Boipelo Awuah: The skateboard diamond of Kimberley

Hailing from diamond capital Kimberley, the 15-year-old Boipelo Awuah is one of the skateboarding gems making her debut at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games (in 2021).

Awuah will be the youngest member of the South African team heading to the global showpiece. She has gone from local hero in Kimberley to boarding at her first international competition, and meeting her idols on the global stage in a matter of months. To top it off, Awuah punched her ticket to the Olympic Games as the only African skateboarder in the women's street skateboarding competition.

"It was crazy, I went from skating national competitions to skating the world championships out of nowhere, you know, but it was an awesome experience," Awuah said.

"It sunk in recently after coming back from Rome (World Skateboarding Championships), that's when all of it sunk in, and I was like, 'oh my god, I'm going to the Olympics!' And still today it doesn't feel real because some athletes spend their entire lives training for this moment, to make it to the Olympics."

Awuah, who picked up a skateboard for the first time at the age of five, fostered dreams of representing her country at the highest level, but the Olympics never quite entered her orbit. Skateboarding will be making its debut at these Olympic Games, and Awuah will be among the 80 athletes breaking new ground for the sport.

"My mindset going into Tokyo will be I want to be able to perform at my best level," said Awuah.

"You know, I'm not going out there like thinking about winning and all that. I want to do my best and come back with no regrets. I don't want to come back and be like, 'OK, I wish I'd done more.' So I'm doing all that now just to make me happy and perform at my best level."

The diamond of Kimberley

Awuah made her maiden appearance at the world championships, where she failed to make it past the qualifying stages. She admits female skateboarding in South Africa and the continent is still in its infancy and hopes her story would inspire an awakening.

Skateboarding in South Africa did not have a formal administrative body, and it has only in recent years been brought under the purview of a recognised federation. Two years ago, Roller Sport South Africa provisionally adopted skateboarding to assist the athletes in getting to international competitions to earn points towards qualifying for the Games.

Roller Sport South Africa hosted the country's first national championships for skateboarders in December 2020. Due to the pandemic, they held the second one six months later to provide the athletes with an extra opportunity to earn points. The top two athletes in each discipline and gender would be selected for the world championships, which served as the final qualifying competition for Tokyo 2020.

I hope this is just the beginning, and I learn from this experience of representing South Africa at the Olympics

Awuah won both national championships to earn a qualifying place in Rome, where she qualified as the highest-ranked skateboarder from Africa in her discipline. Her exploits in street skateboarding have earned her the moniker, 'The diamond of Kimberley'. It is a term Awuah carries with pride.

"Ever since I was a kid, they always called me 'The diamond of Kimberley' till today, so that's a huge thing to me," she said.

"I've always dreamed about representing my country and skating at international events. I hope this is just the beginning, and I learn from this experience of representing South Africa at the Olympics and hopefully win at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games."

From a borrowed board to landing tricks

Growing up, Awuah would 'steal' her older brother's skateboard whenever he left it at home. She would climb on the board and ride around the house and out of sight of her protective parents, who did not initially approve of Awuah doing skateboarding. 

Her mother finally caved and allowed Awuah to go to the local skate park with her father, fuelling her passion for the sport.

"That's where it all started. I bought my own skateboard, it wasn't like a proper skateboard, but I was hyped to have one of my own," she recalled.

"I remember dropping into a quarter pipe, like an axle stall and drop-in, and the first time I went for it, I flipped and fell on my head. I was about seven at this point, but I was just so excited.

"I just got back up trying it before I got it right. But I did not tell my mom about the experience because, eish, she doesn't like it, you know, until this day she still doesn't watch me skate because I fall so much."

Learning on the go

Falling is par for the course but learning new tricks in a place like Kimberley can be tricky. Even though the diamond town is considered the capital of the Northern Cape, it is small compared to other major cities in South Africa.

Much of Awuah's skills are self-taught while she has picked up a few tips from other skateboarders she hangs out with. She has also turned to YouTube, but the videos were no substitute for real-world experience.

"I don't have a coach, so all of this is like by myself, I teach myself all these new tricks, but our manager is also a skateboarder, and I'll ask for advice from my manager or some of my peers," said Awuah.

"But as the skill level increases, it's kind of difficult to get help from other people because they're not at that level.

"So most of the time, I just need to figure it out by myself. I try doing the trick and not fully commit at first just to get used to the feeling of the trick. When I feel like I'm ready, I'll just do it, commit until I get used to it. Once I landed, I just do it over and over. It's like I finally have it unlocked for competitions and stuff like that."

Rubbing shoulders with her idols

Awuah got to rub shoulders with some of her skateboarding idols at the world championships, where she got to ask for advice. 

"I've always looked up to Nyjah Huston ever since I started skateboarding, and I got to meet him," Awuah said with excitement in her voice.

"I got a picture with him, and we had a conversation, which is weird because I look up to these people, and now, they're like my friends, kind of.

"It's super cool. I just talked about how they inspired me and all that, and I ask for some tips because with the Olympics coming up, I don't want to focus too much on it, like a job. But I still want to do my best at the Olympics and not take the fun out of skateboarding. I just spoke to them about all of that."

Awuah hopes to become the first South African female to turn professional in the sport and help develop skateboarding among women. She attributes much of her success to compete with boys at her local skate park but hopes to see more girls discover the joys of landing their first trick. 

"It's super competitive, but then, like I normally skate with the boys, out here, so my level, I'm like there," Awuah says as she illustrates raising one hand above the other. 

"Then the female skaters coming up the gap is like that big.

"I definitely want to leave that legacy behind, and I feel like I've already started paving the way."

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