Photo essay: Ottawa skateboarders talk mental health and combatting stereotypes

Among the unlikely effects of the pandemic is a surge in skateboarding. The Pigeon spoke with skateboarders in Ottawa about skating during the pandemic and defying stereotypes.

Despite the effect COVID-19 restrictions have had on skateboarding in Ontario—including the shuttering of local skateboard shops and skate parks during periods of increased restrictions—the sport has seen an unexpected boom during the pandemic.

Under COVID-19 restrictions put in place on April 16, skate parks in the province were closed, along with basketball courts, golf courses, tennis fields and other outdoor sports amenities. On May 21, skate parks were allowed to reopen.

At all hours of the day, dozens of skateboarders can be found at the Charlie Bowins Skatepark on Bronson Avenue in Ottawa. Many of them say skateboarding helps support their mental health at a time when opportunities to exercise and socialize are limited.

Alongside the repeated opening and closing of parks in the city is the ongoing issue of inclusivity in skateboarding. Skaters say the sport is broadening to include participants of all ages, genders, and backgrounds while defying existing negative stereotypes about skateboarding.

The Pigeon spoke with skateboarders at the park about what the community means to them, how skateboarding is supporting their mental health during the pandemic, and changing attitudes towards the sport.

Jack Cluett

Cluett stands for a portrait on top of a quarter pipe at the Charlie Bowins Skatepark. Spencer Colby.

Jack Cluett has been skateboarding since he was six or seven years old. He said he often skateboards with his friend Keith Kissmann, who was also at the park.

Spencer Colby.

Cluett said he’s been going to the skate park more often during the pandemic as an outlet for physical exercise, seeing friends, and community. He’s a biology student at Capilano University in Vancouver, B.C.

“Especially during COVID […] I feel like people are struggling with not having anything to do and [their] mental health,” Cluett said. “If it weren’t for skateboarding, I’d definitely be struggling a lot more.”

Keith Kissmann

Pictured above, Kissmann sits for a portrait on top of a quarter pipe. Spencer Colby.

Kissmann said he and Cluett normally skate in Carleton Place, but their usual park is closed because of Ontario pandemic restrictions.

Kissmann agreed that skateboarding helps his mental health. “Skateboarding is the only way for me to see my friends without being in close contact with them,” he said.

Kissmann attempts a kickflip. Spencer Colby.

“You can just go anywhere and be friends with anyone. There’s no discrimination for the most part. As long as you skateboard, you’re my friend,” he said.

Olivier Friquin

Friquin smiles for a portrait with his skateboard. Spencer Colby.

Olivier Friquin said he’s noticed more people getting into skateboarding during the pandemic, which is reducing the negative attitude some have towards the sport.

He said people are less judgmental, but he wants them to go beyond the trend to see the more complex aspects of the sport.

Friquin explained that each skateboarder’s board is unique to them. Width, wheel softness and size, colour, and the board’s overall shape all depend on the needs of the skateboarder.

Spencer Colby.

Skateboarding gives Friquin a sense of community and the chance to develop a skill.

“I want people to understand that so we don’t get all this hate as much as we used to,” he said.

He added stereotypes that skateboarders are “skate rats” who aren’t doing anything with their lives aren’t true. Part of skateboarding culture is a sense of equality, regardless of age or skill level, he explained.

“You see the person who’s just trying to ride his board and learn, you’re on the same level as them. You’re not better or worse,” Friquin said. “There’s no hierarchy.”

Jordan Wells

Wells looks on during a portrait. Spencer Colby.

Jordan Wells runs a skateboarding program in a skate park in Ottawa’s city centre. He said his students range in age from three to 65 years old, and most of the kids he teaches are girls. “That’s the biggest change I’ve seen since I’ve started skateboarding; it’s levelling out. It’s friggin’ exciting,” he said.

Wells attempts an aerial grab on a quarter pipe. Spencer Colby.

Wells said he was taught to skateboard by his friend Eric Lunianga when they were kids and living on the same street in Ottawa 20 years ago. “I dropped my hockey stick, I chased after him and I said, ‘Eric, what are you doing?’” Wells said.

He said although historically there have been fewer women skateboarders, all kinds of people are a part of the community.

“What is a skateboarder? A happy, expressive person that likes an athletic discipline,” Wells said.

Eric Lunianga

Lunianga sits on top of a quarter pipe during a portrait session. Spencer Colby.

Eric Lunianga said he got his first skateboard when he was about 12, which he eventually gave to Wells. He said he stopped skateboarding for many years and started again after a breakup several years ago.

“I guess I needed a way to just process the whole dilemma and this was a great outlet,” Lunianga said. “I think without it, I would have been really messed up.”

Lunianga skates to set up for his next move. Spencer Colby.

He said people’s judgement about skateboarding has never bothered him.

“I mostly took sh—t only from the other Black kids at school, because they were like, ‘skateboarding is for white people,’” he said. “I just didn’t care.”

“Nothing builds character like skateboarding. You fall, you eat sh—t, you get back up, you try again, and that’s life, isn’t it?” Lunianga said.

“Once you land it, even if it’s just one time, it’s all worth it.”

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