Courtesy Wasserman
Duran is best known for executing a hardflip down stairs, a difficult move she’s excited to show off in Tokyo. (Photo: Courtesy Wasserman)

Albuquerque Skateboarder Mariah Duran Heads to the Olympics with First U.S. Team

As the number one female street skateboarder in the country, Duran hopes to inspire more people to try the sport

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In nearly every interview, skateboarder Mariah Duran is asked about what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated sport. It’s easy to understand why: about 80 percent of all skaters are male, and the sport has grappled with sexism over the years as female skaters have fought for equal pay and fair sponsorship opportunities.

Yet almost every time she gets the question, Duran essentially says the same thing: she doesn’t think much about being a woman on a skateboard. And why would she? She’s just a skater working toward her goals. “It is kind of crazy how there is a pressure for women to try to break the gender barrier,” she says. “But it’s really like, we’re breaking our own barriers, and we just so happen to be women.”

As a two-time national champion and the United States’ number one ranked female in street skating—a style where skaters perform tricks on urban obstacles like stairs, handrails, and park benches—her hard work has paid off. Now the 24-year-old is headed to the Summer Olympics, where this month, for the first time ever, skaters from 26 countries will have the chance to compete, joining a handful of other newly debuting sports, including climbing, karate, and surfing. Duran is best known for executing a hardflip down stairs, a difficult move she’s excited to show off in Tokyo.

It’s been a long path to get to the Olympic stage. Raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Duran got her first board when she was ten years old. She fell in love with it almost immediately and grew up skating with her two brothers, Elijah and Zeke. There was always a new trick to master, and the process of trying and failing felt limitless. Although she played several other sports, including baseball, softball, and basketball, she decided to focus solely on skating during her senior year of high school. Her mom was initially hesitant for her daughter to go all in with skating, but it soon became a family affair as Duran and her brothers began heading to competitions around the globe. “I had a good relationship with my brothers before we started skating, and this has just helped it grow so much,” she says. “We travel together, and we trust one another.”

Mariah with her brothers, Zeke (left) and Elijah (right) (Jeremiah Arias)
Mariah skateboarding at a local Albuquerque park (Jeremiah Arias)

In 2015, Duran went pro, with her first sponsorship from Meow Skateboards. It was a defining moment; she understood that skating wasn’t limited to something she could do for fun, but could take off as a career. “Since I was ten, blowing out candles on my birthday, I’ve been wishing for things that have to do with skateboarding, like shooting a skating video, winning a contest, or getting sponsored,” she says. But launching a career as a skateboarder isn’t easy. To a certain extent, skaters are figuring it out as they go.

Other sports have set strategies for success: you focus on strength training, go to practice, score the goal, and win the game. Skating, on the other hand, wasn’t a competitive sport until relatively recently, so it doesn’t have the same kind of structure. “There’s no handbook for where skating is going right now,” Duran explains. “Skateboarding is new to the game, so you have to learn from other skaters and adjust that to work for you.”

For much of its history, skateboarding was considered separate from mainstream sports. The pastime originated with surfers in California and Hawaii in the 1950s, and its popularity grew over the decades, with the first skate contest held in 1963. Decks evolved, skate parks popped up around the world, and the 1978 invention of the ollie—a move where the skater pops their skateboard into the air by pushing its tail down while jumping—launched street skating into its own class. By the 1980s, skateboarding had become an emblem of antiestablishment culture and the growing punk scene, but it’s also when the sport’s biggest stars started making a name for themselves, like Mike McGill, Steve Caballero, and Tony Hawk, who won his first competition in 1982.

Mariah and friends on their way to skate (Evan Grainger)

Skate contests are usually structured in three to four rounds, each with two to three runs that last between 45 and 60 seconds. Judging is based on a 100-point scale, with five scores awarded for each run; the highest and lowest of those are dropped, and the remaining three scores are averaged for a final score. In the Olympics, it’ll be more or less the same. Eighty athletes from around the world will compete in two disciplines: park and street skating. (Park skating uses features like the halfpipe and the quarterpipe and is similar to the kind of skating seen in local parks.) Both competitions will have two rounds—preliminaries and finals—where skaters are given two 45-second runs, along with five attempts to perform their best trick. Skaters choose their own routines, which are judged on a 10-point scale for flow, timing, and consistency, as well as difficulty and originality.

Despite now being an organized sport, skateboarding has continued to push against what’s typically expected of sports and athletes, from the clothes skaters wear and their attitude toward competition to the way the tricks are assessed. Even with its arrival at the Olympics, Duran doesn’t think the sport will change from its roots anytime soon. She likens skateboarding and skate culture to a growing tree: “The cultural roots are the core of the tree, and the branches are the skaters. They can branch out as far as they want to go.” She notes, however, that she’s seen among skaters an increased emphasis on training and eating healthy to help increase endurance.

While Duran sees herself as a skater first and foremost, she does acknowledge the responsibility she has in representing female athletes, especially at her level. With its debut at the Games, Duran is hopeful that even more people will be inspired to give it a try. “It’s always intimidating to enter a new sport, but you get what you put in,” she says. “If you want to push your skateboarding to a crazy elite level, then do it. If you just want to cruise down the street, then do it. There’s no right or wrong way.”

For Duran, though, the main objective is reaching her personal best. She often brings up how important it is to be focused on the present when skating and going into a major competition. At the Olympics, Duran says the hardest part will be drowning out the external pressures and anticipation, and dedicating her attention solely to the moves in her run.

She wonders how the Games will change her own self as much as her career. “I’m excited to meet the Mariah Duran after the Olympics,” she says. “I guarantee she’s gonna go through so much.”