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Kickflips And COVID: Skating Makes A Comeback In Gainesville

Left to right: Palmer Chung (12), Jake Smith (12), Jesse Smith (8), and Dacron Weston (10) all get together in the middle of Creek Skate Park for a photo-op. The boys were brought together by Jake and Jesse’s mom Jaime who started a Facebook group called “Skate Gainesville” to connect with local skaters and plan group events. (Jordyn Kalman/WUFT News)
Left to right: Palmer Chung (12), Jake Smith (12), Jesse Smith (8), and Dacron Weston (10) all get together in the middle of Creek Skate Park for a photo-op. The boys were brought together by Jake and Jesse’s mom Jaime who started a Facebook group called “Skate Gainesville” to connect with local skaters and plan group events. (Jordyn Kalman/WUFT News)

As the world entered a standstill in March, Ryan Karczewski made a $30 impulse buy on Amazon: A new pair of roller skates.

The 20-year-old University of Florida student wanted to pick up a new hobby to help him stay active while following social distancing guidelines, he said. Six months later, he couldn't imagine life without them.

“If I don't skate, I don’t go outside, and I start to feel sad,” Karczewski said. “When I’m skating, I feel more confident in myself.”

Karczewski is one of many who pursued skating as a quarantine hobby. Skating has surged in popularity over the coronavirus pandemic, with searches for “how to skateboard” and “how to roller skate” both hitting a 5-year peak in May, according to Google Trends.

Skating has also taken over social media, with TikTok videos posted under the hashtags #rollerskating and #skateboardbeginner gaining over three billion views combined.

And it's clearly gained a renewed foothold in Gainesville.

Just by stopping along his route to talk to other skaters, Karczewski said he has made dozens of new friends and loves how social the sport is. He encourages anyone who wants to start skating to take the leap.

“Just go for it,” Karczewski said. “I see so many people who are beginner skaters every day. You’re not alone.”

Gainesville native Jesten Vick has noticed many new faces at the skateparks recently, he said. Vick has been skating since he was 10 years old when his uncle, who is a professional skateboarder, bought him his first board.

Now, the 20-year-old mechanic competes in amateur skateboarding competitions all across the state in hopes of following in his uncle's footsteps. Even though competitions have been cancelled this year, Vick continues to skate every day after work around Gainesville and on a ramp he built in his backyard.

“That's the goal, but that's not the only reason I do it,” Vick said. “I wouldn't care if I never go pro. I just like skating because it's fun.”

One of Vick’s favorite places to skate is Possum Creek Skatepark, which was the center of controversy in May when the city dumped a truckload of mulch on the park to prevent people from gathering. After a friend called him to tell him what happened, Vick was one of the first people on site helping shovel the mulch out of the way, he said.

“Skateboarding has probably been one of the only things that's kept me happy over the last 10 years,” Vick said. “Mulching the park felt like they were taking away what keeps me from wanting to die.”

Skating’s appeal has not been limited to the teenage and young adult demographic. Kids as young as 6 to adults as old as 60 have also turned to skating to combat quarantine boredom.

Todd Baker, 57, hadn’t touched a skateboard since he was 17, but after a 40-year hiatus, he decided to get back on the board in March.

The Alachua resident rekindled his love for skating because of all of the free time quarantine has given him, Baker said. He frequently visits Possum Creek to practice skills he never learned as a child, like dropping into the bowl, carving, axle grinding and pumping.

“I might as well do it now before my knees give out,” Baker said. “I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep skating.”

Jamie Smith has two sons, Jake, 12, and Jesse, 8, who both grew up skating, she said. But during the quarantine period, she saw a big increase in the time they dedicated to the sport.

“Because of COVID, we were home so much, and my 12-year-old would sit out in our driveway and just play on his board for a while,” Smith said. “So, he's really got a lot better just because of that.”

Gainesville is Smith’s hometown, but her family has lived in Jacksonville for the last 17 years where there is a larger skate community, she said. After being back for two years, she decided to make a Facebook group called “Skate Gainesville” that aims to connect parents with kids who skate in the area.

Smith is supportive of her sons skating because she enjoys seeing her boys going outside and being active, she said. Smith gets up at around 8 a.m. on most weekends to drive them to Possum Creek in order to beat the summer heat.

“They skate in the heat, which to me seems miserable.” Smith said. “But they don't care. They don't even notice it. They never want to leave when we're out there.”

Skating’s resurgence has not only benefited individuals' mental and physical health, but also the local economy. While the COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to close, this increase in popularity has fueled an unprecedented demand for skating equipment.

Gainesville’s Samurai Skate Shop, 920 NW 2nd St., celebrated its one-year anniversary on Aug. 14. Owner Billy Rohan said the shop has struggled to keep up with the high demand.

“It's a strange phenomenon because kids that normally would be doing ball sports are starting to pick up skateboards because it's perfect for social distancing,” Rohan said. “They can still go out and have fun as a group but still maintain their distance from each other.”

The store has experienced shortages of products that are manufactured overseas like trucks and wheels due to shipping delays, Rohan said. Samurai requires all shoppers to wear masks inside and has a large open space in the back to skate safely.

Despite the hardships experienced by many this year, Rohan believes the pandemic has benefitted the skating community by giving people a reason to get out of the house, explore their city and bond with other skaters.

“You’re open to a whole new world of friendship the minute you pick up a skateboard,” Rohan said. “It doesn't matter if you're the richest kid or the poorest kid, Black or white, Asian, Hispanic, girl, boy; it's something anybody can do and have fun doing.”

Jordyn is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.