What were you doing when you were 15 years old?
Whatever it was, it’s highly unlikely you were representing your country at the Olympics. But this is the situation in which Boipelo Awuah finds herself. At the age of 15, the grade 10 Northern Cape High School pupil is South Africa’s youngest representative at the Games and Africa’s only representative in the women’s street skateboarding event on Monday 26 July.
“The Olympics have never been a thing for me. It never crossed my mind because I’m from Kimberley and it’s a small town so I’ve never really thought about it. It’s unreal, dude,” says Boipelo, laughing. She skates at Kumba Skate Plaza across the road from Kimberley’s Big Hole and as such has unimaginatively been dubbed The Diamond of Kimberley. It’s a spectacular cliché but a moniker she accepts with equal parts humility and pride.
Boipelo was in Johannesburg at the YBF Skatepark for one final training session on Friday 16 July, the day before she flew to Tokyo. “It’s funny how people call it training now. It’s just skating,” she says with a shrug.
A 10-year-old girl who has been practising at the skatepark all morning shyly approaches Boipelo and asks for her autograph. Boipelo signs the youngster’s board and spends some time skating, encouraging and guiding the girl through obstacles. The teenager is already serving as a trailblazer for future generations of women skaters in South Africa.
“I would love to see more female skateboarders in South Africa and I hope my participation in the Olympics serves as inspiration for other young girls. And I would like female skateboarders in South Africa to be supported just as much as the male skateboarders,” says Boipelo.
An Olympic first
Skateboarding makes its debut appearance at this year’s Olympics and Boipelo is one of the group of 80 skaters etching their names into history. But it still occupies a weird space between sport and street culture: the fitness, technique, focus and mental strength required to perform complex tricks is the sporting half while skateboarding’s roots in street culture remain as strong as ever. It has its own style, its own fashion, its own language and its own community. It remains an activity where a notoriously difficult trick performed in the street (recorded on video, of course, as evidence) can earn a skateboarder the same amount of respect among peers as someone who wins gold at the Olympics.
“I don’t necessarily want to be remembered as the guy who won every contest or possibly wins a gold medal. I mean that stuff is really cool but I feel that your real legacy as a skater is, like, what you brought to skateboarding as a whole,” says American Nyjah Huston, the world’s top-ranked street skateboarder and one of the favourites for gold in Tokyo.
When she was a tiny five-year-old, Boipelo noticed her older brother cruising around on his skateboard. Wanting to emulate him, she would wait for her brother to leave the house and then “steal” his board and ride around the house, careful to avoid her parents who would possibly put an end to her joyrides for fear of it being dangerous. In terms of assimilating herself into the rebellious counterculture of skateboarding, Boipelo was off to a good start.
The elders eventually caught up with her tricksy ways but when she was six, Boipelo convinced her mother to take her to the skatepark. She has progressed steadily since then, winning back-to-back national championships in South Africa and placing well enough at the Street Skateboarding World Championships in Rome, Italy, in June to qualify for the Tokyo Games.
“I’m just happy to be paving the way for more female skaters, even if I don’t win or whatever. I’m just happy that there’s more young female skaters coming up,” says Boipelo.
Aside from the agility and technique needed to become a good street skater, you also need to have a healthy level of “craziness”. “As you can see, I’m a bit crazy,” says Boipelo. At first glance she doesn’t appear to be. Her smile is bright and welcoming, and she talks softly and respectfully. She also skates with a pair of spectacles balanced delicately on her nose.
Watching her attempt a difficult trick and fall really hard, but immediately get up with a smile on her face, you kind of get what she means when she says she is “a bit crazy”. Failure to land a trick properly doesn’t only end in disappointment but with the real possibility of physical harm. Skaters know this but will almost never give up until they’ve mastered a trick. Crazy.
“I think I’m going to frontside boardslide this handrail,” says Boipelo in skateboard speak to some of her friends at the park.
She takes a few moments to size up the rail and work through the visualisation and mechanics of the trick. You would need to ride up to the rail at the perfect angle carrying good speed. Then at the right moment, pop the board up using your back leg while simultaneously dragging your front foot on the board so that it levels out. You are now flying through the air with the board below your feet. Twist your body slightly in midair so you land the middle of the board on the rail with feet spaced out correctly for balance. Keep your arms out to help with balance and your neck craned so you can see where you are going as you slide down the rail backwards. Come off the edge of the rail and twist again in mid-air so you land the same way you started. Make sure to bend your knees so your body absorbs the impact.
If it sounds complicated in theory, it is much more so in practice where all these actions have to be done in a split second.
Boipelo goes for it. She mounts the rail with her board, slides down and falls heavily. Her body smashes into the concrete floor below as her board slides across the park. She gives the thumbs-up, the signal that she’s fine, fetches her board and tries again. Not once, not twice, not three times or four, Boipelo tries and fails, falls, gets hurt, gets back up and tries again 18 times before she finally lands the trick.
It is in moments like these that the skills learnt on a skateboard, those of resilience and perseverance, of how to learn from your mistakes, of how to fail and try again, are directly transferable to life. This is an idea best encapsulated in a recorded conversation between American comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock.
Seinfeld: “I’ll tell you one of the great activities is skateboarding. To learn to do a skateboard trick, how many times you got to get something wrong until you get it right?”
Rock: “And you keep falling and you hurt yourself.”
Seinfeld: “And you hurt yourself. And you learn to do that trick, now you got a life lesson. Whenever I see those skateboard kids I think, those kids will be all right.”
Boipelo certainly looks like one of those kids who will be all right, and who at her young age is relishing every moment as she makes her way to the Olympic stage. Still skating at the age of 53, Tony Hawk, probably the world’s best-known skateboarder, recently recorded a promotional video for skateboarding’s debut at the Olympics in which he muses: “We used to see ourselves as a family of misfits, but now the world will call us Olympians.”