Skateboarding icon Tony Hawk, also known as “The Birdman”, was in Phnom Penh last week for his Thanksgiving holiday. With a career under his belt that includes the first documented 900 degree aerial spin in 1999, the 45-year-old retired pro-skater was enshrined as a video game character in the critically acclaimed Tony Hawk sports game franchise. He visited the Phnom Penh chapter of Skateistan, an NGO that provides community services and skateboarding lessons to vulnerable children in Afghanistan and Cambodia, where he spoke to Rick Valenzuela and Dan Quinlin about skating, his travels in the Kingdom and taking his sponsored child on her first skateboard ride.
You were here in 2008. How have you seen skateboarding grow in Cambodia?
When I was here the first time, there was no sign of skateboarding anywhere. Someone told me that there was a ramp in Phnom Penh, but it was for the very few rollerbladers that were here. Now there’s a skate scene here, thanks to Skateistan for sure. It’s great seeing the kids getting involved in it, it’s great to see how the teachers here are thriving in it. They’re very good. And it’s going to keep growing.
How did you first come in contact with Skateistan?
I read about Skateistan like anyone else. I read about it in the New York Times and I saw [Skateistan founder Oliver Percovich] in a fountain with these kids and I thought that is amazing, that’s fascinating, and I feel that was the spark. And next thing I know, there’s a full skate park and a school. And I watched it from afar and I watched it keep growing, and eventually met Oliver. When I heard that the second official Skateistan outside Afghanistan was in Cambodia, I was amazed because I had already been there, and I knew I was going to come back.
How did you end up in Cambodia five years ago?
I came with this group of retired sports athletes. They support this project called Spirit of Soccer where they help clear landmines in villages and also give kids soccer fields. I came on behalf of that, but ended up with [Cambodian Children’s Fund] and started sponsoring a girl there, who I had never actually met. I only started sponsoring her after I left, and got to meet her this time around.
How was meeting your sponsored child?
It was really fun to meet her. I had Skyped with her a couple times, but she is painfully shy, so she hides her face. Finally yesterday we got her to break out of her shell and took her shopping for clothes and books. Then she came here, and I grabbed her and put her on my skateboard and took her for a ride and she was freaking out. She thought it was a crazy rollercoaster.
You’re a spokesman for Quiksilver, a US-based clothing line. Would you ever consider producing garments in Cambodia?
We don’t make anything here. To be honest, it’s not up to me. That’s up to Quiksilver.
I recall that in the 1980s, your team distributed skateboards in China. How have skateboarding charities in the developing world changed?
I think in the past people were trying to promote skating in other countries, but all they were doing was giving them skateboards. They weren’t really giving them the resources necessary, and people weren’t proactive in figuring it out themselves. If you give them the facilities and the education, they keep coming back to it and they really enjoy it, and they want to grow it.
Aren’t the options for a wannabe pro-skater slim in Cambodia?
It’s not just about skating here. It’s about giving people life skills and giving them hope for their future. Through Skateistan, the excitement of skating is just the catalyst to help them form a better community. And obviously skating is a super fun aspect to it, and if they really take to it, maybe they can get better and have a future in skating itself. But for the most part, skating teaches you so many other things about self confidence, about perseverance, determination, and also believing in yourself.