On an orange afternoon, with the smoke from bushfires hanging over the town, two young women clatter their skateboards through the old part of Newcastle and receive looks.
The younger is pro skateboarder Poppy Starr Olsen, 19, grinding along the stairs of the post office that are honed to silver blades. A man walks past and reddens as his beagle barks and pulls on its lead. The pair don’t notice or don’t care.
“Ooh, sick! You’re so close!”
Filming her friend on a camcorder is Una Farrar, 21, a Canadian pro in Australia for a few weeks. Olsen outranks Farrar on the world tour but in this kind of thing, Farrar’s “street” style, it is the Canadian who gives the advice.
“You should’ve been there when the security guard said we couldn’t skate at the university,” Farrar says. “She told us she was a skateboarder. I think she was kind of on our side.”
In a pastime where the point is responding to the urban world around you, where the instinct triggered by a ramp, rail or empty plaza is “we got to try that”, Olsen says the small evictions are a fact of life.
Sometimes the police tell you to move on,” she says. “A lot of them say, ‘there’s a skate park for that’.”
It’s unlikely that the police, security guards and dog walkers of Newcastle realise they could be witnessing one of Australia’s next Olympians.
When the sport features with the likes of swimming and athletics at the Tokyo 2020 Games, Olsen is on course to represent her country in her “park” discipline – and in the conversation to win a medal. The sport’s inclusion has swung a laser focus onto a lifestyle that has been Olsen’s since she was eight.
“I never thought I’d get the chance to be an Olympian. As a sport we’re going now and it’s really new and exciting for a lot of people,” she says. “It’s really a goal now, to be able to say you were one of the first ones.”
In the race for Olympic qualification, Olsen is ranked fourth in Park and buffered by more than 55,000 points against the skateboarders outside the world top 20. She is a dual world title holder and, with four major events remaining this season, it would take a disaster to derail her journey to Tokyo.
Finding herself within the Olympic orbit has brought change to Olsen’s life. Her sponsorship with clothing company Vans was recently supplemented by a scholarship from the NSW Institute of Sport, providing formal training, physiotherapy, strength and conditioning, access to sports psychologists and the chance to train in her hometown rather than drive two hours to Sydney.
The skateboarder ranked just above her, currently, is Sky Brown, the 11-year-old set to become Britain’s youngest summer Olympian. The top two qualifying positions are occupied by the Japanese pair Misugu Okamoto and Sakuru Yosozumi, poised to become stars at their home Games. But before a melon grab is thrown down in anger at Tokyo’s Ariake Urban Sports Park, the undertow of the Games has already been felt within skateboarding.
There is a perception on tour, say Olsen and Farrar, that China’s determination to win medals has produced athletes who aren’t ready. Some competitors’ presence at tour events in the USA, Brazil and their own country has sparked talk among their fellow professionals, who feel they have been plucked from sports such as gymnastics and the martial arts just to be ready for Tokyo.
China, in response, has played up the credentials of the informally trained “street skateboarders” on its national team based in Nanjing, where Olsen won bronze at last year’s world titles.
Olsen sees the “pros and cons” of her sport’s sudden focus in the world’s most populous nation, such as its lack of a cultural bias against female skateboarders. If China goes overboard trying to win medals, the argument goes, it won’t care if they come from women or men.
But alongside her respect for the skill and toil of fellow tour pros such as 27th-ranked Chinese Asta Zhang Xin and Lou Jiayi (51st), Olsen finds certain things unsettling. There seems something too good to be true about being in contention to qualify for the Olympics, with comparatively little experience, in a sport like skateboarding. A fall on a ramp by Asta Zhang Xin left Olsen shaken.
“She was knocked out. You learn to fall the right way, it’s just something that comes with doing it constantly and hurting yourself,” she says. “These girls come in and don’t know how to fall.”
The importance of falling becomes clear, firstly in the rust of South Newcastle skatepark – the city’s answer to Venice Beach, where Farrar takes several goes at riding a blistered concrete wall, finishing bloodied and satisfied she didn’t “bitch out” – and then in the skate park at Bar Beach.
The bowl is 25 steps from the sand, flanked by Norfolk Island pines and languid dudes in bucket hats poured out over the steps. Around the park in summer, cricket matches play out on a brownish field, tennis balls pound back and forth, and the sea breeze carries noise from one of the most enviably placed bowling clubs on the east coast.
Olsen is dressed in a black T-shirt and long black pants, which her mum Thomas points out are “covered in dog hair”. She clips her helmet over her short blonde hair and drops into the bowl. The rolls and scrapes of her wheels grow louder as her riding expands, and when she falls to her knees she slides and gets up. A fall causes Olsen to admonish herself slightly, shake her head, while a success brings the ubiquitous “sick!” from Farrar, who films everything.
She’s got incredible smoothness and speed through the board,” Farrar says. “It’s that speed and that smoothness, so that one trick flows into the next.”
A small, male crowd has gathered in the smoky air to skate and carp at each other with a fond profanity. Some lookd young enough to be in primary school. A boy screeches into the bowl on a flimsy scooter and is howled out of the way.
When she performs a handplant, pulling her board and feet above her head, Olsen mirrors a photo of herself doing the same thing on a council recycling bin a few metres away. It is the same skate park where Olsen used to be the only girl.
Women’s skating was barely visible a decade ago, and both Olsen and Farrar say they have encountered sexism. Much of it is the sexism of low expectation: assumptions about which tricks they can land, which falls they can endure. But sometimes, says Farrar, it’s hard to tell where sexism ends and the moody dynamics of skating begin.
“There are people who go to the park super early, because they don’t want anyone watching them,” she said. “There’s this thing you see, ‘skateboarder face’. But it’s kind of up to you to get through that, to make that pressure a good thing.”
At the highest, steepest part of the bowl, a small boy nicknamed “Mushroom” is looking over the edge. He presses forward on the handlebars of his tiny scooter. A chant of “Mushroom, Mushroom” begins, and a middle-aged guy – skateboarder clothes, dark sunglasses – sits and watches silently.
“You’ve been talking yourself up Mushroom, gotta do it now,” a boy says.
“No,” Olsen says, walking over. “I don’t want you to do it.”
She speaks with the boy in private, away from the others. He returns to the shallow end of the bowl and rides around to a cheery “sick!” from Farrar. And everyone gets back to skating.