On one of those fall days that starts out cool and warms up in the afternoon, hinting at the change of seasons, a group of 15 to 20 young skateboarders gathers in the upper corner of the Charlottesville Skate Park. Ranging in age from about 10 to 19, the kids are dressed in everything from full-on protective gear, to nude torsos and cutoff shorts, to Dickies work pants and T-shirts emblazoned with brand names like Vans and Supreme.
They stand in a loose huddle, laughing and teasing one another. One kid razzes another about “not screwing things up this time.” Wearing jeans and a backwards ball cap, Peter Hufnagel, 38, squats and looks up at the kids. One teenager, who’s filming the group to post online, peels away and gets into position on the course.
“Don’t think about the dude behind you,” Hufnagel says. “Don’t think about the camera. Focus on the ledge and what you gotta do to nail the landing.”
With a shout, the oldest kid dashes down the narrow cement runway, leaps on his board, and ascends the high two-step ledge. He performs a 180-kickflip so big he nearly crashes into the kneeling videographer.
The lavish move animates the other kids. They jump on their boards, form a rolling line, and attack the ledge, launching into the air one after another. All land and swerve to avoid colliding with fellow skaters. Onlooking parents and kids applaud and shout approval.
Last in line, Hufnagel makes the run and lands safely. The kids celebrate with high-fives, chest bumps, and more shouting.
“Visit pretty much any skatepark in the state, and you’ll find a similar atmosphere,” says Hufnagel, director of innovation at the Miller School of Albemarle and a skateboarder since the age of 8. “There’s this amazing ethos of inclusivity. Skaters go out of their way to support one another and help each other improve.”
Hufnagel is on the cusp—in Virginia, at least—of a major trend. Anticipating the debut of skateboarding at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, he decided last August to launch the commonwealth’s first high school skate team. Eight students signed on. They practice daily, led by Hufnagel and local skating icon Bruce Vlk. The team’s success led Hufnagel to found the VAHS Skateboarding Series, a competitive league for middle and high school kids.
“The feedback we got from students was so overwhelmingly positive, it was clear we needed to find a way to get this sport into other schools,” says Hufnagel.
The goal is to build an interscholastic athletic community that allows kids to represent their schools in competition and connect with other young skaters statewide.
“These kids are passionate athletes,” Hufnagel says. “We think they deserve to have the same opportunities as kids that participate in traditional sports like football or basketball.”
Hufnagel is operating in familiar territory. In 2011, he developed the Miller School program that launched both the state’s first high school-affiliated mountain biking team as well as the first nationally sanctioned competitive interscholastic cycling league on the East Coast. Miller School’s cycling and mountain biking program has grown to about 50 riders, including Katie Clouse, winner of 21 national junior titles and the youngest member ever to make a U23 (under 23) world championship team. Virginia now has 35 interscholastic mountain biking teams and more than 500 student riders.
“Our plan is to replicate the success we’ve had with mountain biking for skateboarding,” says Hufnagel. “We’re going to follow the same template.”
The VAHS Skateboarding Series will likely launch at the Charlottesville Skate Park, with an additional two or three competitions held at other venues in Virginia. The events will be open to middle and high school teams and individual skateboarders alike.
“Getting these teams into schools is going to require building a certain critical mass,” says Hufnagel, who describes the events as rallying points for skaters. “To do that, we’re going to have over-the-top, professional-quality [events] production value. We want these kids to feel really special and walk away inspired.”
Hufnagel and Vlk are developing materials to help launch and sustain programs. “Right now, we’re putting together a packet that will include practice templates, rule books, risk-management protocols, liability insurance, and the like,” says Hufnagel.
He says he has been in discussions with brands including Red Bull and Nike to fund skaters’ insurance and train coaches. “We need to have the things in place that make it easy for an athletic director at a public school to say ‘yes’ when kids ask about starting a team.”
Though the league is inchoate (a website is still in production), word is getting out. Skaters at Staunton High School have petitioned their school administrators about forming a club team and joining the VAHS. Brian Culpepper, a SHS junior, was one of four schoolmates who took part in the ledge-jumping exercise at Charlottesville Skate Park in the fall. They see the VAHS as an opportunity for validation and a way to gain resources for their sport.
He and his friends skate nearly every day, working hard to improve. But because the school doesn’t have a team, “people don’t take us seriously,” he says. “That perception is what we want to change.”