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    Skatelife Memphis builds interest in city's facility at Tobey Park

    Stacey Greenberg - The Commercial Appeal -

    Aaron Shafer, an analytical development scientist at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, moved to Memphis from California in 2006 and spent his first several years here advocating for a skate park.

    He founded Skatelife Memphis to gather local skaters and promote the positive aspects of skateboarding. Last year, his efforts paid off when the city completed construction on a world-class skate park in Tobey Park.

    "The skate park at Tobey Park is a wonderful amenity that provides a gathering place where people come to not only exercise, but to socialize as well," says city Parks and Neighborhoods director Janet Hooks.

    "On any given day, people of all ages are seen twisting and turning through the air and defying gravity. We are very proud to provide this well-used amenity to our citizens."

    Shafer says getting Memphis a skate park was one of the most satisfying things he has done in his life, but it took a lot of energy and persistence.

    "I am very happy to be done with advocating for the park and am now just enjoying being a regular dad," he says.

    Time once spent in the public eye is time now spent at the skate park. Shafer averages three to four 20-to-30 minute sessions each week.

    "Short and sweet, but it will leave you out of breath and your legs aching," he says. "Skating first thing in the morning gets the day rolling in the right direction."

    His children are also reaping the rewards of Shafer's hard work. His 7-year-old son, Doran, is a real head-turner at the park.

    "Doran's skating is unreal these days," Shafer says. "The little guy mastered six tricks he's been working on, after about 20 days at the park and on his half-pipe at home. He's training two to four days a week and is craving competition. He is definitely a little showboat."

    Eleven-year-old Grant enjoys skating, too, and is becoming an expert carver and cruiser around the bowls, Shafer says.

    "My wife and I are both very pleased with the design of the park and the level of parent participation," he says.

    Skatelife Memphis volunteers have held several learn-to-skate clinics in Tobey that attracted many families. A Facebook group called Tobey Skate Kids helps the group to spread the word. In September, a starter clinic attracted more than 50 students.

    "We help out all levels, from 'never-stepped-on-a-board-before' people to the 'honing-your-skills' people," says Kris Gurley, 38, a member of Skatelife Memphis from Cordova who adds, "We aim to have a good time."

    "The big highlight is seeing so many skaters get involved in helping the smaller kids and getting to know the kids outside of the clinics," Shafer says. "As a result of those clinics, we have a very regular group of families that come on Saturday mornings with the kids to skate and hang out."

    Along with instruction, Skatelife Memphis has equipment to lend, including helmets, knee and elbow pads, and about 10 skateboards.

    Shafer and Gurley have busy schedules, but hope to schedule more clinics soon.

    "We're planning on a clinic around the end of November and would like to hold a little contest for the kids, perhaps in December," Shafer says. "At some point, we're going to host a big competition, but I need someone to step up to volunteer to head that up."

    People need not attend a clinic to learn to skate. Jackie Patterson, who lives in Midtown, takes her 10-year-old grandson to the skate park at least three times over the weekends he spends with her.

    "He really enjoys visiting with the more experienced skaters, who are usually willing and happy to help younger skaters," she says. "Not only does the park give us hours of entertainment, but also gives Jack an opportunity to gain confidence and be able to challenge himself physically."

    Shafer says skaters finally have a safe place to call home where people can admire their abilities and talent. The new 20-foot skateable art sculpture by Mark Nowell and Tylur French has taken skateboarding to the next level.

    "The sculpture has completely changed the dynamic of the park," Shafer says. "Now you can literally skate the entire park without taking your foot off the board. The sculpture gives you a huge boost of momentum that allows you to fly back in the opposite direction and skate the other half of the park. The skaters love the addition. Many are skating beyond vertical on it."

    There have been a few negatives at the park, such as a few minor injuries in the first month, graffiti, littering and petty theft. However, Shafer is proud that a core group of users has taken ownership of the facility.

    "It's encouraging to see the park being taken care of and respected," he says, adding, "Almost all the small kids are wearing their helmets and safety gear, and lots of parents are hanging out with their kids rather than just dropping them off."

    David Thornton is a chef and freelance writer who moved to the University of Memphis area specifically to be close to Tobey and skate regularly.

    "There are some good folks that pick up trash before they skate, like Kris Gurley, and they should be thanked," Thornton says. "Jeri Hale, whose husband owns Cheapskates, is known to come by and clean up. On days when it is too wet to skate, I'll come by and do trash detail. A lot of people are putting in the effort."

    At 39, Thornton's best days in skating are behind him, but he has continually been able to improve his skills and pass on his knowledge to the "groms," as newbie skaters are called.

    "They learn so fast," Thornton says of the kids. "That excitement is contagious. Unlike team sports, there is such an element of individuality in skateboarding. Everyone has a style, and you can choose what tricks you do according to your style."

    Thornton grew up emulating the style of skaters like Duane Peters and Tony Alva. "The younger skaters do the same thing, but now they have so many more pros and legends to look up to," he says. "They're taking elements of all these different skaters and making it their own. It ends up being a completely different way of skating. Tobey is giving them a place to hone those skills. It is exciting to see."

    Hannah Shipley, 32, moved back to Memphis five years ago after having lived for eight years in Orlando, Fla., which has many public and private skate parks. Her experiences in those parks were always positive, so she was a big advocate for Tobey.

    "Skate parks offer a different type of camaraderie, friendship connections, activities and exercise than any other type of park," she says.

    Since the park opened, Shipley has been a regular, along with her husband and son, and has assisted with many Saturday morning classes.

    "I like to help groms get to know the skate park — where to skate if you are a beginner, where not to stand so they won't be in the way, and other basic skate park etiquette," she says.

    "I'll be honest: This park is world class. It offers itself to the extremely advanced skaters as well as groms. I love Tobey, and I love what it has done for the city of Memphis."

    Getting started

    Skatelife Memphis founder Aaron Shafer recommends that all skaters (bikers, scooter users, etc.) obey the helmet law. When purchasing a helmet, he says to make sure it is Consumer Product Safety Commission certified. Other recommended safety gear includes wrist guards, elbow pads and knee pads. In addition to local sporting goods stores, Memphis has two specialty skate shops for purchasing equipment: Cheapskates (1576 Getwell) and Midtown Skate Shop (651 N. McLean).