Native Son

An interview with Ryan Sheckler about what’s truly important.

Noah Lekas
Feb 6, 2014 · 13 min read
Photo by Bill Furnish

Tucked away, east of the 5, you can find Ryan Sheckler’s private training facility and the home office of his namesake foundation, The Sheckler Foundation. Founded in 2008, the Foundation is focused on giving back to in-need children and injured action sports athletes. By now, the story of Ryan riding his Dad’s skateboard for the first time is fairly well known, not so well known however, is the story of his first broken bone, why he’ll always be honored to be a San Clemente grom, what having a MTV show is really like and how serious Ryan is about making a difference and being the change.

Ryan and I met up at the Sheckler Foundation, post photo shoot, to talk about skateboarding, the foundation and how important San Clemente has been to him. The oldest of three brothers, Shane and Kane, Ryan reverently calls San Clemente “The greatest place to grow up” and states emphatically that his hometown has always had his back. It becomes immediately obvious that dabbling in Hollywood hasn’t diminished the admiration that he has for his hometown. “There was never a point in the day when you didn’t see activity in our neighborhood” he says, “I grew up right over this hill, my whole street was surfers and skaters. That was all I wanted to do, I wanted to be exactly like them.” His singular focus on Skateboarding is apparent and worth noting. As much as every kid has a dream and is adamant about becoming just like their hero’s, very few break their elbow for the first time at the age of 4 in pursuit of that dream. “I just remember being at the hospital and asking my dad, ‘Am I going to be able to skate?’ He said yes and then I was fine.” That spirited drive is clearly the difference between Ryan and many of his contemporaries.

At Universal Studios Ryan fist met one of his hero’s Chad Muska. “I was just pumped to meet him and he was so cool, he signed my shorts and I wore those shorts to school everyday, it just said MUSKA in cursive on them.” Ryan can’t help but smile as he recounts the height of his days as a grommet. The effect of one pro skater giving the then seven-year-old Sheckler a little attention is clear to this day. Today every skate park in America is filled with the next generation of seven, ten and twelve year old Ryan’s and that reality isn’t lost on him. “The experiences that I had when I was younger, that’s who I want to be to kids. I never want kids to have bad feelings or to feel like they can’t talk to me. I’m here to help, I want to help them skate, help them do anything.” Beyond the skate contests and publicity shoots, Ryan is still that seven year old, completely and wholly in love with skateboard culture and the community that he was raised in.

It wasn’t that long ago that Ryan was the grommet biting on the heels of any pro that would pay attention. Ryan enthusiastically boasts of being a San Clemente grom. “To me that was like, oh wow I’m a grom, that’s awesome. All my team managers called me a grom and now when I see these kids I’m like ‘What’s up grom?’ They get pumped the same way I got pumped. It’s a good thing.” Being called a grom is definitely an honor in Ryan’s book, “It means that people are noticing that you are shredding and putting yourself out there. It’s a compliment.”

Photo by Bill Furnish

A regular at San Clemente’s Skate Park, travel schedule permitting, the never-ending circle of mentor and student continues on. At the skate park Ryan doesn’t allow any spectators, “I’ll start skating and everybody sort of sits down a bit but I’m like, ‘No, no, no not gonna happen, come on dude, what are you working on?’ And just start conversations.” Nearly every grom in San Clemente has had the opportunity to skate with Ryan, but even the mentor and grom relationship isn’t absolute, in the water everything changes. “I get to see them in the ocean, in their element, I do the same thing they do, I sit back and I watch. I won’t go on a wave just to sit and watch a kid do a four foot air, it’s a mutual respect.” That respect undoubtedly extends to all of San Clemente, athletes and residents alike. Ryan isn’t shy about expressing his love for this city, “I’ve had so much support from this community my whole life, it’s really unbelievable, it’s been 23 years that I’ve been supported by this community.” From the support of family and friends to the fans and community as a whole, speaking with Ryan you get the impression that it truly does take a village. Admittedly San Clemente has been “Crucial for my career” he explains. Born into the surf and skate community, Ryan has paid his dues on a local, national and international scale. Still a grommet at heart, nothing seems to spark as much excitement as when he recounts time spent skating with kids in San Clemente. “I see these kids getting so much better, they are so dedicated, week by week. My little brother Kane is 14; he’s one of the gnarliest groms out right now. Kane is going to give me a run for my money one of these days and I can’t wait.” Clearly his younger brothers greatest advocate, “That’s all that I really wanted to do when I was growing up, me and my brothers, we were all going to turn pro at something together.”

Like many I remember watching the X Games in 2003 when a then 13-year-old Ryan Sheckler became the youngest skater to ever win the gold medal. “I went to school the next day” he laughs, “I went to school the next day, not even knowing, I knew it was on ESPN, but I went to school the next day and brought my medal. My teachers were the ones that were freaking out, I just wanted to go to the beach and hang out with my friends.” But if the magnitude of what winning an X Games at 13 meant hadn’t fully sunk in, competing on the pro level had a lasting effect. “That first pro contest when there was a full arena and they called my name, everyone was so excited to see me skate and I had no idea that people knew who I was or anything, I was just a kid having fun.” In true grom spirit Ryan spent most of the competition chasing down his favorite pros. “I was like, ‘This is insane I’m skating with these pros, there’s my favorite dude’, chasing dudes around. But I won the contest and the whole crowd was cheering for me. I felt my heart getting ready to explode and I loved that feeling. I love the feeling of how happy these people are and these people are making me happy, I want to make people happy. It’s just a mutual thing.“ For Ryan it has always been mutual. He is unapologetic about his drive and determination but quick to recognize that without his fans and supporters he wouldn’t be where he is. “My fans have been absolutely ridiculous to me with the love, respect and support and it only feels right, and makes sense, to do the same thing back, if not even to a greater level because I’m capable and blessed enough to do it. “

Championships and a growing fan base soon gave way to new opportunities and by seventeen Ryan had his own MTV show, Life Of Ryan. Although not a regret, television took its toll on the coming of age star. There is an earnest sorrow in Ryan’s voice as he recounts his time as a reality star, “It really took some soul searching after my MTV show. To have the backlash I had, from not doing anything to anyone else, but just from a choice I made, it ruined me. I was really depressed. I was emotional. I couldn’t understand why people were so evil when all I was trying to do was be so nice. It was a huge lesson in my life.” That lesson is one laboriously learned and not easily forgotten. “Now we’re way passed it but that two or three years was rough dude, really rough. I felt like I was trying to win back fans that I had lost for no reason.” The backlash comes with the territory of pop stardom and Ryan is comfortably aware of that, but it’s the disapproval from the national skate community that seems to have stung the hardest. “They were just so not into it” he adds, “Two million people were watching each episode so what do you mean there is this much hate? But that’s the power of TV.” While the national spotlight caused some tension and disillusionment, San Clemente always proved a safe haven. “San Clemente always had my back and that’s why I love this place and I’ll never leave.”

Ryan easily expresses his frustration for the reality show while remaining grateful for the experience as a whole. “We did the show cause it was fun, and it was fun doing it, I had a blast. There were rough times and there were fun times but it was just a life lesson and I don’t regret any of it.” The ramifications of 20–25 people following around an 18-year-old are just starting to hit me as I think about my own life at that age. “It was like 3 camera guys, 3 sound guys, 2 assistants, the producer and the executive producer, every day 3 mini vans to the front of the house and it’s like 8am, every single day, for three season. We got Sundays off. Like right now you would be so uncomfortable,” he tells me. I laugh as I ask if he’d do it again? “I would do it again with 100% creative control, 100% creative control,” he declares like a seasoned professional driven by a conscious. “I had to break up with a girl twice because they messed up the first time. That was the worst day of my life, I felt so bad for her, I felt bad for me.” He shakes his head and continues, “This was close to the end when I was like ‘I’m done with this.’ That was kind of the final straw, they made me break up with her twice dude.” Even though everyone on camera signed wavers and consented to be filmed, not everything filmed sat well with Ryan. “I wasn’t going to do it on camera, I was like you guys are evil, but they talked me into it. So I went there real quick before they set up and I was like ‘Hey you know what’s happening’ we knew, it wasn’t blind, so we did it and they were like ‘You guys need to do that again.’ I was like ‘No way, no way.’ It took me 30 minutes, and see, that had nothing to do with skateboarding and that was the gnarliest part.”

The difficulty of dating on camera aside, Ryan is remarkably cognitive about the process. “We had a lot of control during the show but at the end of the day we were creating a reality show that had to have two story lines, some things got a little fudged and drawn out but other than that everything was very real. It was intense.”

Photo by Bill Furnish

It was near the end of Life Of Ryan that the Sheckler Foundation was launched. First sparked by an invitation to grant a wish for the Make A Wish Foundation, Ryan traveled to Texas to meet a young girl with throat cancer named Casey. “She was really a beautiful little girl, she had the gnarliest scar across her whole throat from where they had to take out the cancer.” Ryan drags his finger across the front of his throat and continues, “She was such a powerful girl and nothing held her back and nothing was holding her back.” You can feel the weight of the experience and the effect Casey had on his life in the room as Ryan’s speech slows and his voice gains a slight vibrato. “She just wanted to meet me so that she could tell me that she was proud of me for getting through my parents divorce.” It was this sort of experience that presumably ended Ryan’s aforementioned soul searching. “In light of her situation, I just felt like my problems are nothing, I am just so blessed! A lot of my fans need help and I’m in a place where I can help them. We started with Children’s Cancer Research Fund and the first one we did we auctioned off my first car and I think we raised $220k. The kid who won was a comedian doing stand-up comedy wherever he could raising $40k, he won my car.” Noticeably moved, his voice levels out as he continues. “Everything always works out for a reason, it works out so perfectly when we start getting involved in these adventures, it feels so good to help, it makes me a better person and I just enjoy it.”

Purely motivated, Ryan is unquestionably inspired by the love he’s experienced in his life. “I didn’t do this cause it’s cool, I did this because we are actually making a difference and making kids lives beautiful. It’s about who we actually touch. You’ll see that when the autistic children come in here and skate and they’re smiling and laughing, it’s wild. That’s why I like doing it.” The Sheckler Foundation most recently raised over $130,000 for the building of the S’Klallam Be The Change Skate Park in Port Gamble Washington. “As a startup foundation you’re only doing one or two events a year and it’s a struggle, but it’s so worth it at the end. And once you get the ball rolling, it’s game on. Now we have great sponsors and great people that want to work with us, it’s fun.”

Professionally, whether in competition, television, or philanthropy, Ryan has a spirited and unwavering sense of vision. “It is interesting to me that I picked skateboarding and never really doubted myself, I never doubted that it’s what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” From day one skateboarding has been, and continues to be, at the core of who Ryan is. It is both sport and art, the upkeep is perpetual and the lessons are relentless. “I fall every single day I skate, I fall hard at least once or twice every single day that I skate and I love it. I look forward to it.” It serves as a motivator and it is a part of his creative process. For Ryan creativity combines the willingness to imagine with the physical ambition to do and that creative process is accelerated by hard fought battles. In the same way that being able to take a punch is as important in boxing as being able to hit, being able to take a fall and get back up is essential to skateboarding. Both are indispensable lessons that transcend sports and art and both hopefully give way to learning how to better avoid the hit. “If anything my injuries have made me so much stronger and so much more aware. You’ll break your arm one way and remember that for the rest of your life. When you’re going to fall like that again you might not put that arm out, you might just take it to the shoulder. You’re always thinking.” It takes a certain resolve and a certain level of strength to fully commit, like anything in life, especially when injury is a factor. “I trust my mental,” Ryan explains, “When I tell myself that I can do something, I know I can do it 100%. I do that with everything. I always think ahead and try to envision the way through something.”

Photo by Bill Furnish

Ryan has learned to see the route through, whether on a board or on foot. “You have to look at it, with broken bones and things like that; you learn so much about your body. I’ve broken so many bones and torn ligaments. Through my injuries I’ve learned so much about my body and the way to keep it healthy and to try to keep the joints healthy. It’s just one of those things, as a skateboarder you are going to slam.” With injury as both an educator and motivator, being sidelined long term or permanently is the only fear. After a serious injury, “You’re playing the craziest mind games you’ve ever played in your head. ‘Am I done? Do I need to look for a job?’ Those are the questions that go through your brain.” Like anybody who has lost a job, or seen their profession hang in the balance, losing the connection to your passion is a great accelerator of anxiety. “You start realizing that it actually is your passion and all that you want to do. You can get on a roll for like 4 years, no injuries no nothing and then all of a sudden boom you’re out for one year.” Remarkably Ryan is able to find a moment of self discovery in the panic and angst of debilitating injury. “That’s how I know that it’s my whole life, when I get injured that’s the first thing that I think, if I can’t skate again I don’t know what I’ll do.”

With that the conversation winds down as I realize that I’ve barely looked at my notes. In the closing moments only one prepared question stands out to me as I thumb through my papers. Since Style Tribe is distributed locally in the greater San Clemente area, this is probably the first time Ryan has done an interview exclusively for his hometown. So I have to ask, is there anything that he wants to specifically tell the San Clemente community? After pausing barely a second he responds, “I just want everyone to know that my heart is with skateboarding, my fans and my family, that’s it, that’s me.”

Originally published at on February 6, 2014.

Noah Lekas

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New book Saturday Night Sage (Blind Owl ‘19) is available now.

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