From the age of eight, Poppy Olsen knew exactly what she wanted to do. And by following her dream, she placed fifth in park skateboarding at the Tokyo Olympics and secured her spot among the world’s best on four small wheels. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.
Skating through fear with Poppy Olsen
It must be a rare person that forecasts their professional career at the age of eight. Especially when that career’s skateboarding. Or maybe that’s the wrong way of looking at it. Maybe lots of kids declare their sporting dreams to their parents’ cameras, but we only see the ones that come true.
There’s home footage of Poppy Starr Olsen from 2008, with shaggy blonde surfer locks and not much taller than a skateboard herself. She’s asked by her mother, Thomas, what she wants to do when she’s older. “Probably ride skateboards,” Olsen says, shaking her head as if to suggest the question is absurdly redundant. What else is there?
Olsen was eight when she first stepped upon a skateboard lent by a neighbourhood friend. Soon, she wanted to do little else. Not long after, she was spending most of her free time down at the Bondi skate park – the only girl, and in the company of much older men. It gave her mother pause – should Poppy be hanging out with older skate dudes so much? – but soon her family were practically living down there, learning how to skate themselves, or playing frisbee with their dog while their pink-helmeted skate prodigy tried to drop in between the big guys.
“There were a lot of older men, but they were all really supportive,” Olsen, now 22, remembers. “And usually, most skateboarders are [supportive] because we’re all kind of doing the same thing. Having fun, and we, like, all feed off each other and maybe learn new stuff. So, everyone was supportive.
“Skateboarding is a very accepting sport, I think, because it draws lots of misfits and outcasts and people that are, I guess, typically viewed as not normal by a lot of outside people.”
Olsen’s mother was lovingly encouraging her daughter’s seemingly unusual hobby – as well as keeping a parent’s watchful eye – but she soon came to realise it was really something more: her daughter had a gift.
At the age of nine, Olsen won her first skateboarding award. It was a mixed competition “with about three girls and a hundred guys”. Quickly, she wasn’t the cute kid the others made room for. Folks were coming down to the Bondi bowl to watch the prodigious grommet herself.
National amateur tournaments followed. And she excelled. International magazines started taking notice. At 14, she gave a TED Talk and performed skate demos at the Australian Formula 1 Grand Prix in Melbourne with the legendary Tony Hawk. By 16 she had her first sponsorship deal. “This is my skateboard and this is my paintbrush,” she told the TEDx crowd in 2014. “For me, they go hand in hand. They are my passion and my purpose and my pride in life.”
By 18, Olsen was the best female skateboarder in the country – and one of the world’s best. At 20, she became an Olympian. Well, almost. The Olympics were delayed by the pandemic, and not only were the Games shuttered, but so too was the local skate park. “When all the skate parks were shut, that was definitely something new for all of us,” Olsen says. “It was really weird not skating.”
And so, Poppy Olsen – with the permission of her mum, who was now her manager – had a small ramp built in her garage, which also became her bedroom. The ramp allowed her to practise, but its smallness also facilitated new tricks, as the tightness of the space asked different things of her.
A skate ramp in her bedroom. Neither Olsen or her mother would have thought this possible – or valuable – just a few years earlier.
The Tokyo Olympics were very strange. First, they were delayed by a year. Then athletes were denied crowds, placed in quarantine bubbles, and shuttled between hotels and events within complicated and earnestly upheld protocols. Their famed village was effectively dissolved and competitors became terrified of catching the virus and being disqualified from the event they’d spent a lifetime preparing for.
Olympians and Paralympians I’ve spoken to – those who’d been to previous Games – mourned the loss of crowds and the village. The empty stadiums were spooky and deflating, and the absence of their village of peers was a deep disappointment.
But what was strange for Poppy Olsen was just being at an Olympic Games. As well as being the first Games delayed by a pandemic, and one that now existed within a strange quarantine bubble, it was also the first to include skateboarding. Her personal inclusion was exhilarating and her sport’s inclusion historic, but her family had to watch from home. They FaceTimed with her during the opening ceremony’s march.
Olsen tells me her principal goal was to make the finals of the park tournament – not to win a medal. A medal would be icing. Still, she wanted to compete. Obviously. On her first routine, she got nervous. Productively so, she says, but the nerves were greater than usual. “I think for a lot of people, nerves put them off,” she says. “But nerves make me stay on more, they kind of work to my advantage. What happens is kind of like competition mode, where you can’t really hear anything else and you’re just in the zone. And it makes me commit.”
Olsen says the larger mental game in skateboarding is your relationship with the risk of injury. To perform the tricks she does – to briefly defy gravity above concrete – is to guarantee some amount of broken bones, gashed heads, chipped teeth. “Fear is an issue with every single skateboarder,” she says. “It makes the tricks more impressive, because this fear is overcome. I reckon about 90 per cent of it is this battle in your mind, and then the other part is the skill. But, for me, every time I’m learning a new trick, there’s that battle in your head to overcome the fear.”
Olsen made the skateboarding finals in the “park” discipline. She achieved her goal. A podium finish, however, just eluded her – she placed fifth. She sounds content, though. “I was really happy with the result,” she says, and I believe her – there’s little artifice with Olsen, and a refreshing and easy humility.
Such is her humility, that speaking to her you wouldn’t realise how unusually vertiginous her career has been. She’s still only in her early 20s but the list of achievements is long.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 as "Carving it up".
A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.