there was no evidence,” Rodriguez said. “Which grind mark on the curb is mine, out of the millions that are there?”

Max Hedin nollie 5-0s the box at the 28th and B Skate Park in downtown Sacramento.

Photo By Mike Rafter

“They treat you like a drunk,” Rafter said. “Stick you in a tank and hope you’ll sober up.”

With experiences like this, it’s not surprising that all of the pro skaters interviewed for this story said the United States is their least favorite place to skate. “The United States is a really young country, and everyone feels like they own things here,” said Rafter, who has skated in Europe, Asia and South America. “That’s my house! That’s my business! It’s mine; you can’t stand there. It’s like a little kid thing to say, ‘That’s my toy!’ In other countries, you can be in a park or in front of a business, and people just go, ‘There’s somebody doing something interesting.’”

“America is a sue-happy nation,” Rodriguez said. “People don’t want you to fall in front of their home or business and sue them.”

Concerns over liability and property damage are actually changing the city’s architecture. The Sacramento Convention Center, The Sacramento Bee and several municipal agencies have purchased Skatestoppers, customized metal brackets that are bolted onto handrails, benches and planter boxes to act as skateboard speed bumps. The Web site of Skatestoppers, a San Diego-based company that sells the devices, charges, “Your property has become a practice ground for disruptive and destructive activity. What skaters deem ‘creative expression’ is costing you money!”

It’s a far cry from China, where Salazar said police and security guards took it upon themselves to protect the Nike SB team members while they were skating. “They were directing cars and telling us when to go,” he said. “It was awesome.”

So, what is skateboarding?

“Skateboarding is one of the hardest things you can do,” Rafter said. “It doesn’t make any sense. I know people probably see skateboarders hang out all day—Crash! Crash! Crash!—and never even land anything.”

What is the attraction to skateboarding that makes it worth all the hassles, fines, bruises and abrasions? (In Rafter’s case, that’s three broken ankles, two broken wrists, three broken fingers, three broken ribs and a broken collarbone.) Despite the increasing presence of skateboarding in music videos, commercials and video games, and the growing number of professional skateboarders in Sacramento, not one of the skaters interviewed mentioned money or fame as a goal. Sponsorships and paychecks are only useful when they provide more opportunities to skate.

“It’s such an amazing feeling when you make it, when you land a trick, that you just get addicted to that. You want that feeling of riding away from it,” Rafter said.

“Once I started standing on my board, it was the biggest high I’ve ever had in my life,” Salazar agreed. “So, I did it every day after that. Skating kept me busy, out of trouble and focused on something like I never thought I could be. I met cool friends, too. If I’ve ever met any real people in my life, it was through skateboarding.”

Rodriguez had an even simpler answer. “We just want to fly. That’s all.”

“I try to influence people in the bigger picture of life beyond skateboarding—things we need to address in the world,” said Matt Rodriguez. Check out his original skateboard designs honoring social activism at

Granite Regional Skate Park, Sacramento’s first concrete skate park, is scheduled to open on Power Inn Road before the year’s end. Natomas’ Tanzanite Skate Park will follow in the fall of 2006. View park plans at

See more of Mike Rafter’s skateboarding photography at