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A Young Head of Skate

Times Staff Writer

Sunshine has vanquished the morning haze and made this one of the finest days of the summer. Ryan Sheckler’s friends have gone to the beach, and there is the sense that he’d like to join them.

But, as always seems to be the case, he has visitors, one with a notebook and another with a camera. So it goes when you’re the hottest thing in action sports.

The kid knows the drill. He plops into a chair next to the swimming pool at his parents’ San Clemente home and politely answers questions. Then he strolls to his backyard skate park and begins to warm up.

The family’s yard isn’t huge, but Ryan’s father, Randall, is a mechanical engineer, and one part of the yard is a course of ramps, sliding boxes and steel rails. Miniature heaven for a skateboarder.

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Soon, Ryan is streaking this way and that, launching onto and off of the park’s many obstacles. His confidence brimming, he decides to attempt a kick-flip crooked grind. It’s a complex maneuver that entails a short “ollie,” or jump, flipping his skateboard with the front of one shoe, stepping back onto its deck and landing nose-first on a raised rail between the front wheels before sliding off the rail and skating away.

“It’ll be a good one if I can pull it off,” he says from atop the lead-in ramp. “I’ve only landed it, like, five times.”

Make that six. Sheckler rolls to a stop after a flawless run and looks back, his green eyes wide and mouth open, as though he has surprised even himself.

Next up: “a backside tail slide ... “

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Skateboarding’s youngest superstar has been full of surprises since he became obsessed with the sport at age 4.

He’s 14 now, and winner of too many amateur contests to count. He turned pro a day after his 13th birthday because he’d run out of challenges, and has since amassed a small fortune in contest winnings.

A year ago, he became the youngest skateboarder to win a gold medal at ESPN’s Summer X Games, earnestly declaring afterward that just being invited to such a prestigious event fulfilled a dream he’d had “since I was a kid.”

Also in 2003, he struck gold at the Gravity Games and won the Vans Triple Crown and World Cup Skateboarding championships.

Today, at an age when most aspiring pros are still finding their way, Sheckler, who stands 5 feet 1 and weighs 97 pounds, is living a dream shared by millions of young skateboarders. He travels the world with the sport’s elite and is among the favorites in the 2004 X Games, set for Aug. 5-8 at Staples Center.

But on this afternoon beneath a radiant blue sky, another dream occupies his mind: One in which he’s just an ordinary kid skating purely for fun, whose summer means carefree days at the beach and whose fall means mingling with students on campus.

Sitting poolside in jeans and a red T-shirt, Sheckler confesses that he has grown bored with home-schooling, which has been necessary for the last two years to accommodate his schedule. He then announces that he is putting the brakes on his burgeoning career long enough to enjoy what’s left of his childhood.

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It has nothing to do with his passion for skating -- that’s as fiery as ever, he assures. It has everything to do with bringing into his world a sense of normalcy.

“I just want to go to high school, man,” he says softly. “I just want to get back up with all my friends and start doing the social thing again. I’m just now entering my freshman year in high school, and I don’t want to miss that.”

Sharing what is sure to be disappointing news to fans, contest promoters and the sponsors who pay him, Sheckler goes on to say he will skate only high-profile events such as the X Games and Gravity Games, and reassess his situation after the fall semester at San Clemente High. He maintains that the decision is entirely his and that he has the support of his family and the management company that represents him.

“It’s clear that he has become an established member of the [skateboarding] community and he’s not going anywhere,” says Circe Wallace-Hetzel, senior athlete manager at IMS Sports in Cardiff. “He will be around as much as he wants to be, and he will continue to do great things.”

Sheckler says this has been his plan from the beginning, “to get a bunch of stuff done before high school and then actually go to high school.” “It’s all falling into place.”

With that, he changes his shoes and begins to skate again.

The photo session shouldn’t take long, he’s told. “Oh, no worries,” he replies, extending his board for emphasis. “This is still my life.”

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The Shecklers’ two-story home is on a hillside within a gated community only a couple of miles from the beach. Ryan’s home away from home since he was 6 has been the YMCA’s Magdalena Ecke skate park 25 miles down Interstate 5 in Encinitas. There, he spent as much time as his parents allowed. At home, he practiced kick-flips in his garage, 100 per day until he mastered them.

“He was just tenacious, always going for it,” Gretchen Sheckler says of the oldest of her three sons. “He was always insistent: ‘I can do this’ or ‘I can do that.’ It never took any prodding from us.”

The Encinitas skate park is the home of many top pros, including Tony Hawk and Shaun White. Sheckler has been compared to both skaters because of his meteoric rise at such a young age.

“He was hard not to notice,” recalls Hawk, 36, the sport’s most successful athlete. “Over the years you could just see that he had the drive and consistency and he’s able to adapt to anything. You can put him in almost any situation and he’s going to excel.”

The Shecklers devote a room in their home to Ryan’s trophies and medals. Leaning against one wall is an oversized replica of a $10,000 paycheck, one of his first as a pro. “Multiply that by 10 and that’s about what Ryan has made this past year in contest winnings alone,” Gretchen Sheckler says. “This has gone beyond anything we could have imagined.”

Along with the six-figure earnings from competitions, Ryan gets stipends from various sponsors, who also cover his equipment and travel expenses. His mother doubles as his “personal manager” and she has traveled with him about five months out of each of the last two years, to places such as New Zealand, Australia, Europe and Canada, as well as across the U.S.

Working high school into the equation is the continuation of a balancing act Sheckler has been dealing with most of his life.

“Ryan has an extremely strong work ethic,” Gretchen says. “He knows when it’s time to do what he needs to do, but man, you better not mess around with his playtime or social time, because he wants to do that too, and he doesn’t want to mix the two if he doesn’t have to.”

Recently, Gretchen and Ryan’s grandmother, Leta, have begun planting flowers in the frontyard in preparation for the upcoming filming of an “MTV Cribs” episode, featuring Ryan.

There also have been interview requests from several skate and mainstream sports magazines, including Sports Illustrated, plus an invitation to appear on Fox Sports’ “Best Damn Sports Show Period.”

In interviews, Ryan is well-mannered, accommodating and articulate beyond his years. Around him, however, are indicators of his youth. Encased on the wall over his pillow is a top-dollar paintball rifle he uses in organized fights he and his friends wage in the hills behind his home. On the wall next to his bed, also in a glass case, are Tony Hawk souvenir figurines. Next to that is a photograph of Ryan, soaring during a jump on his motorcycle.

Motocross is his other passion, and he has worn a track in the same hills behind his house. “Pretty sick,” he says.

A website printout of his favorite interests lists “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” as his favorite movie, and he nods confirmation that it’s accurate. “I just like everything about it,” he says.

Some of his interests are changing, though. He grabs the list and strikes Eminem, 50 Cent and Coolio from his favorite bands -- a category topped by Metallica -- and adds Guns N’ Roses and The Cure. He replaces science with math as his favorite subject and says he’ll update the site later.

For now, sunshine is flooding the corner of his room and Sheckler has taken notice.

The interview over, he excuses himself and quickly emerges in the frontyard, wearing bright yellow swim trunks and a black T-shirt.

“Grandma, can I have a ride to the beach?” he asks.

And off he goes.


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