WRITTEN BY GREG YANG / PHOTOGRAPHED BY DANE POLLOK
“Learning something difficult can be frustrating, but if you care enough about it, then it’s possible to achieve your goal. And it’s really beautiful to see them experience that through skateboarding.”
The year is 1985 and “Back to the Future” is the highest grossing film of the year.
For many, the film offers a sci-fi glimpse of the future with flying cars, time travel, and Nike sneakers that auto lace. But for Shawn Connolly, it’s a revelation of something that will become his life: skateboarding.
11-year-old Shawn goes down to his parent’s basement, finds a plastic skateboard, and begins skateboarding in a wintery Maine parking lot.
“It wasn’t snowing out, but it was so dry and cold that the concrete was white,” Shawn recalls. “I remember the wind blowing basically ice dust across the concrete. Here I am in this parking lot and there’s ice dust flying around. It’s so freaking cold and I’m just trying to skateboard.”
He falls. Again, again, and again. But each time, he gets back up.
Fast forward 35 years and Shawn and his wife, Thuy Nguyen, now own and run San Francisco Skate Club, a youth organization dedicated to teaching kids in the Bay Area how to skate.
Thuy, a teacher with a Master’s Degree in Education, has worked with youth her entire life as an elementary school teacher and mentor of non-profit organizations.
Together, Shawn, Thuy, and a group of program leaders offer programs that teach kids how to skate. But SF Skate Club is more than just a summer camp or after school program, it’s a community. A safe space that, above all, intends to help the youth discover their passions and pursue their goals.
“The most important thing to support a young person is helping them realize what their passion is. What is it they love that gets them up and going? It’s incredible to see how much love and creativity skateboarding brings for a lot of them,” Thuy says. “Learning something difficult can be frustrating, but if you care enough about it, then it’s possible to achieve your goal. And it’s really beautiful to see them experience that through skateboarding.”
That mindset of resilience and perseverance is something Shawn says is central to skateboarding.
As a kid, he’d obsess over skateboarding magazines and videos trying to dissect each trick and discover every skate spot.
For Shawn, there’s something about skateboarding that’s similar to how a mathematician formulates numbers or how a chef puts together raw ingredients. It’s an art that involves failing, numerous times, before you can master your craft.
“It’s breaking something down into little bits and pieces and figuring out how to put it back together again,” Shawn says. “It’s layers and layers to getting to what you want to do. You basically have to do five things at the same time. And to do that, you have to learn one thing at a time and then eventually you have to get to a point where you’re not even thinking about what you’re doing. You’re just able to do it.”
Like many skaters, Shawn’s obsession with skateboarding brought him to San Francisco, a city where skateboarding has ruled supreme for years. At age 18, Shawn bought a one-way ticket, hopped on a train, and set out to The City.
“The aesthetic of the city just stood out to me,” Shawn says. “San Francisco had this style to it. It’s a condensed, port city made up of hills dipped in concrete. I was like a kid in a candy store.”
But skateboarding now isn’t what it was back then.
Shawn remembers being tackled by cops just for skating down the street. Then there was the stigma that came with being a skateboarder.
“It was met with a lot of opposition from different places,” Shawn says. “A lot of parents of other kids automatically thought I was a bad influence because I skated.”
With time, skateboarding grew as a culture. And the need to teach kids how to skateboard grew as well.
SF Skate Club started as a summer camp in 2007. Shawn and Thuy loaded kids into a 15-passenger van they bought off Craigslist and took them to skate parks to skate.
“When we started this, we didn’t have a lot to go on,” Shawn says. “There was just no one teaching skateboarding at the time.”
It helped too that Thuy worked with kids.
“Thuy was able to help me translate skateboarding,” Shawn says. “She was able to graduate me from this chrome magnum skateboarder who couldn’t communicate with anyone to being in the position to talk to children, to be clear about things and not swear. You know — all the basics.”
What started as a basic need slowly developed into a real community. Today, SF Skate Club offers a summer camp, a weekly training program, and even a retail space where it sells independently designed graphic tees and skate gear. Behind the club is a core team of four program leaders who help facilitate activities with youth after school and act as mentors to kids.
Thuy says she’s happy that she and Shawn have been able to create a space where the youth can come together and grow.
“Skateboarding is something that’s really hard at first,” Thuy says. “But the kids stick with it and they do it at their own pace with their own style. And then they see that progress. Whether they’ve become the best skateboarder or not, it doesn’t matter. What matters more is that it’s something they can do with their friends and experience that acceptance, community, and love. Right now, that’s more important than ever.”
And if anything, Shawn says, SF Skate Club offers an opportunity for kids to get outside and apply some critical thinking to a craft that doesn’t involve sitting in front of a computer.
“If you think about it, it’s a much healthier, natural thing for a kid to do,” he says. “There’s more sustainability in that then there is with a kid on a computer all day.”
Looking back at how far skateboarding has taken him, Shawn believes skateboarding culture has come a long way. There are more places to legally skateboard. Information is more accessible. And there’s less negative stigma around it.
But if there’s anything that skateboarding has taught Shawn, it’s the idea that if you want to grow in life, you’ll need to fall first.
“Skateboarding is pain management,” he says. “If you’re doing it right, it’s going to hurt. There’s no way of avoiding it.”
Shawn Connolly and Thuy Nguyen are the founders of SF Skate Club located at 635A Divisadero Street in San Francisco. Check online for registration and camp schedules available throughout the year. sfskateclub.com / IG: @sfskateclub
Published November 2020