"I've always thought that the true job of a professional skateboarder is to make other people want to skate. Sam does just that" - Jimmy Wilkins
Photography by Leo Sharp.
Let me pull out this quote from the last interview we did. This was at the start of 2015, for the record:
“I’d like to do some vert comps pretty seriously this year. I’ve always done them, but I always go out there and just skate the comp. I’d like to really get into skating vert, and give it a proper shot; try to do good in a competition”.
That seems like as good a starting point as any. How did ‘trying to do well in a comp’ work out for you?
That’s pretty funny, because I don’t really remember saying that, but I do remember that period of time, when my attitude changed a bit towards comps. I think that’s a perfect example of if you want to do something, you just need to try, and see how it works out for you.
You must have already started trying in comps before we did that interview. Didn’t you win Thrasher’s Session in the Abyss right after we’d finished filming your Excursions part?
Oh yeah, I kind of won something, but I don’t know what it was (laughs). It was Phelper’s (late Thrasher editor Jake Phelps) session, basically. At the end, Phelper was handing out bits of paper on the deck, and told us to write down our top three skaters from the day. That wasn’t a comp, but I guess I won the…’popularity vote’ (laughs).
From Session in the Abyss, you went on to do well at the X Games in 2015. That wasn’t the year you won the vert comp though, was it?
I didn’t win that year, I came third in the comp, and third in the best trick too, I think.
Backside air tail tap om the innards of a tubular West Midlands sculpture.
So what was going on in 2016, when you won the X Games? How did things step up for you, from the year before?
I guess me winning was the result of a few different things coming together. I was in America and skating a lot, I was injury free, and in a good place.
Were you mainly skating the ramps dotted around Vista?
Yeah, and at that point, I was just focusing on my skating. We had a wicked crew, I was skating with Jimmy (Wilkins) and I had the opportunity to just skate all day, every day. It goes in waves; sometimes you’re not so sure where you’re going with things, but then sometimes your skating has loads of focus, and you have a place you want to go with it; you have direction. Back then, I was driven to focus on a few more comps, especially after seeing my mates like Jimmy doing well in them. Jimmy’s approach to comps at that time was pretty full on, and just skating with him every day, I think I picked up on his focus, and it must have rubbed off on me.
When you arrived in Austin for the X Games in 2016, did you have any inkling that you might end up winning?
Like I said, I was skating loads leading up to that comp, and maybe one or two days before - I’d have never had said it out loud - but I thought to myself, “if everything works out, I could do really well here”.
For me, a lot of it comes down to my mental approach, and how I’m feeling about something at the time. With competitions, I’m not usually super fussed about what happens, because doing well isn’t necessarily what I’m trying to get out of them. But skating with Jimmy, I realised that altering my mind-set slightly could completely change how I approach something like comps.
Sam backside disasters a genuine West Country gem.
When a spot is this good, you have to double up on photos - backside smith.
Skating is just confidence, isn’t it? I find that with the stuff that you and me have filmed over the years as well; it’s nice to just film something for the sake of filming it. To go to a spot and try to get something, and not because it’s the gnarliest thing you can do, you film it just to document your being there. You definitely get an element of confidence from that, because you’re not always beating yourself down trying to do the hardest thing that you can think of, and feeling shitty about yourself if you don’t make it. That confidence comes across in the footage I think. I guess I started to approach comps with that same frame of mind. Not necessarily try the hardest tricks, just piece together runs that you feel satisfied with.
When you say ‘winning the X Games’ it has these connotations – gold medals, superstardom in the action sports world and so on.
Growing up in the UK and skating mainly vert, competitions were just how you hung out with people. They didn't seem particularly competitive...they were just part of the scene.
Did you experience any of that? How much of an effect did that win have on your day-to-day life?
A lot has changed in my life since then, but whether or not it’s all related, I don’t know. Maybe two years after the X Games, I realised where I was at with my skating, and it had changed a little; maybe it was because I was getting paid more, and I felt like there was more pressure. There wasn’t any pressure from other people, it was all from myself, but I definitely felt like some parts of skating had changed for me. I wouldn’t say the changes were negative, or necessarily positive always, but they led me to understand what it is that I enjoy about skating, and what motivates me. I’ve never been too focused on winning competitions; it’s much more important to me that I’m getting out skating, and having fun.
I also had a string of injuries after 2016. I missed 2017 almost entirely, I sprained my ankle pretty badly, and then I had a knee surgery two years ago, ankle surgery one year ago…so for the last two years, I’ve not been able to actually skate for the first six months of the year. I’ve spent some time learning how to enjoy life without being able to skate every day, which is a new thing (laughs).
Summoning up Mike Smith, Sam takes the Liberty of introducing Somerset to a properly executed smithvert.
Head high lein air, to complete a Taunton moment.
After winning the X Games, what sort of thoughts were going through your mind? Did it feel like you could’ve easily have ignored everything but the comp circuit, and gone fully into that world?
Nah, I actually felt kind of the opposite. I mean, you want to keep that kind of hype going, but I guess I spent a lot of time doing stuff that wasn’t based around competitions; I focused my time on filming instead. I think there was an element of, having achieved that big comp win, I realised that some of the things that might have driven me towards it weren’t really big sways for me any more. I didn’t care about having any notoriety for it, or making a lot of money from it, and I realised that those weren’t the things that kept me skating. It was cool to get handed this wad of cash for skating well in a vert comp, and then being like, “well that doesn’t change how I feel about anything”. I actually just wanted to get back to skating, and put my energy into things like filming, instead of concentrating on putting a run together.
I've spent some time learning how to enjoy life without being able to skate every day.
Before that, it’s not like you were driven by competitions, or competition placements. Comps just seemed to be something that you were good at, but they didn’t define you as a skater.
I think as well, growing up in the UK and skating mainly vert, competitions were just how you hung out with people. They didn’t seem particularly jocky or even competitive to me; they were just part of the scene.
You mentioned not long after you won the X Games that you might be getting involved with a new board company based out of Dwindle. When did the idea that eventually grew into Madness first come about?
In 2016, I was still riding for Blind, and (Bill) Weiss said to me, “I think we should do something else, because you don’t necessarily fit there. We should do a transition company”. We couldn’t get the right team together in order to kick it off in 2016, so we kept working on it for two years until we were ready to launch.
Once we had the squad together, Weiss and Bod (Boyle) made it clear that our input into the direction of the brand was really important to them; they would always ask, “what do you want this thing to be?” We had so many discussions back and forth about different names, different ideas that everyone had. I wanted to have a good amount of input into it; I felt honoured that we had the opportunity to help shape this company, so I took on as much as I could, like hitting up potential riders, and putting my ideas forward. Weiss and Bod, they really took on board all of our ideas, and they were super accommodating. We were going up to Dwindle once a month to look over everything.
It’s safe to say you were an integral part of the company being born then?
It definitely felt like we were all part of the process from the beginning. Seeing something as an idea, at its inception, through to it being ‘a thing’ and being well received, it’s been one of the sickest processes I’ve been a part of in skating. When Weiss asked us to be involved, I felt honoured that he left the door open for so much of our opinions to go in, especially in terms of who we wanted to ride for it.
The name Madness worked well in the sense that the whole concept from the beginning was ridiculous.
How did the initial team take shape?
I had a room at Alex Perelson’s house, but I wasn’t staying there too much, so I let Clay (Kreiner) move in. I came back one Christmas and Clay was still in my room, so I moved into the goat shed in the garden…
With Liam and Noel (Alex’s goats)?
(Laughing) yeah. So I moved into the goat shed, and Clay became a permanent resident of the house. With me, Clay and Alex all living together, the team started to fall into place.
He was told to shoot the moon, but Sam disobeyed the Forecast and opted to fastplant the Dean Lane fence instead.
That was pretty much the original team, right?
It was me, Clay, Alex, and Jack Fardell. Cody Lockwood was in the mix for a minute too, but he jumped ship for Creature before the launch, which was probably for the best.
What is your role at Madness? I had heard before that it was effectively your company, but it was owned by Dwindle. That’s not the case, is it?
No, but a few people have had that impression for some reason (laughs). It’s Weiss’ brainchild, for sure.
So you’re one of the pros, but you each have more input into the direction of the brand than your average rider would on most other companies?
It feels really personal to all of us. All we wanted was for Madness to be something that we like, that we’re stoked on, and I think that’s the hardest thing to actually achieve, especially when you’re being influenced by the skate industry, and you’re looking at what other people already think is cool. We didn’t know if it was going to be received well or not, but we just had to say, “this is what we like, this is what we’re putting out there”. It was when Eric (Wollam, art director at Dwindle) and Weiss started coming up with the extra decals and textures for the boards, the fit and finish kind of stuff, that’s when we knew it was all coming together.
We were starting a company in 2018 that was based mainly around vert dudes too, and that’s not necessarily where the industry was at. Weiss said it spot on - the name Madness worked well in the sense that the whole concept from the beginning was ridiculous. But it’s wicked how much of it I’m seeing around.
Temple Bar tranquility temporarily tarnished with a tight frontside blunt.
You’ve mentioned being injured a couple of times; what have been the main injuries that have affected your skating over the last few years?
I did my knee at the end of 2018; I tore my meniscus and partially tore my ACL, and that was when I ended up back in the UK really, because I came home for surgery. And then I broke my ankle in December 2019.
So up until late 2018, were you still mainly based in America, at Jimmy’s house?
I was back and forth between America and France. I had a girlfriend in Marseille, but that had come to an end. Then I had to come to the UK for knee surgery, and I found myself back in Norfolk, realising that I’d never lived in this country as an adult. I left my parent’s house when I was 18 to go to America, and every time I came back after then, it would just be for a flying visit. Then it dawned on me that, after my surgery, I could be at my parent’s house for eight or nine months whilst I recovered.
How long had you been away for at that point? How old are you now, actually? I always think that you’re older than you are.
I’m coming up on 29 now, so I’d been away for almost 10 years. It was a shock because I ended up realising that I still lived with my parents. It was like I was 17 again. My parents are super sound, but their house was not where I felt like being, especially as I was on crutches and debilitated.
Frontside pivot on a very stable Carrickfergus extension.
You’ve been in Bristol for a while now; did you move there off the back of living at your parent’s house in Norfolk?
After I left Norfolk, I stayed in London for a few months, and I hated it. I stayed with Ben (Raemers) quite a bit, and my mate Elliot who runs a BBQ kitchen at a brewery. London is pretty bleak if you don’t have a purpose. I was crutching around, I wasn’t working, I wasn’t skating, I wasn’t really adding much to the city; I was just cluttering up the place. I ended up coming to Bristol for a weekend, and a friend of mine told me, “I bumped into someone last night who’s got a room going, if you wanted to stay here”, and I moved down the next week. I’ve just been using Bristol as a base. In 2019 I was away a lot, I spent a lot of time in America still, traveling around, and then from last year I’ve just been here, really. Not a lot has happened (laughs).
So you’ve had a lot of downtime thanks to your injuries, and you said earlier you’ve had to learn to enjoy life without being able to skate. What has that entailed for you?
After my first surgery, I spent a lot of time learning about fungi.
Where did that interest come from? Was that inspired by your upbringing in rural Norfolk?
I think so, yeah. My dad got me and my sister sparked on nature, but a friend of mine from San Francisco bought me a book called Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets, and I read it cover to cover when I was laid up on the couch. Once I learnt a little bit about mushrooms, I was blown away by how cool they are. They’re closer to being animals than plants, and they’ve been here a lot longer than humans, so they’ve got a few million years evolution on us. They’re way better at dealing with viruses, bacteria and diseases than we are, and they are for sure the answer to our modern medicine problems. You can clean water with them, make packaging materials from them, they’re food…they’re just fascinating. As soon as I could walk, I’d go out foraging, spending lots of time in the woods, finding and identifying mushrooms. I even did a course with the British Mycological Society.
You may be shocked to learn that the scaffolding was erected for light maintenance, not for Sam's backside boneless.
So, you knew we’d have to talk about this: Skateboard GB and the Olympics. How did those two things enter the Sam Beckett orbit?
Daz (Darren Pearcy) ended up getting the job as the team manager for Skateboard GB, and they managed to get some funding from the Youth Aspiration Fund by putting together a package. They had to show them that they’d got these British skateboarders who were travelling to comps and doing well, and inspiring younger kids to get into skateboarding. They needed some money to help them travel to other places to achieve more, with the view of some of them making it to the Olympics. The people they mentioned – Alex (Hallford), Alex deCunha, Sky (Brown), Jordan (Thackeray), and myself – we had already been competing at an international level, so that’s why they got the funding.
The Skateboard GB team wasn’t put together off the back of a UK Champs style event; there are only a certain amount of people who would realistically be up for being a part of it, and going to skate in these competitions. I think it was clear who those people were, especially when you look at who had already been traveling around, being committed to entering comps off their own backs. That’s how the initial group of people ended up coming together.
It’s just really hard for Skateboard GB to get funding to send people places. Because skateboarding is new to that pot of money, UK Sport doesn’t really want to put funding into it until they know that they have someone who can win them a medal. It’s a bit of a Catch 22; you’re not going to find the kid that’s super committed to winning a medal because they don’t have any funding, but UK Sport won’t fund someone until they’re capable of winning a medal.
We’re going through the processes though, and hopefully, with the team we have, we’ll get to the point where someone can commit to funding Skateboard GB. Then the next group of younger skaters who desire to go through that channel, the opportunity will be there for them to do so.
The people that still want to get out and go skate, the feeling of skating isn't going to change for them because there's a big competition on TV.
So right now, it’s more about you guys establishing Skateboard GB, as opposed to winning medals in Tokyo?
I feel like that’s what’s going on.
You’ve not really been on the comp scene for a little while now, and you’ve suffered some serious injuries over the last couple of years. How has it been for you getting involved with Skateboard GB whilst you’re working your way back to health?
When they announced that skating was going to be in the Olympics, I’d just smashed my knee up, and I was waiting to have surgery. I thought I was going to be out for a year or so, and I didn’t feel like I was going to be doing anything with Skateboard GB. I started speaking with Daz, he made it clear that they really wanted to get me involved, then the next time I got injured, I went through a few things with Skateboard GB to help me recover faster.
Mute fastplant at Greystones, minutes before Sam was chased out of the park by a torrential Irish downpour.
Did they provide you with access to things like better rehabilitation, and physiotherapy?
Totally, yeah. I went to this crazy rehab place they’ve got at the English Institute of Sport; it’s called the IRU (the Team GB Intensive Rehab Unit). I had a week there where they monitored everything from hydration levels to heart rate constantly, checking how I slept, checking how my body reacted to a whole manner of things.
Was all of this in hope of you being able to understand how to take better care of yourself, and be able to recover from injury quicker?
Yeah, and for me it was sick, because I’d never seen that sort of stuff before. The injury I was there for was my ankle; I’d just broken that a month or two before. I’d completely set skating aside, and my focus was on getting healthy again. They showed me a lot of things that I never knew about taking care of myself, and that got me super stoked on looking after my body. In turn, that was getting me stoked on getting back to skating again.
It’s the typical thing that you do when you get hurt, especially in skating; you just hang out and vegetate until your injury heals, when in fact, you want to be super reactionary and take steps towards getting better. Injuries can be so sh*t on your mental health too; you can go from doing something that you enjoy all of the time, to feeling like you have zero purpose. Especially if you’re just sitting around, waiting to get better. I found that focusing on getting better and going through all of those channels to properly rehab myself made being injured way easier to deal with. For the last 10 years, I’ve tried to be healthy, and stay in shape so that I can skate when I want to. But after going to the IRU, I realised that I hadn’t been doing even a fraction of what an athlete would do to keep in shape.
They also opened my mind to the idea that if you do look after your body, skating doesn’t need to finish when you’re 35 or 40, and that was quite exciting to hear. You could actually skate and enjoy it until you’re pretty old, whereas I was resigned to the fact that everything was gradually going to start hurting, and the older I got, the more frequently I’d be putting my back out trying to do carve grinds.
Japan perfection above Greg Nowik's backyard dreamland.
What’s the current state of play with Skateboard GB and the Olympics? How likely is it that you’ll be in Tokyo if the events can take place later this year?
I’m not sure if Alex is in a better spot, I think he’s qualified for street, but for the park stuff, none of us have actually qualified yet. There’s still hopefully going to be a couple more qualifying events, so if those can happen, then we might make it through. But if they go on the current running order of placements, we wouldn’t stand a chance (laughs). I’ve just been mega enjoying skating at the minute, so I’ve been pretty motivated to try and do well in those comps, just because we’ve got the opportunity. For a while, I was having a big toss up as to whether or not I was even into the idea of being involved, and it took me a while to come round to it.
I was going to ask, what was your internal monologue like? Obviously when it comes to skating in the Olympics, it’s such a polarising topic. People either don’t mind the idea and can see some positives of it being included, or are opposed to it, as it goes against everything what they believe skateboarding to be.
For me, it was pretty simple, in the sense that I’ve always made my living skating in competitions; that’s just how being a vert skater has worked for me. So the idea of entering another competition, there were no qualms about it. Including skating in the Olympics just seems like the natural progression of those kinds of big events.
I started to think of it a lot like music. People are saying, “it will take our thing away from us”, but it totally doesn’t take anything away from you. There’s mainstream music everywhere, but the crews that are making music together in their bedrooms, it doesn’t make a difference to them if so and so is on the radio. And I feel like right now, skateboarding is almost the same thing; the people that still want to get out and go skate, the feeling of skating isn’t going to change for them because there’s a big competition on TV.
I think it was harder for me to get my head around the idea of the Olympics, rather than the idea of skateboarding being in the Olympics. Why do you have to be the fastest runner, or the best at whatever? I don’t feel like I’m super pro-Olympics, because in skating it doesn’t matter where you place in a competition, but it’s going to be a cool way to showcase skateboarding to a massive audience. Skateboarding has given me the sickest experiences; I’ve learnt so much from skating. I would totally recommend it to anyone, any kid who might be even remotely interested. I don’t care where people get inspired from; I got inspired from some Tony Hawk videogames, like a lot of skaters in my generation, but if one kid watches the Olympics and then wants to skate, and goes on to a lead a life of travelling around the world, building friendships, experiencing what life can be with a skateboard…who cares where they got stoked on it from?
Follow Sam - @stew_bacca