Here’s the thing about skateboarding: it wasn’t always so cool.
If you ask Andy Weiss about the skateboarding he grew up with in the 1980s you’ll hear him use words like subculture, underground, rebellious, and hardcore. Back then, skateboarding wasn't nearly as accepted by the masses as it is today. It was something a small percentage of kids and teens did, set on proving their independence from anything too organized or rule-laden. “It was a lifestyle,” Weiss says. “Everything revolved around skateboarding and its culture.”
Nowadays though, skateboarding is plain cool. There are video games and movies. Hip housewives are scooping up boards alongside their soccer kids. The International Olympic Committee recently endorsed the sport for inclusion in the 2020 Olympic games. And Weiss, who says he used to be “just a punk rock kid,” is helping play a part in all the popularity.
Weiss is the founder and executive director of Launch: Community Through Skateboarding, a non-profit organization he started in 2012 to get a new generation of kids involved in the sport he’s loved and lived for nearly 30 years.
Located just north of Old Town in Fort Collins, Colorado, Launch’s indoor ramp sessions cost just $1 per hour and private beginner lessons are available to anyone. In addition, thanks to a dedicated team of volunteers, Launch offers skateboard camps, regional skate park tours and cleanup days, build-your-own skateboard workshops, and maintenance clinics. Last year, over 600 kids came through Launch’s doors.
Weiss grew up in Sterling, Colorado, a small farming community on the northeastern plains. “I played some team sports when I was a kid,” he says. “But I had this neighbor, a friend who was kind of like a big brother influence. He introduced me to skateboarding. I loved that I could skate and do it however I wanted; it quickly became the only thing I wanted to do.”
After graduating high school, Weiss moved to Fort Collins, which he knew then simply as “the next biggest town over.”
“A buddy of mine from Sterling had also moved to Fort Collins. He was working in a sporting goods store at the time,” Weiss says. The store did sell skateboards… along with baseball equipment, football gear, tennis rackets, bicycles, and fishing rods. “We wanted something that focused solely on skating.” So at the ages of 19 and 20 respectively, Weiss and his friend opened their own skateboard shop where they catered to the small and tightknit skateboard community.
Weiss ended up running the shop for 17 years, 12 with his friend, and another five on his own. They learned the business as they went and hit their stride in the early 90s when the shop did its best business. Skateboarding was popular, but not too popular, and sales soared.
Then in the summer of 1995, the inaugural X Games happened. Skateboarding was thrust into the mainstream. As skateboard brands began to get more recognition, savvy business people jumped on board. Large retailers and, later, online outlets, capitalized on skateboarding’s growing popularity. Eventually, if not ironically, the growing acceptance of the sport ended up hurting smaller, core shops like Weiss’s, which had a hard time competing against mega retailers that could attain large quantities of merchandise at deeply discounted prices.
“Plus, I wasn’t the best business man,” Weiss confesses. “I became friends with all my customers so I’d give them deals or do stuff that was good for them, but not necessarily best for my shop.”
Frustrated but still in love with the sport at its core, Weiss began thinking about other ways he could stay involved in the industry. “I wanted to get away from selling things," he says. "And I wanted to impact people in a positive way somehow with skateboarding.”
Thus, Launch was born.
That was nearly four years ago. And Launch has been growing ever since. Grant money will allow the organization to increase its ramp space later this year and programming is expanding, including partnerships with the City of Fort Collins Recreation Department and community organizations serving underprivileged youth.
Still, when I talk to Weiss, I sense his nostalgia.
“In the early days of skateboarding, it was all about discovery, trying new things yourself to see what could work. Like finding a new band at the record store, there was something special about it. I think kids kinda miss out on that now. They can Google anything or just go to YouTube.”
Amid his reflection, however, Weiss sees opportunity. When skaters show up to his ramp to ride, he’ll often drop in alongside them.
“When I can, I’ll point out differences in people’s styles, the way they do different things,” he says. “I want them to realize it’s not all about competition and getting sponsored. I want them to have fun, find their style, their own way. To me, that’s what skateboarding is all about.”
Check out Launch’s hours, events, and workshop schedule at http://launchskate.org/