Over the weekend of June 19, 2021, a group of 7 blind skaters and 1 adaptive skater joined forces at Modern Skate Park in Royal Oak, Michigan. Dreaming of getting this group together for several years now blind skater Nick Mullins finally made it happen and coordinated the entire event from start to finish. “My idea was to basically bring everyone together to kind of learn from each other,” Mullins stated. A weekend filled with excitement and thrills as well as some unfortunate unexpected events. A weekend that will go down in skate history and make a path for up and coming skaters of all ages and abilities. A weekend that would not have been possible without the generosity and care of George Leichtweis, the owner of Modern Skate Park for the past 41 years, who decided to take skateboarding to the next level once again in 2021.
Recapping moments from a weekend like this was not a simple task. All skating aside, watching a group of individuals come together that as Mullins kept saying “all deal with the same problems” was an incredible thing to observe. The persistence of a blind skater trying to learn a trick for the first time and not stopping for hours until success is reached is not something that can be easily forgotten. Three virtues can sum up the weekend, ambition, perseverance and grit.
Ambition – a passionate desire for rank, fame, or power
The word humble should be attached to the beginning of ambition when describing anyone who was in attendance over the weekend. Collectively reaching almost a million people across their social platforms, each individual is widely known in their niche communities. The passion to continue building a legacy, brand or image is alive in each person in a very unique way. Whether it is the style of skating or the platform they create content for, each person brings a different perspective to the world that is addicting to follow.
Countless hours from each skater performing, producing and sharing with their networks was witnessed. Independence and partnership was demonstrated in how each individual found a way to record events from the weekend. Blind Skater Anthony Ferraro traveled with his fiancee to capture footage and brainstorm ways to share their adventure of life with the rest of the world. Blind Skater Justin Bishop, whose wife and travel partner was unable to attend this weekend had a friend join him to capture viral footage of a trick he landed. On Father’s Day, Blind Skater Dan Mancina was accompanied by his son who stepped behind the camera for quite some time hoping to catch the shot of a crazy rail attempt.
The drive to be known is not for selfish reasons from this group. Many of them have the single mission of inspiring others. Some want to help children similar to them grow in their passions and have a hand in showing them the world. Regardless of the end ambition, it was clear a humble ambition existed in each one of the skaters present over the weekend.
Perseverance – continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition
It goes unsaid that a person’s inability to see or use their limbs like most people would be considered an obstacle. Such a difficult approach to life could understandably cause a person to lock themselves up and trot safely through life. To say the opposite is true about this group would be an understatement. There was an underlying drive that was passion turned into obsession in the souls of those participating.
Blind skater, Kai Owens recently graduated high school and was on his first trip as a future college student. In the early afternoon of day 2 he took a fall accompanied by pain and a loud snap. Kai ended up spending the next 14 hours in the ER with his brother Cash who was forced to wait outside until Kai was admitted to a room. Expecting Kai to “call it quits” and get back on a plane the next morning, the exact opposite happened. Still blind and now temporarily crippled, Kai was back in the skate park the next day cheering on all of his friends and showing unbelievable support. Kai said it best, “This is the first time that all these blind skaters have been together so gotta stay hyped for it”. (Don’t worry, he did not attempt to get on a skateboard with the broken leg, but he may in 6-8 weeks.)
Perseverance was also demonstrated in a valiant attempt at a 15 foot rail that switched twice from flat to vert like a crinkled straw. Renowned blind skater, Dan Mancina, spent hours attempting to land that trick. Tap, tap, tap of the white pencil cane guiding him to his board each time and back up the ramp guided to the top with his hand on the rail. Dropping the board and ollieing up another 2 feet to land it again and again and again. The owner of Modern Skate came by at one point when filming Mancina and said that it takes some of the best skaters over 100 attempts before they may land that rail. Mancina continued over and over knowing it could take 200 or 300 attempts. He never stopped. It wasn’t until his ride arrived to take him to dinner he tabled the effort until next time. Asking Mancina as he was drenched with sweat on his way out the door how he feels about having this many blind skaters together in one place he smiled said “Probably the most fun I’ve had in a while. It’s nice to be around like minded people.” Humble even in the face of a forfeit, Mancina will forever be a hero and major inspiration to the entire group.
Many of the skaters in attendance over the weekend learned to skate before they lost their vision entirely. One skater stood out in particular being blind since birth, Anthony Ferraro. Mostly a transition skater, Ferraro never had vision clear enough to see the board under his feet or a rail in a park so the halfpipe is where he found his home. No muscle memory of flip tricks or hopping rails exists in Ferraro’s mind. Placed on a skateboard at the age of 3 by his older brothers, it never phased Ferraro that he was learning how to skate blind, it was just something he did.
The skaters had access to the park after hours and the Owner, George Leichtweis had several employees and friends he trusted to help the group with getting around and filming. One skater named Bennett Sizer (@wbsizer) offered to teach Ferraro a heel flip. Taking over 45 minutes to observe and teach before Ferraro was finally ready to make the attempts for the camera, There was never once any frustration shown from Bennett. Patience and perseverance are key to success. 49 minutes into filming over 100 attempts, the shirt came off and Ferraro was dripping with sweat. A 2 minute warning was called out by Leichtweis and Ferraro’s competitive engine was started. One flip, two flip, three flip BOOM. Landed it. Ferraro landed a heel flip and rolled around both arms stretched in the air screaming with joy and looking up with a smile that only a carefree infant could have.
Grit – firmness of mind or spirit : unyielding courage in the face of hardship or danger
Quite possibly the greatest quality to take away from a group like this is grit. If there was ever a group of individuals taking chances and fighting against the odds the group present at Modern Skate that weekend was just that. History was already made the moment each of these skaters chose to show up. The group took it to the next level attempting new tricks and teaching one another as they cut out their place in the story books from this experience.
Adaptive skater, Shane Brigham, was the only member of the group with 20/20 vision. When asked if Bringham wore contact lenses or glasses he simply responded, “No, I’m cripple enough with the crutches.” Having the one organ the group needed, Brigham was not only incredible to watch as a talented transition and street skater, but as a leader to the group. His crutches did not limit his ability to skate, drive and provide the group with some much needed vision. Helping the other skaters out by telling them what was around and what type of tricks their fellow blind skaters just landed. Brigham embodies a contagious firmness of both spirit and mind.
Blindness is a spectrum and this can be commonly misunderstood for anyone exposed to a stereotypical example versus a real life human being. Adversity can come in many forms as well. Blind skater, John Baron, can tell you better than almost anyone in the group because he has the “invisible disability.” Baron was absolutely sending it over the weekend but at times was overlooked because he still maintains enough vision to see things around him but not enough vision “to get a drivers license.” His vision is not correctable and he is forced to live in an in-between that gets shadowed far too often. Classifications in adaptive sports are one example of how athletes like Baron can be recognized for their talent and not brushed to the side simply because he is “not totally blind.”
The vision since the day the doors to Modern Skate and Surf opened in 1979 was always “if you want to get good, you come to Modern.” Building every ramp and feature himself from the ground up, George Leichtweis seems to have accomplished his mission of creating “ramps that humans can ride” because “there’s always something to learn to get better at.” Nothing could have demonstrated this mission in action than Leichtweis himself teaching his drop in tactics to blind skater, Coco Atama. After about an hour of coaching and 20 minutes of attempts, Atama dropped in with no assistance. A few minutes later Atama was spotted sending it on the 3-foot mini pipe all by himself. A self proclaimed street skater who “never thought I could evolve” whose “dream with skateboarding is to go pro.” Perhaps in the future more skate competitions will offer adaptive parks for skaters like Atama to legitimately chase his dream.
Now that the largest group to date of blind and adaptive skaters has been formed, the possibilities are now endless. Who will be the next leader to bring groups that in the past have been left behind or forgotten to the frontline? Nick Mullins and George Leichtweis made history this weekend by simply making a plan and putting it into action. There was not one challenge the weekend presented that the group was unable to work through. At times it was hard to coordinate plans and get the group on the same page but at the end of the day the group was busy soaking up every second of the time given together. “I feel like I found my long lost brother,” Mullins says of Ferraro, as they decompressed over the phone on the rides home. The excitement, thrills, injuries, friendships, footage, memories and broken canes from that weekend will not only live on in skate history but in the hearts of each person blessed with the opportunity to call this journey theirs.
I encourage everyone reading through this right now to take with them the virtues this group lives out each and everyday. Remember perseverance, ambition and grit. Keep the drive in your heart and soul and never ever give up no matter what life throws at you.
If you are interested in learning more about each person you can find all their names and links below.
- Nick Mullins, 30 – Blind Skater – Bowling Green, Ohio – @nicholasmullinss
- Dan Mancina, 34 – Blind Skater – West Bloomfield, Michigan – @danthemancina
- Justin Bishop, 34 – Blind Skater – Las Vegas, NV – @justinthebishop
- Anthony Ferraro, 26 – Blind Skater – Spring Lake, NJ – @asfvision
- Coco Atama, 26 – Blind Skater – Burbank, CA – @blindthrasher
- Kai Owens, 18 – Blind Skater – States Burrow, GA – @kai.owens
- John Baron, 33 – Blind Skater – Denver, CO – @jbaron5280
- Shane Brigham, 27 – Adaptive Skater – Traverse City, Michigan – @shanebrigham
The living legend and extremely gracious Host of the weekend – George Leichtweis, 66 Oldest Skater at Modern and Owner of Modern Skate and Surf – Royal Oak, MI – @modernskate Website – ModernSkate.com
George is also Chairman of the BRA Board of Directors. George is the best. – DW
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