“It’s a piece of wood with wheels, it starts out as a toy, some people think it’s a nuisance… but it can become a career, an art form and break down barriers,” Team USA Skateboarder Jamie Foy mused to Tokyo 2020, with a mix of gratitude and wonder that radiates from somewhere deep. “So I was like: ‘all right, let’s see how far I can take it.’”
This is the natural impulse of a skateboarder. Push past what is assumed and pry open the possibilities. “There’s no boundaries,” Foy smiled, revealing a broken tooth earned in 2016 and an every-day reminder that finding the line between possible and crazy comes at a cost. “That’s what skateboarding is really.”
'Big Boy' Foy, as he’s known to some, was desperate to push into the world before he could even walk. The youngest of three, he grew up on a cul-de-sac near the Atlantic Ocean in Florida. One day, Mother Foy found her one-year-old son, in his nappy, whacking at the front door with his sister’s skateboard. He was trying to get out, so she opened the door and out rolled her baby boy, Jamie Foy, pushing himself along on his knee, towards the older kids skating homemade ramps on the dead-end street.
“It was just a natural motion,” Foy said, smiling in the sunshine of Southern California, skateboarding’s birthplace, some 50 or so years ago, and still its spiritual home. “I just haven’t stopped since.”
High art on a handrail
Now 24, he’s among a handful of the world’s best street skaters. On a handrail, none can match him. And he’s very much in the conversation to represent Team USA at the Tokyo Games this summer, when the sport he loves makes its Olympic debut. “Hopefully it [the Olympics] helps get skateboarding more broadly accepted,” said Foy, who along with other high-profile riders, like national teammate Nyjah Huston, is helping street skating break from its rough-and-tumble origins as a fringe activity more likely to draw the attention of police than adoring crowds. “In the future, skate parks might be easier to get, like basketball courts are, or tennis courts or, like, a baseball field.”
In some ways, the Olympics is the perfect venue for skateboarding. It combines artistry and power, speed and timing. In other ways, the marriage is a curious one. Skating skirts the boundaries between culture and fashion. Daredevilry too. It has its own language, one that’s seeped out into the global culture from the curbs and drainage ditches of California. Let’s face it – fencing and rowing, for all their many charms and challenges, are not, nor will they ever be “gnarly.” The adherents of these more traditional Olympic sports aren’t generally “stoked” when they win, nor do they “shred” en route to those victories.
The apparatus of street skateboarding, born in the 1980s on the steep hills of a still-gritty San Francisco, is mundane. It’s found in among the design of a city or a town and its public spaces. You have hubbas (high curbs) and stair sets, high school hallways, libraries and playgrounds. “I see everything through skating,” said Foy, under curly blond locks he wears long and ties back when he skates. “I could be in an airport or in middle of the desert and see some crazy rock and I might just think of a way to try to skate it.”
He has an infinite array of rail tricks. And his catalogue grows every year. His willingness to go higher, farther, and grind more crooked and kinked rails, is relentless. To Foy, a handrail, a support structure to aid the careful in ascending or descending a flight of stairs, becomes a venue for derring-do.
The first handrail was skated by legend Mark ‘Gonz’ Gonzalez in 1986. One shouldn’t underestimate the pain and physical punishment that goes into learning how to ride rails. Foy wears his lessons in scars and scrapes that never heal. “You take some rails on the chest, on your ribs,” said Foy, who thinks his shorter, squatter frame – rare for a skater – helps him absorb the impact of pavement and steel. “But you learn it and if, like, you want to accomplish this, you deal with it. I really want it… So you just have to keep getting up.”
Most people like waking up and drinking coffee...
I'm down to just go and, like, grind a rail.
Foy has raised handrail grinds and slides to the level of high art. “Like a backside 50-50, which is when both the trucks [the metal axles that hold the wheels to the board] are on the rail, you're making all this loud noise, and that's like simplicity to me,” said Foy, who, like all top street skaters, wears no pads and no helmet (only those under 18 will be required to pad-up in Tokyo). “Most people like waking up and drinking coffee. I'm down to just go and, like, grind a rail.”
A 2017 in dreamland
His commitment and courage, his overall style, led Foy to a 2017 that was the stuff of fantasy. He found out exactly where the piece of wood with wheels, that toy, could take him. Doors opened like spring blossoms – largely down to the two years he spent filming, with legendary videographer Ty Evans, a stunning solo part for the video The Flat Earth.
Foy was named 2017’s Skater of the Year by the staff of Thrasher. Most skaters – Foy among them – consider this magazine “the Bible” of skating. “It was so surreal,” said Foy of the day he was surprised with the award by some of the world’s top skaters. “Just having everyone there congratulating me, being happy for me, guys I grew up watching. They were celebrating me and I’m this 21-year-old kid from Florida who’s just thrilled to be out there with them!”
The trophy itself was handed over by the late Jake Phelps, editor-in-chief of Thrasher for 27 years and, before his sudden death in March of 2019, an iconoclastic link to the rough-and-ready early days of street skating. “You know he [Phelps] was a crazy person, but all he did was like breathe, eat, sleep skateboarding,” Foy remembered of the moment, emotion in his voice for the passing of a mad legend. “He [Phelps] just grabs me by the shirt and starts screaming: ‘You have to support this for life! Are you willing to do it! Do you accept the terms and conditions?’”
Foy did. Of course.
Skater of the Year – a coronation
Mash football’s Ballon d’Or, an Oscar and a Guggenheim Award together and you’ll get a sense of what a SOTY amounts to in the ecosystem of skateboarding. The first winner was Tony Hawk, back in 1990 (six years before Foy was born). And the all-time list of winners is a who’s-who of skating’s best and bravest and most innovative. It contains the likes of old-school maestro John Cardiel, the innovative and restless Danny Way (twice awarded with 13 years in between) and hyper-technician Daewon Song. Every name on the list is legendary or en route to it.
Among other perks is a spot on the cover of Thrasher – the most valuable and venerated real estate in the world of skateboarding. All Foy had to do was something completely terrifying: grind the bone-breaking handrail at El Toro High School in Lake Forest, California, with a camera crew there to commit it to history. “I was like ‘I don’t know if I can do this’,” Foy said of staring down the 20-stair drop that can turn legs to jelly.
But he did. “Battling a trick” as he calls it, is not something Foy has ever shied away from. And the issue hit shelves on January 2018 and enshrined him, forever, in the pantheon of skating’s chosen few. “It’s tattooed in my brain, literally. exactly how I felt when I saw it,” he said about the front crook grind down the huge rail on the cover of the magazine that has defined skating, its culture and its meanings, since 1981. “It will never leave my mind. That’s just where you want to be, where every skater wants to be.”
“…Every so often a skater comes out of nowhere, blows our mind and pushes the limits of progression and perception,” Chad Muska, among the most colourful skaters of the late 1990s and 2000s, said about Foy in the accompanying Thrasher article titled, aptly, ‘The People’s Champion’. “Jamie’s one of those guys! The handrail god.”
Street style and a 2020 recharge
That breakout 2017 saw Foy turn pro. There were contest wins and prize money. Sponsors lined up too. But on top of all that, and this is crucial, he maintained his style. And style – though hard to define – is prized among street skaters. “You see somebody like Jamie Foy, you know he's going to work in the streets… and it translates into the skate park,” insisted Mariah Duran, one of Team USA’s top female riders with a style all her own. “There’s no stunt double for this. You can’t fake it.”
The Pandemic Year of 2020 offered Foy an opportunity to get back to the essence of street skating. Competitions were cancelled and skate spots were empty due to COVID-19 precautions and the closure of public buildings.
“We could kind of take advantage,” said Foy about a strange last year that saw the Olympics – and skateboarding's Olympic debut – postponed. “Lot’s of places were closed, skate parks too, but we kind of had free rein out on the streets. Cops had other priorities and we were just able to get out on the streets and get back to the roots. A lot of amazing skating got done and that’s going to translate into contests when they start up.”
The rescheduled Olympics are right around the corner. If Jamie Foy finds himself there, he’ll be wearing a big smile. He always does. He’ll have that board under his arm and he’ll find out, once again, how far he can go with it. “I just wanted to take skating and run with it as much as I could,” added Foy, always respectful of the so-called skate rats who invited him in, showed the way, and recognised all he had to give back. “I have this skateboard… and whoever possesses the skateboard can do whatever they want with it…”