Alexis Sablone Aims to Skateboard Her Way Into the Olympics - Rolling Stone
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Become an Olympic Skateboarder or MIT Architect? Alexis Sablone Chose Both

The seven-time X Games medalist has a master’s degree in architecture, designed a public sculpture in Sweden, and has her sights on the Tokyo Olympics

Alexis Sablone

Even if she doesn't make the Olympic skateboarding team, Alexis Sablone still has her MIT architecture degree to fall back on.

Griffin Lotz for Rolling Stone

Skateboarding outside the Brooklyn townhouse she shares with five roommates, Alexis Sablone soars through a shaft of January light with her hoodie pulled over a beanie, her five-foot-four frame swimming in baggy jeans. A seven-time X Games medalist, her movement is effortless.

Yet Sablone, 33, is more than just one of the world’s best women’s street skaters. She has a master’s degree in architecture from MIT. She designed a skateable public sculpture in Sweden, and is in talks for similar projects in the U.S. In a studio, she builds large-scale sculptures with found materials; at home, she designs decks as art director for WKND Skateboards and is working on a graphic novel about nuclear waste.

These days, it’s skateboarding that takes up most of her time. Sablone is close to qualifying for the Tokyo Olympics, where the sport is making its premiere in August. While she’s currently ranked second in U.S. women’s street skating. “It’s funny, because skateboarding always represented freedom,” she says. “School was structure. And right now skateboarding is so structured.” 

Growing up in southern Connecticut, Sablone got her first skateboard when she was 10, after seeing a boy land a trick in a pizza restaurant’s parking lot. She was drawn to the straightforward method, where repetition got results. “You put in the effort, you see things changing,” she says. “There’s always something you’re working on.” 

Trevor Thompson, a pro skater and Sablone’s best friend since childhood, says her reserved demeanor and gutsy style work in tandem. “She’s small and not very loud, so when you see her in action, there’s something about the contrast that strikes you.” As kids, “she’d be skating better than you, falling harder than you. What are you gonna say?”

In grad school, Sablone showed similar dedication. “She was known for working all hours of the day and night,” says Skylar Tibbits, an associate professor at MIT. It was there that Sablone was inspired to try sculpture. “A big part of architecture school is using different tools to make weird stuff,” Sablone says. “But in architecture, ideally we want to be able to re-create it. [After graduation] it was exciting that I could still make stuff but not have that limitation. I was like, ‘I can make anything!’ ” In a certain sense, she says, all the disciplines overlap: skateboarding, art, design, architecture. “You’re creating rules as you go, making something from scratch, and trying to imagine something that wasn’t there before.”

For a long time, building a career in skateboarding was tough for women. “That’s why I got into competitions in the first place,” she says. “There wasn’t really the other avenue to make a living.” Even in contests, prize money was often vastly unequal. The X Games began awarding equal prizes in 2008, following a threatened boycott by women skateboarders. Before that, in 2004, men won $50,000 for first place and women received $2,000.

But in the lead-up to the Olympics, women have seen increased visibility. In 2014, Nike signed Leticia Bufoni; in 2017, Adidas signed Nora Vasconcellos. Last year, Sablone landed a sponsorship with Converse and designed a shoe with her name on it. Shortly after, Sablone, who is gay, appeared in a 50th-anniversary Pride campaign. Having a platform as a queer athlete is something she’s still adjusting to. “It’s only been in the last couple of years that I’ve gotten more coverage and more of an opportunity to talk about it,” she says. A 2019 interview in the skateboarding magazine Thrasher was one of the first times she spoke publicly about her sexuality. “Skateboarding is something that’s always been for everybody, not just one type of person. That’s the spirit of skateboarding,” she says. “But in practice, it appeared for years to be mostly straight men, and that’s changing. To be a queer woman, it puts you in some kind of spotlight.”

Sablone recently got back from a Team USA summit in Los Angeles, where officials held an orientation for the 22-member national team, even though only 20 skateboarders from the whole world will compete in Sablone’s event. It made it feel real — almost too real. “We learned a lot of specifics, like the day of the Olympics, your practice is at 7 a.m. and the contest is at 9 a.m. — I don’t want to think about it yet,” she says. “I get so nervous just in regular competition, thinking about the Olympics gives me, like, a roller-coaster-ride feeling. Just instant adrenaline.”

As she prepares herself for the final months of qualifiers, Sablone is already looking ahead to the other side of this milestone — a schedule with room for her next project. “It’s gonna feel really weird I think,” she says. “But, then, probably exciting to think about all that other stuff again.” 

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