Fall shrinks the days, and even in sunny Palo Alto the afternoons can be chilly if not quite cold yet. On a Tuesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, a lone student walks toward two basketball courts on Wilbur Field, carrying what looks like a large pipe. He sets it off to the side as other students trickle in behind him, dropping their backpacks on the grass near the asphalt.
They’re not here to play hoops. They’re here to skateboard.
Stanford Skates, an unofficial group of students who enjoy skateboarding, gathers in the same spot most afternoons to practice tricks, which they film to show their friends. Emrys Peets, a second-year physics Ph.D. student, explains that he was carrying a “grind rail”: skaters use them for maneuvers like grinds and slides.
Clicks and screeches echo across Wilbur as the skateboarders slide along the rail, their boards popping into the air. The board shoots up, and Christian Tocol ’23 narrowly avoids getting hit in the face.
Tocol has been skating since he was 11. Growing up in San Diego, he and his friends spent every moment they could racing across their neighborhood on the boards, from sunup to sundown. His parents didn’t mind; it kept the boys out of trouble. But everything changed when one of his friends was shot and killed in the neighborhood.
“I never really looked at skateboarding the same,” he said.
He put the board down when he was 13, focusing on school. He arrived at Stanford in 2019 ready to explore his interests and eventually decided to major in chemical engineering despite never taking a chemistry class before.
The 2020 academic year quickly descended into chaos after February as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the world. Most undergraduate students were sent home to attend classes on Zoom, but some with special circumstances were allowed to return to campus under strict restrictions.
Tocol found himself back at Stanford in the fall of 2020 feeling almost completely alone.
“It was really depressing,” he said. The campus gym was only open by appointment. He tried running, but it wasn’t for him. He racked his brain to find an outlet in the isolation.
“What did I do when I was younger?” he asked. “What did I do at times when just everything was just hell? What did I do to kill the time?” He thought back to his childhood, when he’d skate from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. most days in San Diego.
Tocol ordered a skateboard in December, and it arrived the next month. After a seven-year break, he began skateboarding whenever he had any free time. Eventually, he ran into Peets and another graduate student living on campus. Both had also started skating as a way to cope with quarantine.
They formed their own coronavirus skateboarding community. If any of the students saw others skateboarding around campus, they’d invite them to join. Slowly, the numbers began to grow.
Today, the skaters communicate primarily through text messages, and five to 10 show up to skate with the group consistently, according to Peets. All skill levels are welcome: some have been skating since they could walk; others started when they came to Stanford.
Peets’ dad was a skater, so there was always a board sitting around the house. “Eventually I picked it up too,” he said.
Darwin Luna ’22, a psychology major, started skating at 5, but didn’t start taking it seriously until he was in his teens. “I never had like an ‘oh, I want to go pro’ dream or anything,” he explained. “I just thought it was really fun.”
In recent years, skateboarding has grown in popularity, culminating in its debut in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. Peets held a viewing party with hamburgers and red, white and blue jello. “It was really cool,” he said. “But it was also cool because at the time, I was definitely talking to a lot more people about skating.”
“I was rooting for a few people,” Luna said, including French skater Aurélien Giraud and Japanese skater Yuto Horigome. Giraud placed 6th, but Horigome took home the gold in the men’s street event.
Stanford Skates is not yet a formal student group: right now there’s a pandemic-induced moratorium on the creation of new organizations through December 2021. Peets is planning to apply to form an official group if new applications are allowed in the winter quarter to achieve some “legitimacy in the eyes of the University.” He said there’s also the potential to form a varsity skate team, adding that it would be the first of its kind in the country.
As a Voluntary Student Organization or a varsity club sport, the skaters would have access to increased funding which could be used for new equipment, including shoes and boards, or for travel to skate with other college skateboarding groups. Right now, Stanford Skates is sponsored in part by Skate Works, a skate shop in Los Altos. The students receive a discount and are allowed to use the shop’s halfpipe, a large ramp that curves up at both ends, whenever they want. In return, several members help teach kids how to skate through lessons offered by the shop.
For Tocol, the Stanford Skates community brings him back to his childhood. And he never forgets his friend who was killed.
“I know he’d be happy,” he said. “I think that’s the most fun part, is that I’m living in his name, but at the same time I’m skating with a bunch of dudes that are all doing it for their purposes.”
As the sun sets and the air gets colder, the students begin to trickle away. Some head off to dinner, others have assignments that still need to be completed. A few basketball players replace the skateboarders on one of the courts. Peets eventually rolls away with the rails.
Tomorrow afternoon they’ll all be back to do it all again.