There are millions of skateboarders around the world. Only a handful reach the heights of Ishod Wair.
In 2013, two years after going pro, he was named Thrasher Magazine’s ‘Skater of the Year’, the first Black man to win the prestigious award, and he’s been a perennial nominee for the honor ever since. So what’s his secret? How do you become among the very greatest in one of the most popular participation sports on the planet?
“You have to be good at falling,” Ishod says, without hesitation naming the most important skill a skateboarder needs to master. “And you have to just get back up. It takes a lot of work. Sometimes you try something for hours and hours and it doesn’t work. And then you go back and try for hours and hours more, and it still doesn’t work. So you’ve got to be persistent.
“Skating has taught me that a loss isn’t always the worst thing. It’s a step in the right direction to a win. If you apply that to life, and see your losses as a learning experience, that’s an important lesson.”
Ishod, 29, now lives in the heart of Los Angeles, California, the birthplace of this global sport, invented in the 1940s by surfers looking for something to do when there were no waves. He’s one of the most admired men in this world where sport and culture collide, and has come a long way from his small town upbringing in Bordentown, New Jersey.
“I grew up in a very small town,” he says. “About a mile each way, just 4,000 people. It has actually got a lot of history. It’s where George Washington crossed from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, and there’s that iconic photo of him standing on the front of the boat with the flag. And the first schoolhouse in America was there. But growing up, it was just my little ass town.
“I loved BMX as a young kid, I learned how to ride a bike without training wheels when I was three. Then when I was seven I saw some skateboarding on TV, and thought, ‘that looks so cool.’
“My mom and my dad split when I was seven, and if they hadn’t broken up, I don’t know if I would be here as my dad didn’t like me skating. He played basketball and was like, ‘That’s a white boys sport.’ But he’s cool with it now, everybody grows. My mom just wanted me to be happy, and to do what I wanted to do. So when my dad moved out, my mom got me a board. And ever since then I was hooked.”
Ishod is now living the life so many of us dream of, making a successful career out of his passion. He’s earned sponsorship from a whole host of top-notch brands including Real Skateboards, Nike SB and Pacifico Cerveza. His recent collaboration with fashion designer and car collector Magnus Walker for their Ishod Wair x Magnus Walker Nike Dunk SB High Pros is an example of the kind of fun, creative project he is now lucky enough to call work.
He never considered being a pro skateboarder as a boy, it just didn’t seem like an option. But as he began to make a name for himself in his teens, he sought out events and sponsorship to get some free boards, and very quickly became one of the sport’s biggest stars.
“Aged around 16, I just wanted to start getting some sponsorship so I could put off getting a job and so I’d get free stuff,” he explains. “Because I didn’t want my mom to have to pay for my gear. She didn’t have the money.
“Then at 17, I started doing contests and going on trips, and I went to California for the first time, joined a team and then it all happened very fast. Within a year I’d turned pro, and at 21 I was named ‘Skater of the Year.’”
From the age of 17 until the onset of the recent health pandemic, Ishod’s world was a constant whirlwind of traveling and events. And he says it’s the desire to learn new things that has kept his passion for the sport alive.
“Skating is a love/hate thing,” he explains. “Because it’s almost therapeutic, but at the same time, it drives me f***ing crazy. Because no matter what level you’re at, stuff will always be difficult, because there’s always something new to learn. And I love that, but it also makes it really hard.
“I love the chase of it and learning new things. I didn’t finish High School, the skateboarding just took over, but I’ve always liked learning.”
Skateboarding has seen a fresh spike in popularity in recent times, influenced by folk looking for new hobbies, or reconnecting with old ones, during the coronavirus lockdown. Its visual, pop culture artistry lends itself to sharing on social media, which is boosting its appeal among the TikTok generation. And its popularity is likely to continue to rise with its inclusion for the first time in the upcoming Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. It’s a sport that most of us have tried, but very few of us have mastered. And discussing some of the other attributes needed to be a skateboarding great, Ishod shares wisdom that could apply to our own passions and professions, whatever they may be.
“There’s a huge amount of attention to detail needed,” he says. “The measurements of a board are so precise, the wheels come in increments of a millimeter, and the smallest difference you can feel it, and it can mess you up. A millimeter could be the deciding factor. So you need an eye for detail.
“People skills are important too. You could be the best skateboarder in the world, but if you’re an asshole then no-one will want to work with you. I just tried to be laid back and professional.”
Despite the pressure of pulling off dangerous stunts in front of passionate crowds, lshod says the biggest challenge to his focus and performance comes from within his own mind.
He says, “During a contest, the people watching don’t bother me at all. The thing that bothers me is my deep want to do the best that I can do. And that’s what clouds my head and distracts me more than anything, because I want to do so good, and I know I have it in me.
“I have to remind myself whatever the outcome, you can’t change your reality. So if you don’t do well in this contest, you’ve just got to roll with the punches and keep pushing, there’s always going to be another contest.”
Skateboarding changed Ishod’s life for the better, and now he wants to use his position of influence to help others. He has been selling limited edition skateboards with proceeds going to The Ben Raemers Foundation, a mental health charity set up in tribute to the talented British skater who killed himself in 2019. And next he plans to build a skatepark in Uganda, East Africa, with the money made from his latest drop of boards.
He says, “Skateboarding saved me. If I’m stressed, I just push down the street and do some tricks and that just resets me.
“I don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t skating, what type of trouble I’d have got into. I had a chance to do things that weren’t a good idea, but I was just content hanging out with my friends and skating. So it was easy to stay away from the dumb stuff.”
Ishod has been helped by mentors including Jim Thiebaud, the owner of the Real Skateboards brand he rides for, who he credits with giving him “the knowledge to do things beyond skateboarding.” And in recent years he has found another wise friend in Magnus, his collaborator on the Nike SB sneaker they released this month, which calls on their shared love of cars for design inspiration. Magnus – best-known for sharing his car content on social media using the moniker The Urban Outlaw – is one of the world’s most high-profile collectors of Porsches and their shoe takes cues from one of Magnus’ vintage 911s.
“We’re both heavily into cars and he’s an inspirational dude,” Ishod says. “I look up to him and gain knowledge from him. He’s so passionate and engaging. I’ve always been a person to listen and to take in information. If people give me advice I take it in, weigh the options, and make a decision.”
So does Ishod have any of his own advice for any of the amateur skaters who might want to become professionals, or others who want to take their passion, whatever that may be, to the next level?
“Follow your dreams, be persistent, think outside the box. And take in all the information that people give you, but don’t always act on it. Because people will doubt you, and you have to step above that.”