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Thursday, Apr 18, 2024

Getting up, falling down, and doing it all over again: A comprehensive look at Middlebury College’s skateboarding scene

The thunderous rolls of tiny urethane wheels down Middlebury’s hills can be heard from dorm room windows across campus at virtually any time of day. Balancing precariously on top of an eight inch wide wooden plank while going down rails and jumping down stairs whose architects never envisioned them to be used in such a manner, regular objects are turned into obstacles of affirmation on a daily basis at Middlebury College. 

Skateboarding, a newly recognized Olympic sport that was born in empty swimming pools of sunny California, has roots in hilly, rural Middlebury that extend almost 40 years. Just as Vermont’s own Jake Burton birthed modern snowboarding, a pastime banned at ski resorts until the 90s, Middlebury alumni Rick Holzman recounted to The Campus the original four wheeled pioneers of the 80’s. 

“People thought it was a fad,” recalled Holzman, one of six skaters from the town and college collectively in 1984, one year before Marty McFly’s hoverboard scene appeared in “Back To The Future.” With help from his professor, Holzman constructed obstacles such as half pipes and quarter pipes to soar to new heights.

 “Everyone knew who we were just because nobody else skated,” Holzman said.

Holzman and his crew would travel hours to compete in skateboarding “vert” contests — a style of skating which retired professional skateboarder Tony Hawk brought to prominence. Driving as far as Rhode Island or Montreal just to skate a stranger's backyard halfpipe or barn DIY skatepark, Holzman remembered a long gone era of the sport when Vans were strictly skateboarding shoes and you couldn’t buy skateboards from the mall. 

Now, skateboarding is more international than ever, with Japan and Brazil producing some of the talent that won medals at skateboarding’s most global platform yet, the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The dynamics of the skateboarding scene at Middlebury reflect a diverse range of skaters who come from different backgrounds, all brought together by a wooden toy with wheels, even if their styles may be different. 

“Skateboarding kinda brings people together from all different walks of campus life over a super simple pleasure of hitting a stair set or using the manny pad,” according to Sam Hale Schneiderhan ’25.

For those unfamiliar with skateboard lingo, manuals, or “wheelies” are when the board is balanced on one set of wheels. 

Ivo Verzone ’23.5, a longboard dancer (think ballerina spins and shuffling footwork, but balancing and rolling on a long surf-like board) brings a unique global style to skateboarding on campus — that is, of course, when he isn’t sending flips off jumps at the Snow Bowl as a member of ski patrol. “It's very beginner friendly,” he told The Campus. 

Several spots on campus are of particular importance to skateboarders for different reasons. Right outside of Proctor Dining Hall is a major spot for skaters to convene as the wide, smooth road provides the perfect texture for landing kickflips and the stairs are an obstacle with enough runway to jump down. Forest basement is another space that has been used by skateboarders as an indoor refuge from Vermont’s icy temperatures and salt-caked sidewalks, both of which are natural enemies to skateboards (salt can get stuck in the bearings of wheels and cold temperatures can freeze the bushings that make the trucks of the skateboard turn). 

On any given warm day, in a place where warm days are rarely given, skateboarders will slap their boards on the ground as a gesture of applause when they land a trick or engage in friendly competition with games of S.K.A.T.E — akin to H.O.R.S.E. in basketball — in which players take turns performing tricks. 

Despite Middlebury’s campus being home to a treasure trove of skate spots, some skateboarders noted that skateboarding alone in public places like Proctor Dining Hall can result in stares, especially for an activity that is very much a public display of trial and error.

“It can feel like being in a zoo,” Lucas Dulitzky Gilman ’26.5 said. “If you skate here, everybody knows you do. It’s not like a sport only played on a field, you’re falling over and over again on the most public space on campus so your identity becomes attached to just skateboarding”

Other skaters agreed about the vulnerable aspects of the activity and its sometimes negative reception. 

“It's a male-dominated sport. It can be very intimate to skate and be expressive with your body,”  Kim Aranda ’23.5 said, who recalled a story of being followed around by a car of men while skateboarding on campus, an experience that made Aranda feel “watched and unsafe.” 

Skateboarding in groups seems to bring a sense of community and safety that creates a more welcoming space for the activity, even if it can appear intimidating from an outside perspective. 

Middlebury’s campus is not just important to student skaters, but also to the larger skateboarding community. Chris Carr, 27, and Calum Buchanan, 28, are two skateboarders who came to the college recently to film for a full-length skate video —  a compilation of skateboarding done in the streets, rather than in skateparks.

 “For how small of a town it is, there’s a lot of skateboarders,” Carr said of the nearest skate mecca, Burlington, where he first came as a college student. 

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Noe Horiwaki ’21 skates in Bluecouch New York’s video project, “Little Blue."

Like Middlebury, Burlington’s college population has a major impact on the skateboarding scene, Buchanan said. Various internationally recognized skateboarders have hailed from the Burlington area, including Chris “Cookie” Colbourn, Jordan Maxham and Dave Abair. Middlebury alumni such as Noe Horiwaki ’21 have appeared in various films from skateboard companies like Bluecouch New York, and spots around Middlebury have appeared in videos like Colin Hale’s “Stuck in Vermont.” These videos have collectively accumulated tens of thousands of views on YouTube. 

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Cody Hale, appearing in Colin Hale’s “Stuck in Vermont” video, delicately balances a smith grind outside Coffrin Hall, with a grass roll-away as the cherry-on-top.

The town of Middlebury has also garnered attention in the local skateboarding community as the potential site for a new Vermont concrete skate park. The Middlebury Skatepark Project is a volunteer-run nonprofit with the goal of bringing a professionally designed skate park to town. The nonprofit’s most recent accomplishment was building a halfpipe.  

A number of Middlebury students and faculty are connected to the project, many of whom skateboard themselves. C.V. Starr Schools Abroad Administrative and Projects Coordinator Phyllis Stinson, Sociology Post-Doctoral fellow Markus Gerke who teaches courses on the culture of sports and Associate Professor of Political Science Kemi Fuentes-George all have been involved with the project, with Film and Media Studies media production specialist Ethan Murphy spearheading the campaign.  

The Skatepark Project hopes that a skatepark in Middlebury will bring in skaters from all around the state. Since the expansion of a concrete skatepark in Manchester, Vt., Carr explained that skaters have been making the two-and-a-half hour drive from Burlington, Vt. to Manchester to skate the new park. 

While the skateboarder population at Middlebury can vary in size from year to year, one thing is clear from both Middlebury’s past and future: the culture of skateboarding will always have a home here for anyone who chooses to step on the board.