In the athletics arena, it’s been viewed mostly as America’s anti-sport, devoid of formal competition or accolades. It was born a dangerous thing of the streets, at home equally with the rockers and surfers of the 1950s, as well as the punks of the 1970s.
Yet, like the rebellious cultures they emerged from, skaters — those “surfers on wheels” — have tended to like it that way, largely shunning any semblance of organized sport.
But a longtime skateboarding veteran in Ventura County is beginning to change that perception. When Jeff Stern formed a regional skateboard club two years ago, his intent was to offer up a positive environment — teen skaters, he says, can be winners playing together on a structured team, without sacrificing the individuality treasured by members of the skateboard community.
“I’m teaching the skateboarding culture,” says Stern of Thousand Oaks, “bringing them together socially and putting them in the environment.”
It was also a chance to build a proper high school skateboard league, never before seen in the U.S. In 2007, Stern managed to assemble seven teams in his fledgling skateboard club of area high-schoolers, where a slate of competitions held at area skate parks proved popular on the regional scene. Last year, the number of teams tripled to 21.
This year, the not-for-profit league — now rechristened the National High School Skateboard Association (NHSSA) — has grown to 42 teams across Ventura and Los Angeles counties. The league’s new moniker reflects an ambitious goal for Stern, he’d like to sponsor skateboard tournaments across the U.S., outside of the group’s Southern California origins.
“The demand is all over the country,” says Stern, assuredly adding, “It will happen.”
By next year, it’s not unlikely that the NHSSA could see up to 100 teams, adding Orange and San Diego counties into the mix.
Keeping in line with skateboard culture, there are no auditions or tryouts, barking coaches or uniforms. Stern says each five-member team drafts its own members democratically.
“It’s worked out quite well,” he said. “I tell them, ‘don’t just pick your friends. You want to have the best skaters.’ ”
Their annual tournament, the Futures Am Series, this year divides 21 teams into two regions, with six skate events, culminating in a final competition coming up next month in Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, Abby Zsarnay won’t be competing. The Ventura High School student broke her ankle practicing a feeble grind at Skatelab, five weeks ago.
“I came off my board and just rolled over,” she said. “I thought it was just a bad sprain, but it didn’t get any better.”
She takes it all in stride; it’s not the only skate competition the young Zsarnay will be a part of. At just 14 years old, Zsarnay competed in five similar competitions in Oregon last summer. Skateboarding has also taken her to places like Idaho and Seattle.
What’s most noteworthy, however, is that Zsarnay is the sole female skater in the entire 200-plus NHSSA roster.
“It’s pretty cool knowing I’m the only one out there,” she said. “But then, it’s a little intimidating having all the guys look at you.”
But, in the same fashion women are gaining acceptance in male-dominated exhibits like football or race-car driving, gender lines make little difference in skateboarding where the gap is bridged.
“We all work together to try to help each other,” Zsarnay says of her five teammates. “If you’re just out skating, it’s a single thing. But you help each other get better.”
Zsarnay, like many other NHSSA members, expresses an early desire to make skating a possible career path. The league, says Stern, was formed in part to give kids exposure to the pro industry, both athletically and on the business end of things, where teens can eventually gain valuable positions in sports programming or skateboard manufacturing.
“In the first year, it was literally designed to give kids these chances,” Stern says. “Even if it’s not competitively, it’s about the industry.”
Barbara Boggio, principal of Pacific High School in Ventura, says most skate enthusiasts in her school are vibrant, loving nothing more than employment in the pro skate industry post-graduation. It’s just one reason Boggio is an ardent supporter of the NHSSA — she says it’s a motivating outlet for kids.
“Hitting the professional ranks is every skater’s dream,” she says. “Our school’s willing to embrace it as a real athletic competition.”
Boggio’s affiliation with the NHSSA wasn’t a newfound interest for the Pacific principal. She has long pushed for the inclusion of skateboarding into the physical education curricula of local schools. It would help, she says, to make academics more accessible to skaters.
“Our affiliation is to further promote school attendance and positive contributions to the community,” Boggio said. “It’s a way to reach kids that makes school relevant. A metamorphosis is taking place.”
One of Stern’s biggest challenges is reversing the ne’er do well slacker stereotype skaters have been stigmatized with.
“The perception is that skateboarders are all failing out of school; they’re doing drugs,” he says. “But the thing is, these kids are good, and no different than any others. I’m hopeful if I can reach out and change these perceptions, then I know I’ve done something good.”
As it evolves and solidifies, the league becomes more and more a cultural platform for skaters, not unlike the ramps and rails off which myriad jumps and tricks are executed.
“Freedom and their independence,” says Stern. “It’s with a huge respect of the skateboard industry. I’m not looking to change the culture.”