BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Tony Hawk and Steve Smith were unable to walk more than a few feet without being stopped. The legendary duo was mobbed by athletes, volunteers and staff alike for photos and conversation as they toured the Youth Olympic Village earlier this week at the Summer Youth Olympic Games Buenos Aires 2018.
Hawk, a nine-times X Games champion and perhaps the biggest name in skateboarding, and Smith, a 2000 Olympic basketball gold medalist and 2003 NBA champion, were both experiencing an Olympic village for the first time. Both were excited for the experience and to meet the teenaged athletes.
For each athlete, Buenos Aires marks a new era for their sport. Hawk was participating in and taking in skateboarding demos before the sport makes its Olympic debut in Tokyo in less than two years. Smith was watching 3x3 basketball, which debuted at the Youth Games in 2010 but joins the Olympic program in 2020.
Hawk and Smith spoke to a few dozen Youth Olympians in the village, sharing words of wisdom from their careers.
What did you think of your visit to the village?
Tony Hawk: I’ve been to Olympic events, but never actually to the village to see any of the athletes and what goes on here, so it’s cool to be invited and meet so many athletes who are so passionate about what they do. There’s not a sense of animosity here, it’s more a togetherness and thankfulness for being here, so it’s been really great to observe, so thanks for having us.
Steve Smith: I echo what Tony said. I had a chance to play in the 2000 Olympics but we weren’t able to go in the Olympic Village for security reasons, so for me to be able to walk around, feel the energy from the youngsters, it’s bringing me back to see the smiles and the passion of the athlete. I’m excited.
What is it like for you to come here and engage with youth in the sport?
Hawk: It’s fun for me to pass on whatever advice or experience I can. Skateboarding will be in the Tokyo Olympics for the first time. That’s an exciting time for skating obviously, but also to see the path leading to that and to see the youth – that’s something they have been doing for such a long time that it seems natural to them that it would be an Olympic event.
For my generation it seems strange because it was always considered more of an outcast activity, so there’s a lot of compromise and learning involved, but ultimately I think it will get great exposure for skateboarding and that we will see a whole new audience for it and we will see a new generation embrace it.
Smith: To see 3x3, which I grew up playing, I think is fantastic. I think it’ll be more of an opportunity for amateur athletes to get a chance to play. To see the love and the passion of the kids playing 3x3 is awesome. I remember, when I was a little kid, I went around asking other athletes how they trained – so just to absorb knowledge and gain wisdom around you is so great. With athletes gathered like this, you learn so much.
Tony, when did you think you could skate for a living?
Hawk: It’s interesting because skating was very much an underground activity when I started, not something you would choose to do for a living. It was more of an activity you could enjoy until you reached an age of responsibility and then you had to give it up. As I started to reach the age of responsibility, skating popularity started to grow. I was making a really good living off of it in my senior year of high school. Everyone I was going to school with was trying to figure out what their career is going to be and that’s when I realized I had this career that sort of fell on me.
I was lucky that I was in the right place, right time, but also when I chose to do that I dove into that completely and devoted myself to it. It died very quickly soon after that and I found myself with a new family, two mortgages, and struggling to get by, which I think solidified my passion because I didn’t quit skating through those years, I just made it work. It was tricky, but here we are 20 years later and skating is just as popular as any sport.
What was your biggest challenge through your career?
Smith: Confidence. In high school, I was only 5-foot-9, so I didn’t have the confidence. I was shying away from basketball because everyone said I was too small when I was 5-9 in ninth grade. Then I grew to 6-7 my senior year, so then my confidence got going, and then I got a scholarship. Like Tony said, I just did it for the love of the game. Then I got drafted and had a chance to continue my dream. Still now, because I’m broadcasting, I haven’t had a real job yet, so I’m still working on not having a real job.
Hawk: My greatest challenge was finding acceptance. Skating was a very outcast activity, not something parents were accepting. When I finally got into it and committed myself to it, my style was so different, because I was so scrawny, that I was considered an outcast in that outcast activity, and so to find any sense of acceptance was really hard for me. I did find a crew that had the same sensibilities, the same sense of style, and we just started making up tricks even though no one paid attention or cared about it. We loved it, we had a passion for it. Eventually it was accepted and the kinds of things we were doing were considered more progressive than what those old-school skaters were doing. It was about perseverance.
Tony, how was the challenge of your sport becoming an Olympic sport?
Hawk: I was not part of the beginnings of that. I think the challenge was trying to get the Olympic committees to recognize skateboarding is a valid sport and could be included in the Olympics, and that the format we have could definitely translate onto TV. I think the biggest hurdle was just reminding the Olympics that you have to look to the youth. We’re here at the Youth Olympic Games and the sports that are here are more representative of what youth are doing across the world, and skateboarding is one of those things. I think we’re going to see skating be much more accepted after Tokyo 2020 and also probably the inclusion of more youthful, alternative sports in the future. It’s exciting. It’s exactly what happened with snowboarding in the winter Olympics. We’re living in change right now.
What was the one moment that solidified this could be a career for you?
Smith: I think for me it was eleventh grade. I was at a basketball camp, it was Isiah Thomas’ basketball camp. Magic Johnson and Mark Aguirre, two guys that are fantastic players, were there speaking. Magic asked me to stay after the camp so I could play 2x2 with him against Mark Aguirre and Isiah Thomas. For an eleventh grader to get to play 2x2 with them, I think that was the moment when I said this is what I really love ,and playing with them took my confidence to the next level.
Hawk: When I was young I was learning all kinds of strange tricks, and at the time tricks weren’t cool in skateboarding; they were considered more of a circus act. This one competition, it was a world cup, for one of my last tricks of my run I took a trick one of my heroes created and added to it. I did it at the end of my run and I remember a couple of pros took note and later on in the day I saw one of my biggest inspirations try my trick, and for me that was a moment of validation more than anything. I couldn’t believe this guy who I’ve been patterning my skating after is now trying to learn a move that I created. Up until that moment I didn’t have a lot of positive reinforcement for what I was doing. To see this guy who I thought was the most innovative skater learning my trick was the moment I said I want to keep doing this for as long as I can.
What does it mean for you to be role models for young athletes?
Smith: For me it’s important to stay true to myself and understand when I was a little kid the feeling I had of wanting to ask questions to different pros. I always feel that that’s my duty. My parents told me to always give back. I have three basketball camps so I can try to give back the knowledge and keep the wisdom going. It’s an unbelievable feeling to see some youngsters say they looked up to me when they were young and now they’re in the NBA.
Hawk: In terms of inspiring younger skaters or athletes, it’s a huge honor and there’s a lot of responsibility that can come with that. I hope that just by my actions and by my perseverance that they can see inspiration from that. Do what you love and don’t give up on it. Even if it’s not the most financially stable thing you can choose, you’re going to love your job and that’s way more important to me.
With 3x3 basketball and skateboarding joining the Olympics in 2020, how do you feel seeing these events be added?
Hawk: Skating will always have that edge and that sort of rebel attitude and that will probably shine through with it being in the Olympic coverage. When I hear an announcer on NBC say Stalefish, that’s a huge moment because we created that language and now it’s on center stage in the biggest sports forum. But at the same time, I think skating will always have that outcast element. Just because it is competition doesn’t mean that represents all of skating.
Smith: For me, the game of basketball has been around but 3x3 goes back to the grassroots, and I think that’s what’s fantastic. Basketball itself has gone so global. Thinking about my former teammate, (four-time NBA champion and two-time Olympic medalist for Argentina) Manu Ginobili, now I get the chance to say, ‘Manu, I I got a chance to come to Argentina.’ The game of basketball has brought me to so manty different countries and helped me meet so many different people, and 3x3 will open up so many different opportunities for so many youth.