The USA’s number-one ranked female street skateboarder sat down for a chat with Tokyo 2020 on the eve of her beloved sport's debut at the Games. Among the topics for discussion: Family, risk-taking, her hometown in New Mexico and how the Olympics got real fast.
In her senior year of high school, Mariah Duran quit basketball, softball and track and field. For your run-of-the-mill kid, this might’ve been cause for alarm, the brightest of red flags.
But there’s no need to worry. Duran is far from run-of-the-mill.
Now 24 and the top-ranked female street skateboarder in the United States, leaving those sports behind was a bold step toward a bigger world and, in a way no one saw coming, the Olympic Games too.
“At first, my mom was not so hyped on skateboarding,” Duran said with a chuckle in an interview with Tokyo 2020, her two brothers beside her in the backseat coming home from a skate session in her hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico. “She was like ‘damn, wow – why you gotta’ choose the craziest sport?’”
Deanna, Duran’s mother, a special education teacher in the city’s public school system, would have preferred her only daughter stick with the more traditional sports. After all, she excelled at them and they provided well-paved roads to the Olympics. But her daughter wasn’t having any of it. So, a deal was struck early, the kind of compromise made every day in families to keep the peace.
Skatepark start – with conditions
Duran, who got her first board at age ten, could go to the local skatepark only if she went with her brothers, Elijah and Zeke.
She’d already learned that she loved the trying, and even painful failing, of tricks on the paved-over front yard of her parents' house. “It all comes down to when you first climb on a skateboard,” she said of those formative early moments in the city of Albuquerque, a skateboarding backwater surrounded by the high desert of central New Mexico and far away from the fashionable skate epicentres of southern California. “That’s when you know if you’re a skateboarder or not. You’re gonna’ slam. You’re gonna’ slam hard. And you’re either gonna’ get up – without anyone telling you to – or you’re not. If you don’t, then maybe skating’s not for you.”
Duran, by any measure, is a skater. It glows in her eyes when she talks about the sport she loves, long considered an outsider hobby or fringe distraction by worried parents and teachers.
If her older brother was irritated by having his sister tag along to the skatepark, it didn’t last long. The trio of siblings became the de facto Duran-family skate crew at Los Altos on the east side of Albuquerque.
The girl at the skatepark
“The skatepark was pretty intimidating,” Duran admitted of the spot that required a half-hour journey (via skateboard) along rutted city streets. “As a girl, there were always a lot of eyes on you. But with my older brother there – and his friends too – it was pretty cool pretty quick.”
Duran got hooked deeper into her passion for skating – the raw sounds of metal trucks grinding metal handrails, the bruises and peculiar triumphs of skate spots. “In skateboarding, you have to step out of your comfort zone all the time,” she said of the countless hours she spent developing her signature hard flip. “There’s a point where you have to let go of your fear and just trust. No one else can learn tricks for you. And sometimes, yeah, you’re gonna’ get smoked [crash, hard].”
All that getting smoked still had Deanna Duran worried. And the reckoning between mother and daughter came to a head in 2010, the night before Mariah’s first local competition. She was just 13. Deanna didn’t see a future for her daughter in skating. The chances for college scholarships seemed more obvious along the well-worn routes of the more traditional sports.
First tastes of success
“It just turned into this crazy night,” remembered Duran. “And right before the contest!”
The next day, skating against girls for the first time, Duran finished second. A local skate shop offered her a sponsorship. “That was the moment where I was like, 'damn, I can actually do this',” Duran said, about the humble arrangement that earned her a new board every month. “I called my mom and told her and she was like, ‘OK If you really love it, go for it.’ Pretty soon after that skateboarding became, you know, a family affair.”
2018 Getty Images
Soon the whole Duran clan was at it, helping Mariah go as far as her talent could take her. “We did car washes and breakfasts, fundraising stuff we learned from the other sports I did,” Duran laughed, remembering the day her father, Anthony, a manager at a local Walmart, shot her first skate video and sent mass emails out to some of the sport’s power brokers in the hopes of getting his daughter into national contests.
“My parents became my biggest fans,” said Duran. “We came together even closer to make it all happen.”
From upstart to star
And it all happened fast. When she took silver at the X Games in Austin, Texas in 2016, Duran bought a used car off craigslist so she and her brothers could drive the 800 miles through the night to LA’s fabled skate spots and enter bigger competitions. When she won her first X Games gold in 2018, she quit her job at a local pizza shop to focus more on skating.
She signed a deal with Meow Skateboards who released a deck with her name on it. She’s got her own sneakers now, too. When she won a second X Games gold, also in 2018, she had the crowd in Sydney on its feet. Her performances were electric, her flips and handrail grinds honed on the uneven earth of Albuquerque.
In the space of a few years Duran has become the top-ranked women’s skater in the United States. And with skateboarding set to make its debut in the Olympic Games in only a few days – and promised of a future through the 2024 Games in Paris – Duran is now officially an Olympian.
Few – Mariah’s mother, teachers and coaches included – would have seen that coming when she quit three varsity teams to focus on skateboarding two years before the sport got the official Olympic OK.
Olympic dream turns real
“I almost feel crazy hitting people with that news," Duran said. “I’ll be at the dentist and someone in the office will ask me what’s your occupation?” laughed Duran, who dropped out of college in her first year to mark the final step in her commitment to skating. “And I say ‘athlete, skateboarder’ and they ask ‘are you any good?’ I can say, ‘well, I qualified for the Olympics!’”
2019 Getty Images
Duran is careful not to get carried away. She didn’t get into skating for the sponsorships or the doors that are flying open one after the other these days. World travel and prize money are bonuses of the business of getting to do what she loves every day.
Keeping it real is a big deal.
“I want to be taken seriously as an athlete at the Olympics, sure, but I want people – who are maybe new to skating – to see what real street skating is all about,” she said, hoping the watching world takes note of the fellowship that's such a crucial part of skating at any level – the high-fives among those who are, ostensibly, your rivals. “I was all about this even before the Olympics was an option.”
While the state-of-the-art skateboarding courses in Japan will be among the smoothest ever laid, Duran wants to bring some of the rough stuff of her hometown along to Tokyo too.
“That rawness, that style, you just can’t teach that stuff. And you can’t fake it,” said Duran, who skates in bright baggy clothes, a signature headband holding her dark curls in place. “With skateboarding everybody has their own style and you can see it if someone’s out there in the street putting it in for real. I want to make sure that part of things is there to be seen.”
Pandemic year and a return to roots
She was able to recapture a little of that spirit in this past year-plus of pandemic times. Skateparks were shut down all over the world. With the Olympics pushed back to 2021 from 2020, she was able to reset, reflect and get back to basics.
Using a chunk of her prize money, Duran had a concrete slab poured in her parents’ backyard during the pandemic pause. After a 2019 full of video shoots and competitions and a broken tailbone that took a toll on her, she’s been able to skate again with her brothers, both now pros as well.
Duran’s mom and dad – still her “biggest fans” – watched the siblings’ skate sessions from a picnic table off in the grass. “It’s been one of those years that I definitely needed in a crazy way,” she said. “It allowed me to fall back in love with skating.”
Now a new stage of Duran’s plan begins. Slowly, with the right amount of perspective, she takes aim at the once-impossible dream of Olympic skateboarding gold. “When I first started, I didn’t skate to get sponsored or to get paid. I skated to skate,” she said, the sun setting on her parents’ yard where it all started. “Getting to go to the Olympics, for skateboarding, is insane. But there’s a reason why I’m in this position.”