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As a young skateboarder, Jake Ilardi had what he called “faux ramps” by his driveway and “a little mini-ramp” in his yard.
Ilardi wanted to skate any surface he could. The Ospery, Florida, native eventually made his way down handrails and other obstacles he found on the streets around town.
Ilardi preferred street skateboarding to the high-flying vert ramp or the twists and turns associated with park skateboarding, which takes place on a hollowed-out course that’s shaped like large bowls. He’s now ranked second in the U.S. and seventh in the world in street skateboarding.
“Really it’s all preference, to be honest, because there are some street skaters who just skate street obstacles and they can’t skate any type of transition or park at all,” Ilardi said. “And there are some park skaters who can’t even ollie down stairs.”
Skateboarding will make its debut as an Olympic sport at the Tokyo Games, with men and women competing in the park and street disciplines.
Because the Games were postponed until the summer of 2021 due of the coronavirus pandemic, world-class skateboarders now have another year to perfect tricks and qualify for the Olympics. The delay has also given casual sports fans more time to learn about the two disciplines that will make up the skateboarding competition in Tokyo.
While skateboarders in both disciplines are scored on a set of criteria, including the difficulty of their tricks, the courses they ride are designed differently. Skaters also use different techniques to impress the judges.
“It’s two different (disciplines), but you can learn both,” said street skateboarder Jamie Foy, a member of the USA Skateboarding National Team. He was also elected earlier this year to represent skateboarding on the Athletes’ Advisory Council for the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee.
“But definitely, if you don’t try to skate park a lot, then you’re not going to get used to it. It’s something that you really need to practice.”
Foy said the Americans have a strong chance of earning gold medals in both street and park skateboarding — especially on the men’s side, with Nyjah Huston (street) and Heimana Reynolds (park) currently ranked No. 1 in the world. Foy, Thrasher Magazine’s 2017 Skater of the Year, is ranked 10th in men’s street.
Like Ilardi, Foy gravitated toward street skateboarding as a kid. But the Deerfield Beach, Florida, native said it’s a personal preference.
“It’s just kind of like an aesthetic thing, just like why does anyone like a certain type of music or why does anyone like a certain type of art?” Foy said. “It’s just what’s aesthetically pleasing to me. I love street skating the most. Skating down a big handrail and stuff like that is super fun to me, and it’s always captured my eye. So, I just chase after that one.”
In park skateboarding, competitors are scored on a variety of tricks they perform while gliding around a large course that resembles an odd-shaped pool that has been drained.
Skateboarders ride up the course’s curved walls, grind their skateboard decks along its edges and reach impressive heights while performing dizzying midair tricks. It’s nonstop motion as they quickly transition from one trick to another without getting off their skateboards — which is done in street skateboarding.
“When you skate in the park, you don’t push off your board or anything. You’re using all of your surroundings to generate all your speed and make sure that it’s one (flowing) line,” Foy said. “In street skating, it’s like multiple lines put together. You can get off your board and this and that.
“It’s like two completely different flows...They’re both energetic and take a lot out of you, but I feel like park skating might be the hardest thing because you’re constantly pumping and exhausting yourself, and there’s no stop until you’re done.”
While the disciplines differ, Ilardi said there’s not an ongoing rivalry between park skateboarders and street skateboarders.
“You see another skater and you go, ‘Hey, what’s up?’ There’s not really any type of rivalry, I would say,” Ilardi said. “It’s all love. It’s just one big family.”
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Street skateboarders compete on a straight course that’s designed to replicate the city streets they ride on a regular basis. The course has handrails to grind down, stairs to jump over and benches, walls and slopes for competitors to utilize in their runs.
While a typical bystander might use a handrail to help walk down a flight of stairs, a street skateboarder sees it as the ideal obstacle to grind.
“You can get just as creative in the skate park as you can in the streets,” Ilardi said. “But the only thing I would say is different from the streets to the park is the park is made for skating, whereas (on the city street) you go to find a random spot on the side of the street...You’re the one looking for it, and you’re using your imagination to kind of create the spot.”
With skate parks closed because of the coronavirus, Ilardi and Foy have taken advantage of people staying home during the pandemic. They’ve trained on the quiet streets around town, and now they have even fewer bystanders to compete with on sidewalks, stairs and benches.
“Instead of going to practice at skate parks, we just go into the street. Thankfully, a lot of businesses are closed and a lot of people aren’t out on the streets,” Foy said. “That way we can get out and not really bother anyone and no one bothers us, and we have a good time doing our thing.”
Whether park or street, many elite skateboarders feel the sport’s perception will change by being included in the Olympics. Foy said more people will view skateboarders as athletes instead of kids looking to cause trouble.
“I think it’s going to open up a lot of people’s eyes on skateboarding because I feel like some people look down on it,” Ilardi said. “And now that it’s an Olympic sport, it’s going to be viewed more by normal people and more accepted by the regular world.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.