Dan Mancina in Calgary

Words and photos by Jeff Thorburn

Kevin Lowry, Evan Podliuk, and I arrived at Ramsay Elementary School in southeast Calgary at 10 a.m. on a Friday morning. Clear blue skies were overshadowed by a comically cold temperature of -37°C. I say comically cold because all you could really do was run from one warm spot to the next, lingering outside as little as possible, and laugh about the absurdity of it all along the way.

Inside the gymnasium, I met Everett Tetz, a former teacher and principal that is now behind Academy Skateboard Collective. Their mandate is to connect “marginalized populations to their communities by providing mentorship, training, and support, through school-based skateboard programming and outreach.” In a nutshell, they are taking all that’s great about skateboarding and introducing it to new groups of people who may enjoy and benefit from it. While a lot of people were instrumental in making these couple of days happen, much of it is thanks to the hard work and organization of Everett.

Along with Everett was the man of the hour, Dan Mancina. If you don’t know anything about Dan, I’ll tell you a few things: he’s from just outside of Detroit; he’s a full-time university student, he’s a father; and he’s a skateboarder just like you and I. The only difference is that seven years ago, Dan started losing his eyesight due to retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative eye disease that has taken away roughly 98 per cent of Dan’s vision to date. Arriving late the night before to a city he’d never been to, meeting up with people he’d never connected with in person, it was clear from the start that Dan doesn’t let challenges hold him back from doing what he wants and values. 

Shortly after some introductions among our small group, around 50 kids from grades 3 to 5 filled up the gym, joining around 15 visually impaired kids that had come mostly from schools around Calgary, while some had come from further outside the city for the opportunity to listen to Dan and try skateboarding for the first time.

After watching Dan’s Out of Frame video, and a short introduction from Everett, Dan stood up and spoke to the kids. While Dan told me later that he’s done speaking engagements like this occasionally over the years, by no means would he identify as a public speaker or anything like that. Speaking to the crowd of kids, parents, and teachers though, I was struck by just how matter-of-fact Dan was about his situation. His story is unquestionably inspirational, but he doesn’t add any theatrics to it. For Dan, it was a matter of discovering he was losing his eyesight and not knowing what that meant for his future. While that brought confusion and questions along the way, Dan ultimately decided that he could choose his own path, choose what he wanted to do, rather than let his blindness define him. 

“Skateboarding has made my life amazing,” Dan told the kids. “I get to feel the world, rather than see it through my eyes.”

Those words struck me as something which skateboarders in particular can relate. So much of what we focus on out in the streets are shapes and textures. We’re constantly gauging how things can be ground, slid, or ridden on by running our hands, feet, and boards across them. That’s the same process Dan goes through when it comes to skateboarding and really, anything else.

“Skateboarding is truly for anybody and everybody,” Dan told the rapt audience. “Skateboarding gives you that creativity to choose your own style and your own tricks. It’s the greatest thing in the world.”

First try Kickflip.

After speaking, Dan opens it up to questions. Initially, I thought the kids might be timid, given their ages and the subject matter, but immediately a slew of little hands went up. One kid asked if they might be able to see Dan do a trick at the skatepark later. “Is it okay if I do one here?” Dan asked. With approval from Mrs. Tickles, the principal, Dan explained to the kids what a Kickflip is, oriented himself, and nailed a Kickflip first try. It’s worth reminding you, reader, that this took place at 11 a.m. on a lumpy gymnasium floor, while temperatures bordered on -40°C outside. The kids were impressed, and every skater there was even more impressed.

The questions continued:

“How do you cook breakfast and dinner?”

“Thankfully I have a girlfriend that does a lot of that for me,” Dan responded with a laugh.

“Have you ever broken a cane while skateboarding?”

“Yeah, I’ve broken a lot of them. Sometimes it’s more of an aggression thing though. They’re not cheap either. I’m still looking for a cane sponsor.” 

“Does the way people treat you ever annoy you?”

“The most annoying thing is when someone speaks to the people I’m with instead of directly to me. Like at the airport, they’ll ask my friend, ‘Does he have his ID?’ It’s like, I’m right here, dude. Ask me.”

“Were you scared when you started skateboarding?”

“Oh yeah—always, anytime you start something new it’s scary. But when you spend time dedicated to learning something, you become more relaxed when doing it.”

Even when time was up, there were still a pile of hands in the air. The kids were fully engaged, respecting Dan and showing great interest in what he was speaking about. But they had to get back to class and we had to get to the skatepark.

Afterwards, I spoke with Rose Marie, who’s 10-year-old son, Merrick, recently found out he has retinitis pigmentosa (RP), just like Dan. Rose Marie and Merrick drove down from Eckville, two hours north of Calgary, to hear Dan speak and try skateboarding for the first time.

“I really wanted Merrick to come listen to Dan, because it’s important he knows that there are no limits for him,” said Rose Marie. “Just because he’s visually impaired doesn’t mean he can’t do whatever he wants.” 

Can you imagine the kind of inspiration that a family facing the ongoing challenges of RP can take from hearing Dan’s journey and drive to keep pushing, both on a skateboard and in life? 

Merrick and Dan.

When we arrived at The Compound YYC, Dan walked the park for a while, getting the lay of the land, gauging heights of ledges and other obstacles. Dan’s approach is more or less exactly what any of us would do when we arrive at a new park or spot; he just relies on his other senses to discover what’s around him.

After Dan sat for interviews with media from all over the city, everyone gathered on the floor in a room adjacent to the park. Sitting in a circle, the 15 visually impaired kids that had come out went around introducing themselves and explaining their impairments. At first, the kids would give the medical or technical term they hear from their doctors, but Everett interjected early, asking the kids to explain as best they could what their vision was like. All of the kids were really open and spoke with confidence well beyond their years.

Dan explained with a bit more detail the process of how he skateboards. It only struck me afterwards that, for a lot of these kids, it’s probably really hard to imagine what exactly skateboarding is without having tried it.

Next, with boards place in front of them while they remained seated, Dan gave the kids an audio and sensory tour of the board, naming the parts and describing how they feel and what they do. At least three of the kids involved have been without sight from birth. Imagine discovering something like a skateboard through touch alone, with no idea as to what it can do or how it works. At this point, excitement in the room was high, and the kids were clamoring to get more acquainted with the boards.

“Has a wheel ever fallen off while you were skateboarding?” asked one of the girls. “Yes,” laughed Dan, “but these ones won’t.”

Once the boards were in the hands of the kids, they set them down on the slightly cushioned floor and prepared, for almost all of them, to stand on skateboards for the first time. Parents and educational aides were all around to watch and lend hands. There were no assigned groups or anything like that. Skaters and kids just paired up. Looking back, I’m very proud of how naturally all the skateboarders in the room partnered with the kids.

While wandering around and taking photos, I ended up partnering with an 11-year-old kid named Josh. Later, talking with his aide, Michelle, I found out that Josh has been blind since birth. While he’s very interested and savvy with technology, skateboarding was completely new to him. He quickly developed an understanding of how the board worked, discovering the pivot and tipping points before we moved into the park. We started slow, rolling around arm-in-arm on the concrete floor. Quickly, Josh developed a smile on his face that remained there for the day, and repeatedly exclaimed, “Oh my goodness!” as we worked our way towards rolling up some of the quarterpipes. Moving over to the miniramp, we started pumping back and forth, before Josh dropped a line that still gives me goosebumps: “I can’t believe something like this exists!”

My man Josh with the man, Dan.

For the hour or so that we skated, my focus was mainly on Josh, but thinking back to the glimpses I got of others, and watching footage from the various news stories, it’s clear that everyone in the park had a smile on their face. The kids were so game and brave to just go for it. None of them held back. They all wanted to try skateboarding. Some of the educational aides said that it’s rare for all the kids to enjoy something like this. That’s the power of skateboarding right there.

Merrick getting some.

As we wound down and made our way out of the park, Josh kept saying, “Please don’t tell me we’re done!” How can we give all types of kids more opportunities to try skateboarding in a safe and free environment? There are some great groups around the world tackling that question, and I encourage you to lend a hand if there’s a group in your area. I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of unique and great experiences thanks to skateboarding, but nothing has ever hit me quite like this event.

Half Cab Flip.

The next day found us back at The Compound YYC for a pizza party and skate jam that was open to all. Everyone gathered around in the park as Dan played a game of SKATE against another Josh, this one teenager that agreed to don a blindfold for what turned out to be an epic game. It must have gone on for over 20 minutes. Most notably, besides the canes Dan and Josh were holding, this looked like any game of SKATE you might see at any spot or park in the world. Switch Flips, 360 Flips, Half-Cab Heelflips, etc. Josh successfully matched a few of Dan’s daggers near the end, but ultimately Dan took the win, SKAT to SKATE. Big ups to Josh for sticking it out with the blindfold on for upwards of half an hour.

Dan and Josh after their blind game of SKATE.

Given that we were at an indoor park swarming with kids trying to get theirs on a frigid night in February, and that he was a bit drained and under the weather, Dan didn’t end up skating too much after the game, spending just a little time with a knee-high ledge while the session raged on. On this evening, though, what I think the kids took away with them was an awareness that Dan, and any other visually impaired people, are just like anyone else. Dan can sit around and talk our esoteric language of skateboarding with anyone. Based on the amount of skaters getting their photo taken with Dan throughout the evening, I think that got through to everyone.

Merrick with the board Dan gave him.

On a higher level, this was a reminder that we all have things we can connect over. Within skateboarding, we know that. You see a skater, you know you’ve got a starting point for a conversation and connection. But the same is true outside of skateboarding. We all have the same basic needs. We all have people that are important to us. We like music. We like good food. We like seeing new things. Ask some questions that you don’t know the answer to, see what you learn and who you meet.

Caleb Nicholls takes some of the day’s stoke and turns it upside down on the vert wall. 

We all know how great skateboarding is, and any of us can make a case for its importance and the impact it can have on people. Knowing this, it makes sense that we should do our part to share the joy of skateboarding with others, particularly those that may face some barriers in accessing it. As I said before, this was one of the coolest and most rewarding things I’ve ever been a part of. To be there seeing, hearing, and feeling the reactions of the kids trying skateboarding for the first time was a powerful experience, and a reminder that the trivial shit we sometimes get caught up in is not nearly as important as sharing the pure joy you get from riding a skateboard. Skateboarding is the best, and it’s only going to get better as it grows and diversifies. It’s on all of us to support making that happen.

"Skateboarding is awesome!"

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