First-year journalism and law major Aaron Khan-Gumm and his friends have found a way to put the “social” back into social distancing, and plenty of people are on board.
Multiple boards to be exact. Khan-Gumm and his buddies are among a group of people at Drake University who have found a way to socialize through skateboarding, a popular activity found in the Des Moines area.
Khan-Gumm said he originally came up with the idea when he and his high school friends from West Des Moines used skating to keep in touch during quarantine earlier this year.
“Me and my friends noticed that we could still hang out because we could skate,” Khan-Gumm said. “Not being super close to each other, we could social distance; we could wear our masks; we could shout at each other from across the street.”
Khan-Gumm also used skateboarding to cope with the effects the pandemic had on him and his family. His father tested positive for the coronavirus, so Khan-Gumm was sent to isolate in his basement. There, he skated to pass the time and found spots outside where he could safely roam on his board, masked and gloved.
“One of my philosophies is when I’m trying to destress and calm myself down, I think that it is very effective to change your environment from the one that you got stressed or worked up at,” Khan-Gumm said. “Skating constantly takes you to a different environment, and you are constantly moving, so it’s always helped out, especially during the pandemic.”
Fast forward months later, Khan-Gumm has moved to a different environment: Drake University. Here, he has connected with other students, including his roommate Kaiden Green, through skateboarding. Khan-Gumm explained the vibe he shares with other skaters.
“When I see other people skating around campus, I already feel a connection just because we both skate. It will feel a lot more easy for me to go up to them and say, ‘Oh you skate? I skate too. You want to skate sometime?’” Khan-Gumm said. “Nobody has ever said no and asked, ‘What’s wrong with you?’ Everyone’s pretty cool about it.”
Once befriended, Khan-Gumm and his roommate Green like to help the more inexperienced skaters with their tricks and movement.
“Seeing new people skate, I think it is really cool,” Khan-Gumm said. “One: it gives me an opportunity to be a teacher and help someone out. Two: it just means more people are getting into skating, which means it is growing in popularity and growing a community.”
One of these new members to the skateboarding community is first-year marketing and management major Alexandria Acosta. Hailing from the Caribbean, Acosta finally pursued her life-long interest in skating when she arrived at Drake. Seeing skateboarding as a great way to travel around campus, Acosta said she fell in love with the activity’s aesthetic.
“I feel kind of cool doing it, you know?” Acosta said. “It’s something not a lot of people can do, and I enjoy it.”
Acosta addressed the learning curve that comes with skating.
“I’ve fallen many times. I normally just get over it because it is something I want to do,” Acosta said. “I get back up and try again. The falling doesn’t really hurt that much. It’s just a few scrapes.”
Both Acosta and Khan-Gumm mentioned how they were looking forward to the opening of Lauridsen Skatepark in Des Moines. Opening later this year, the skatepark is set to be the biggest in the United States.
Drake University’s President Marty Martin sits on the cabinet for the skatepark project. He explained why he agreed to take on the position and help the project with fundraising.
“…Anything we can do to improve Des Moines and make it a more vibrant, attractive place to live is good for Drake,” Martin said.
Martin said Lauridsen’s size was not its only draw. He mentioned the skatepark’s beautiful design by renowned California Skateparks and its location near the Des Moines River, where he mentioned plans for a new riverwalk and water rapids system that would complement the venue well.
“It has a lot of different options that I bet skateboarders are going to find thrilling, as well as a beautiful piece of art, so there is just a lot to like about this,” Martin said.
What Drake University’s Director of Public Safety Scott Law will like, however, is the number of skaters, both from the Drake community and the city of Des Moines, who will go to Lauridsen to skate instead of the university’s campus.
“…Especially if they are non-Drake people, they are not exactly concerned about being in the way or causing traffic issues, blocking traffic for our students, faculty and staff,” Law said.
Along with clogging traffic, Law said there is some concrete damage to be expected when skaters perform tricks, which are not allowed on campus. Additionally, there are liability issues if a skater gets injured from performing a move.
Law made it clear that he does not hold any ill will toward those who wish to skate.
“I understand, in general, whether they are a student or a community member, they are just doing it to have fun. They don’t mean it to be malicious,” Law said. “Most of the time, our students are simply using their skateboards or using their rollerblades as a means of travel, which we don’t have a problem with.”
Community members will issue a complaint if a group of skaters are causing a lot of noise or blocking the way for people to walk by, but both Law and Khan-Gumm referred to instances of skaters and public safety officers cooperating to fix the problems.
Khan-Gumm said he appreciates the overall supportive tone that Law and his team express for him and his skating friends.
“I think it is awesome that I get to skate around campus freely and comfortably,” Khan-Gumm said.
One thing nobody could disagree on: the overall safety of this social activity. Khan-Gumm, Acosta, Martin and Law all said they believed skateboarding was a safe activity to be participating in during the pandemic.
With only a little over a month of skating experience under her belt, Acosta might have articulated it the best: “…It’s not like you’re holding hands and skating.”