NEW YORK — It’s the labels that Alexis Sablone appears to hate the most. Sitting outside a coffee shop in baggy jeans and an oversized sweatshirt, not far from her Brooklyn apartment, she wonders why everyone is always trying to define her.
She has a master’s degree in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology yet doesn’t want to be an architect. People pay her to design everything from skateboards to clothing, though she won’t say she’s an artist. She created a skateable public sculpture in Malmo, Sweden, and has another coming in New Jersey but laughs at suggestions she’s an inventor.
“To me, I’m just always like trying to be myself and do things that I love to do and not try to fit into these categories in ways that I don’t feel comfortable with,” she says.
One of the reasons Sablone loves street skateboarding (which is different from park skateboarding, the other Olympic discipline) is that it has no rules, no boundaries, no constraints. She seems to see it as a kind of violent art of clattering wheels, crashing boards and soaring leaps limited only by the lengths of a skater’s imagination. Much like herself, she can’t describe it in a single word.
For the first time, skateboarding is part of the Olympics, and Sablone is, in a sense, the face of the U.S. team, much older than her teammates. This, too, brings what she calls “tension” because, even though she is about to compete in the ultimate of sporting events, she doesn’t consider herself an athlete or street skateboarding a sport.
She has “mixed feelings” about competitive skateboarding and is uncomfortable with events such as the X Games and the Olympics where performances are scored. She has made a lot of money in these competitions, but it never felt like skateboarding. How, she wonders, can someone judge art by using points?
A part of her wishes she could be like the street skateboarders she grew up with, hurtling off staircases and ledges, who would never be caught dead at something as lame and uncool as the Olympics. But there’s this other part of her obsessed with winning. Now that there’s an Olympics, she wants to win that, too.
“She really lives in these two different worlds,” her girlfriend, Josephine Heilpern, says.
In many ways, she needs them both.
An unintentional trailblazer
Back in 2002, when Sablone appeared in one of the seminal skateboarding videos of its time, “PJ Ladd’s Wonderful, Horrible, Life,” a compilation of jumps and twists and falls that quickly became what her oldest skateboarding friend, Trevor Thompson, calls “viral before things went viral.” Her segment, just a couple of minutes of her soaring off railings and curbs to Rosemary Clooney’s “Mambo Italiano,” made her a star in the skateboarding world.
“She was doing tricks that weren’t just great because she was a girl; they were better than anything anyone else was doing,” said her longtime friend Lee Berman, who now works with her as Converse’s skateboarding brand manager.
Sablone loved skateboarding. As a child in Old Saybrook, Conn., she spent hours each night in her mother’s garage, practicing tricks she had studied on the lone skateboarding DVD she owned, locking the door so no one could see her fail. She saw her pursuit as a never-ending project of trying and falling before eventually getting each trick right. After “PJ Ladd’s Wonderful, Horrible, Life,” she imagined a future of skateboarding with endorsement contracts for board and clothing companies.
But all the skateboarders in the videos and on magazine covers were young, White men. The board and clothing companies didn’t sell gear for girls. Even the handful of competitions at the time barely paid prizes to women. At one point, she tried to get an agent, only to be told there was no market for women in skateboarding. Frustrated, she went to college, studying architecture at Barnard College in New York.
Though she loved designing buildings, she knew she couldn’t work in the office of an architecture firm. She needed freedom. For a time, she worked as a server at a restaurant in upper Manhattan until a fire left her unemployed. Then a skateboarding friend mentioned a contest called the Maloof Money Cup that offered a $25,000 prize to the top female finisher in 2009. She entered at the last minute and finished sixth, then begged her way into the X Games, where she took second. The next year, she took gold at the X Games, something she did two more times in the next five years.
She didn’t love the idea of being a professional skateboarder, but the money was good. And she kept winning, earning enough to live her dream of studying architecture at MIT. Her master’s thesis was an explanation about the need to find a proper facility for storing nuclear waste. She turned it into a graphic novel based 10,000 years in the future looking back at humanity’s attempts to solve the problem.
It wasn’t until five years ago, when skateboarding was announced as a part of the Tokyo Olympics, that the corporate world finally saw the sport as mainstream enough for companies to take a chance on her and other female skaters. In 2019, Converse signed her to design shoes and travel the world promoting the company at small exhibitions and in videos. More than a decade after being told there was no market for her, she could, at last, call skateboarding her full-time job.
“I’ve never liked that corporate way of looking at it like, ‘Well, if there aren’t other girls skating, we’re not going to invest in you,’ ” Sablone says. “Like, I’m inspired by guys. I’m inspired by girls. Why it doesn’t go the other way?”
Forcing her to be something
Her newest Converse shoe, released early in June, is an all-white quilted, high-top take on the classic Jack Purcell model with a tiny rainbow tab attached to the back. The company calls it her “Pride” shoe. It’s meant as a celebration but is also another kind of label that comes with more categories and more attempts at definitions.
She identifies as queer because the word is ambiguous and less-restricting than something like lesbian, which she dismisses as “too gendered.” She isn’t transgender and doesn’t want to be called “they” or “them,” nor does she like the term “nonbinary,” though she knows it is likely how people see her in her androgynous clothes and beanies and ball caps.
“I think it’s a preference of what words feel comfortable,” she says. “Why does the word ‘woman’ make me feel uncomfortable, but ‘girl’ always feels fine? Female feels fine. I mean, it’s just like some words I like and feel like me and make me not have to think, because on a normal day I just don’t really like thinking about myself in these adjectives or descriptive-like columns.”
For the longest time, Sablone didn’t think much about her identity. To the boys she grew up skating with, she was Alexis, who loved skateboarding as much as they did and kept trying the hardest tricks. She always felt a part of the group, one of the gang. She liked that.
Now suddenly it’s as if the world is forcing her to be something, with all these different words, each carrying its own experience, its own group, its own meaning. She appreciates this new sensitivity, but the vocabulary comes with more boxes that aren’t really her, more tags that don’t match the way she feels.
She says she is still “grappling with” the idea of how people perceive her gender, realizing that simply being “Alexis Sablone, skateboarder” isn’t enough for a world that needs her to be something more. And yet, at the same time, she wonders why it matters.
“Like, I am the woman on Converse, but when I say that, I don’t like the way it feels,” she says.
Does she need to be a female icon, when all she really wants is to be a street skateboarder? Must she fight for a gender when she isn’t sure what nouns she wants to use?
“Growing up, the idea of gender nonbinary was not even really a thing,” she says. “I mean maybe it was in some places, but I don’t remember it being a thing. I think it’s pretty incredible [that it is now], but it’s just built in a way where we automatically categorize so quickly if you see a person and you can’t put them in a category right away. It makes people uncomfortable.”
And yet here’s the thing about the woman who wants no rules or boundaries in her life: She actually has lots of them. The collars on her shirts have to have a precise thickness, and her baggy pants need the ideal sag in the legs. A lot of this comes from street skateboarding, which, despite its resistance to structure, also has a strict unwritten code that dictates how skaters can use spaces, the way they position their bodies on tricks and how everything must look exactly right in photos and video.
No one, however, is more consumed with perfection than Sablone. Her searches for skateboarding spaces can last for days. She spends so much time on her design and art projects that she forgets to sleep. Heilpern, accustomed to waking at 3 and 4 in the morning to see Sablone awake in the corner, face lit blue by a computer’s screen, has started to worry about Sablone’s health.
And then there are the tricks.
Not only does Sablone attempt some of the hardest and most dangerous, she also must complete them exactly the way they are supposed to be done, no matter what it takes. The photo shoot for this story, at a Williamsburg skatepark not far from the coffee shop, takes more than an hour and a half — much of it spent on a single leap off a small staircase because she can’t achieve the perfect pose on the board as she flies through the air.
She tries, politely, to explain that while 99.9 percent of the people who see the picture will think it’s a spectacular shot of a soaring skateboarder, she is more interested in the handful of true street skateboarders who might notice she is standing slightly too upright and that she can’t stop trying until she completes the trick perfectly.
The jump is not a simple one and she keeps falling, crashing into a heap on the sidewalk, because it’s hard to land on a rolling skateboard while hurtling off a staircase. The more she crashes, the angrier she gets, picking herself up, snatching the board with a twist of her arm and stalking back up the stairs, her board dragging behind her.
The photographer insists that it’s really not necessary for Sablone to keep crashing into the concrete, but Sablone shakes her head. “No,” she snaps. She must get this right. It’s clear she is doing this for herself, unable to stop until she has completed the trick exactly the way it is supposed to be done.
By the time Sablone hits the trick while standing precisely the right way on the board, her sweatshirt lies discarded in a dusty clump, and the shirt underneath as well as her pants are splotched with dirt. For a moment, there is silence. No one seems to know what to say.
“Try disagreeing with her,” Berman says with a laugh when told about the photo shoot. “She’s just that intense. But to me that means she cares. If she’s going to do something, she’s going to do it all out.”
In the end, a competitor
On the days before her competitions, Sablone becomes “sick with nerves.” Her color pales. Her smell is different. She gets nauseous. She wants to vomit. She worries about the battle between the traditional street skater perfectionist in her and the part that desperately needs to win.
“Will it be a good day or a bad day?” she asks herself, silently. Will she hate herself at the end?
“It’s, like, so dramatic,” she says. “It’s just so much pressure on this moment of performance, and that’s sickening. I think that, ironically, if I could get out of that mind-set and think less about it like that, I’d be less anxious and would probably work in my favor. But, like, that’s I guess just not how I’m built.”
In the Olympics, Sablone will have two runs and then five attempts at tricks, which is more than the X Games, which don’t have tricks. She has never gotten accustomed to the need to hit tricks right away. Sometimes in these events, the person who spends an hour and a half on a photo shoot takes over. She fixates on the same trick, determined to get it right only to blow everything and lose. She can’t stand when that happens.
“She’s mainly going into a competition with herself; no one else is there,” says her friend Mimi Knoop, who is also the U.S. team coach. “She’s the classic perfectionist to an extreme.”
After the photo shoot, Sablone rests at a picnic table next to the skatepark and wonders whether she would have turned to competitive skateboarding had she been a man with the chance to make money without having to participate in contests. Ultimately, she decides the debate is pointless.
“I think there are these kind of contradictions where it’s like, I don’t like the label and the boundary of: ‘Oh, you’re just a girl skateboarder; you’re a female skateboarder,’ ” she says. “But at the same time, if we’re being honest, it’s partly because of my gender [that] I’ve stood out a lot as a skateboarder.”
She stands up and dusts herself off. Back home, projects wait, more hours to spend locked on her computer. The talk about labels seems to tire her. Why does everyone have to put her in a box?
“I really just think of myself as me,” she says. “And that’s where I feel comfortable — as myself.”
Then she picks up her board and her wadded sweatshirt and walks away from the park and into the busy Brooklyn afternoon, where she can be Alexis Sablone and nothing else.
More about the Tokyo Olympics
The Tokyo Olympics have come to a close.