The Niagara Hotel, Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. It’s 4.30pm on a regular Friday night. Sam Atkins, the Geelong-born 19-year-old skateboard extraordinaire, is drinking a beer and eating potato wedges.
I’m sitting opposite Sam, watching him drink a beer and eat potato wedges. The after-work boozers are beginning to trickle in. They’re keen to kick-off their weekends (or forget their week) with an appropriate amount of intoxication. By the time I’m finished talking to Sam, we’ll be almost totally engulfed by a cacophonic swarm of nine-to-fivers, barely able to hear one another over middle management slurs and talk of what’s on for the weekend.
Having never met Sam before, one thing I gather during our hour-long chat is that Sam is what is technically known as a damn good kid. There’s no arrogance. He can hold his own in a conversation. There’s a wisdom that belies his 19 years and he seems to be moving through life with a natural self-assuredness and an ability to adapt to whatever comes his way.
In a skate industry climate where it’s not enough to just be good anymore, perhaps the fact that Sam carries himself so confidently through life and down the gnarliest gaps, stairs and rails he can find is part of the reason that he’s on both the Element and Nike SB Australia teams. And perhaps it’s why Slam’s editor told me it was a “no-brainer” to feature him in this here Interview Issue.
Interview by Oliver Pelling. Portrait: Jason Morey.
Frontside five-o over the garden. Photo: Jason Morey.
Sam, you grew up in Geelong and you lived there until just recently, right?
Yeah. I lived in Geelong, until almost a year ago, [then] I moved to Brunswick. I was getting the train to the city almost every day anyway, so I was spending the same amount of money on trains as I would be for rent. I decided to make the move for just a year and see how it works. It’s been going good so far.
What was growing up in Geelong like?
Yeah, it was good. I grew up skating with a lot of older people. I’d get dropped off at the skatepark when I was 10 years old and my mum and dad would freak out because I was skating with guys twice my age. They’d be like, “What are you doing all day!?” I guess they just didn’t understand it. But then they got to meet them all and realised they were looking out for me. I wouldn’t be in the position I am now without the people I skated with then. They taught me a lot of good… and bad… things.
Did you get a shop sponsor down in Geelong?
Geelong Skate Shop was my first proper sponsor, yeah. Drew and Potty [Camberlain], who run the shop, they’ve always been really good to me. We entered a shop competition in 2015 [adidas Skate Copa] – it was a contest where all the skate shops from around Australia go and compete as teams. We won that and then Potty came over to The States with us for the finals. He would have spent a lot of money on us, especially for such a little shop. It was amazing.
Was that your first time to The States?
No, I’d been a couple times, but that was the most memorable. When we went on that trip I’d just turned 18, so I was used to being able to buy beers and everything. And when I went over there, I was just so scared. I’ve heard so many stories of skaters going over to The States and getting caught for one little thing, like drinking, and then you get sent back home and you can’t go back for five or 10 years or whatever. So I was always watching my back. But I love it over there. I definitely want to go back soon.
How’d you get into skating in the first place?
I got my first board for Easter one year. It was a Spiderman board from Kmart. I thought it was the sickest thing ever because I was so into Spiderman back then. Then my auntie gave me a Tony Hawk’s Trick Tips DVD. I would watch it over and over and over. Eventually, I got a proper board and would just watch the ‘How to Ollie’ section of the video over and over and then run across the road and try it. I’d do that all day. Then I finally got one. Once I started learning stuff and started skating with all the other guys, I dropped everything else. I was in school all week; I just wanted to skate the whole weekend.
What did your parents make of it? Were they supportive?
They were pretty understanding. They were never pushy and never tried to get me into a certain sport. I was just doing what my dad did, pretty much. He played footy when he was young; he rode motorbikes, so I’d ride motorbikes. It must have just been a fluke that I enjoyed skating so much – no one in my family had done it before. Mum and Dad were super cool and they would drive me to any little contest, even if it was a couple hours from Geelong. They’d take me on the weekends and spend all day with me. Some of those contests were so small you’d just win a set of wheels or something, so it meant a lot to me.
Gap to backside lipslide. Photo: Jake Darwen.
Your parents own The Park skatepark in Geelong, right? How did all that come about?
Yeah. People always ask me if my parents built a skatepark just for me, but it’s not like that. I mean, sure, they definitely wouldn’t have built a skatepark if I didn’t start skating, but I reckon it came from me coming home from school in the winter, when it’s dark at 5.30pm, and complaining that there’s nowhere to skate. The closest indoor park was a couple of hours away. I think they got to the point where they realised it was a good business opportunity. They realised that there were other kids in Geelong like me that wanted somewhere to skate when it’s raining or when it’s dark. They were looking for something new and fun to try at the time. It’s been about three years now. I think they’re pretty happy with it.
I guess you have keys and can skate The Park any time you want?
For sure. I take my mates late at night sometimes. We might skate from 10pm to 3am or something.
That’s like every skate kid’s dream.
Yeah. It’s pretty awesome – it’s a fun thing to have. I’m pretty lucky.
So living in Brunswick is your first time living out of home. How are you finding that?
It’s good. I’ve learned a lot of lessons. It’s not like when you’re in high school and you’re like, “I want to move out of home so I can go party with everyone.” It’s not that easy!
Backside 50-50. Photo: Cameron Markin.
There’s a lot of adult shit you have to do.
Yeah, for sure. I’m always getting letters that I have to read now. At home in Geelong I’d never have to open the letterbox to read a bill or something like that. But it’s cool. I’ve learned a lot and I think it’s a good thing to do at a young age. I pretty much moved straight after high school. I think that’s something they should teach you in high school as well, just about how to live on your own, how to handle your money, everything like that. I feel like a lot of kids, if they moved out of home, they’d be completely lost, like, “Mum hasn’t cooked dinner yet? What’s going on?” I reckon growing up skating and being around older people my whole life has helped me handle it.
Skaters mature pretty fast. I mean, we’re immature in a lot of ways, but we hang out with people from all different walks of life from a super young age and spend a lot of time out in cities and towns on our own…
Yeah, it makes you kind of street smart. It gives you knowledge about everything. Even getting kicked out of a spot by security guards. Any regular person would get scared or nervous or whatever, but skaters know stuff like that isn’t a big deal.
Are there any harsh life lessons you learned in this first year where you’ve had to call Mum and Dad and be like, “I’m a bit fucked here, I need some help.”
Not really. I kind of made a little deal with myself that I’m not going to be that guy. I’m not going to be in debt to my parents or owe anyone money, so I’ve tried to keep it pretty organised. It’s gone well so far. I just use going home to see my parents as an excuse for a good home-cooked meal every now and then.
Oh yeah: walk in the front door, open the fridge. It’s a timeless manoeuvre.
I’ve never appreciated it more than since I moved out.
Definitely. So who are you skating with these days?
Recently, a lot with the Element team. Every day they wake up and they’re ready to do something. Instead of like, “Oh, I’m too tired,” they’re always down. [Alex] Lawton’s kind of doing the same thing as me. He’s trying to film every day and get as much stuff done as he can. It’s good having people like that to motivate you. If the whole crew wants to skate all the time, it’s a really good thing. That’s probably the best thing that’s happened in my skating as well.
Gap to backside tailslide. Photo: Jake Darwen.
How did getting on Element come about?
I entered an Element ‘Make It Count’ contest in 2014. I won that and went over to The States for the finals – it was a week-long trip that they paid for. It was me and a kid from every state in America. We went to the Element Skate Camp and they taught us how to make fire with sticks and stuff, and how to shoot a bow and arrow. It’s in a forest, like a wilderness survival camp. It was cool, because I was just expecting to go over there and skate in a contest, but we went and did all this other outdoorsy stuff, too. Then, as soon as I got back, Bjorn Johnston, the team manager at the time, called me up and asked if I wanted to start getting some boards. And I was like, “Of course, that’s the best thing ever!” That’s how it started.
So you were still in Geelong and getting noticed? That’s rad.
Yeah. Then in 2015 Element took us all on the trip to Shanghai. I was 17 and I had my 18th birthday on the trip. For the whole trip, I’m pretty sure those guys were like, “Let’s test this little kid out. Let’s see if he can handle the trip with the big boys.” I got tortured that whole trip. We played a game with Bacardi Breezers. Whenever someone handed you one, you had to get on your knees and neck it no matter what. So on my birthday, we were out the front of the hotel and they kept handing them to me. I think I had seven in a row or something. I’d never been that drunk in my life. Then we went out for some huge dinner and I was trying to keep up drinking beers with all the guys while they were giving me huge wedgies and pulling my jocks over my head. I was probably almost in tears, but then I got back to the hotel that night and I was like, Right, I think I’ve probably passed the test. And that’s what they all tell me now. Lawton and [Jake] Darwen were like, “Yeah, we had to put you through hell, see if you could handle it.” They tell me that it was all love, that they weren’t actually being mean. I know all that. And I’ve grown up a bit more so I can start giving some of it back to them.
Frontside noseblunt slide. Photo: Jason Morey.
That stuff’s all character building, anyway.
For sure. That’s what they said. I can’t wait for the next trip with the next new kid. I’ll be the one doing the torturing.
You’re getting shoes from Nike SB as well, right? How’d you score that?
That was actually pretty funny. There was a contest in Melbourne where the first-prize winner got a year of flow from Nike. I came sixth in that contest, but all the people who beat me had a shoe sponsor already, so it just got handed down the line until it got to sixth place, which was me. So I got a year’s supply of shoes. I would’ve been about 15, and when the year was up, Chris Middlebrook, the team manager at the time, told me they wanted to keep giving me shoes. Then they asked me to film a video part with Dean Johnston, Parallels, which came out in 2015. That video part was the first time I thought things were really starting to pick up. Like I wasn’t just getting shoes anymore – it felt like I was actually part of the team. Ever since then it’s just been getting better and better. We’ve gone on some of the craziest trips, like to Taiwan.
How was that?
That was amazing. Such a fun trip with all my friends, people that I skate with all the time. I would never have thought I’d get to go to a place like that just because of skating. We went to some of the nicest restaurants and had some of the funniest times ever. You skate the most insane spots in countries like that. And when the day’s over there are no rules, so we were just out in the streets drinking and partying.
No holds barred. Who were you there with?
It was a bunch of the younger guys on the Nike team, then Shane O’Neill came over to just try and film some stuff, I think.
Had you skated with him before?
Yeah, I’d skated with him a few times before that. I think the first time I would’ve been 15 or 16. I like skating with him because it’s inspiring. I’ve grown up watching him and wanting to kind of be like him. When I was younger, the fact that he was from Melbourne and had all this success meant that I felt like maybe I could do that one day. When you’re young, you think pro skaters are not even a real thing. You think it’s just too insane to be real.
Long ollie into the bank. Photo: Jason Morey.
Especially coming from a smaller town, things like that just seem totally intangible.
For sure. And then when I met him, it’s just like, “Oh, he’s a normal guy. He’s just a normal guy who’s really good at skating.” And now I think having him at a spot while I’m trying new tricks makes me try more. You want to push yourself. I’ve been pretty lucky to actually meet him, skate with him and hear stories from him.
What other skaters did you look up to when you were growing up?
I think the first Australian skater that I really looked up to was Jake Duncombe. When the Globe World Cup was happening, that was around the time I first started skating, and he was like the youngest kid in the contest. Jake and Ryan Sheckler were the two little kids and I was rooting for Jake ’cause he was the Aussie. It was the same thing as it was with Shane, just wanting to be like him when I grow up. Just a young kid killing the contest.
Competing against the Americans…
Yeah! That’s one thing I remember from being that young: wanting [Jake] to beat all the Americans. I followed his skating for a long time. I watched every video he put out. And now I’ve met him a lot of times as well. He’s been through a lot – some of the craziest situations – and he’s got some stories. Whether he knows it or not, he’s told me little things that have really guided me in the way I go about life. I’ve definitely been lucky to have been given advice from people like Jake.
What other stuff inspires you?
I don’t know, it’s been awesome meeting other skaters, like Chima Ferguson. He was one of my favourites when I was growing up, too. I recently saw him at a bar just partying with everyone. He’s one of the most successful Australian skaters ever. Everyone respects him and I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about him. He’ll talk to anyone and can just do the craziest stuff on a skateboard. It goes to show that it’s just all about being a nice guy and skating as hard as you can. When I was younger I used to think that you could only be a pro skater if you’re the best in the world. But that’s not the case at all. I think that’s made me just relax more and not be worried about where I’m going in life. I’m just going to keep skating and then hopefully it turns into something – and if it doesn’t, I’ll still be fine. Unless I make some pretty poor life choices, I’m not going to end up living on the street or anything. Some pretty awesome things have happened so far, like going overseas and stuff, so I’m just going to keep doing what I’m doing.
Yeah, keep doing things without expectations.
Yeah, I’d be doing exactly what I’m doing now even if I wasn’t sponsored. I’d be going out filming, trying to get my best tricks, so I couldn’t ask to be in a better position. I could have gone straight out of high school and got a job and be making heaps more money, but I’ve had some of the best times just from skating and the people I’ve met.
And you’re filming for a new Nike vid, yeah? How’s that going?
It’s going good. That’s what that Taiwan trip was about. It’s just all the young guys on the team, I think. We’re just filming like that. It doesn’t have a name or anything yet, it’s just the early stages. Geoff Campbell’s the new team manager, and they’ve got a lot of trips planned for us, I think. The aim is for that to come out at the end of 2018. I’m just going to keep filming how I’m filming now, and if I happen to have enough footage for a part then that’s cool. I’m happy with how I’m travelling at the moment.
Kickflip up. Photo: Cameron Markin.
You seem pretty hell-bent on hucking the biggest stuff you can find at the moment. Why do you think you’re drawn to skating that way?
I think probably because watching that stuff from other skaters is the most exciting for me. It’s more fun to watch. I get more reward out of doing things like that, even though it is a lot scarier. I know something bad could happen, but in the back of my mind I always know it is possible. I get more reward out of that than spending a few hours on a tech manual trick or something. Most of the skaters I watched growing up skated big stuff.
Some of your mates sent us some things to ask you. What’s up with your baby toe?
[Laughs] It’s not my baby toe, actually, it’s the one next to it. What’s that toe called?
I have toe idea.
I don’t know if there’s a name, but that toe, when I was a baby, was really crooked on both feet for some reason. It was bent sideways. And I think every night my parents would have to bend them the other way to try and get them straight. I had to go to the doctors and everything like that, just ’cause of messed up toes. They’re still weird looking now. They’re sideways and crooked.
And they pop out when you skate, right?
Right. So every now and then, if I jump down stairs or even sometimes just off a ledge, my toe dislocates. It just pops out forwards. I don’t know what it is, I don’t even need to land on my foot funny for it to happen. It’s happened maybe 10 times. The first time it happened, I was unsure if I’d broken my toe, so I went to the hospital and waited for hours. When I finally got in, the doctor just ripped it back in place. It hurt when it came out, but as soon as it went back in I couldn’t feel a thing. I’ve been to the doctors and I’ve tried to find a solution, but they just say the same thing. It’s weak now, it’s going to happen. It’s at the point where it’ll happen and I’ll just have to rip it back in myself. I’m like, “It’s all right, guys, it’s just the toe again, give us a minute.” But then the next day it feels fine.
Mitch Robertom told us to ask you about the sprouters at The Retreat…
[Laughs] That’s just a bar in Brunswick down the road from my house. It’s a pretty scuzzy, dirty bar. It’s got a dance hall and an outdoor area. We’ve ended up there so many nights just because it’s got a pool table and we love playing pool. We’ve definitely had some messy nights there… and maybe I’ve made out with some girls that I regret. That’s all I’m going to say…
Short run-up to 50-50 gap out. Photo: Jake Darwen.
I should have mentioned Mitch before, actually. Watching him skate gets me so inspired as well. I love watching his footage. I’ve seen some of the best stuff ever from him. He’d be the person I’d choose to go anywhere in the world with because he’s easy to hang out with. He’s probably my best friend that I’ve met through skating.
Say skateboarding didn’t work out; if you could have any other type of career, what would it be? I know it’s draining, but do you ever think about that?
Yeah, I know that could very easily happen. I could hurt myself tomorrow and not be able to skate again, but I kind of try not to think about it too much. My plan is to do it as long as I can and then as soon as it ends, figure it out from there. I’ve always just figured stuff out as I go. Even when I moved out of home, I only gave myself a week’s notice before I moved out. I did it and it’s worked out. I’ve got enough life skills that if I couldn’t skate tomorrow I’d be able to figure something out. If I had to choose something it would be still related to skating, I think. Like when I was in high school I’d spend all my free periods designing skateparks on my Google Sketch app. Or I’d probably take up filming or photography or something where I could still be creative and still be involved in skating. Then when I get older, like in my 30s or 40s, and start slowing down, I want to open up a bar.
What kind of bar?
Just a really fun bar. I’ve had a lot of talks about this with my dad and he’s real keen on it. It won’t be like a sports bar or a specific thing. I just feel like everyone would want to go to a welcoming bar where you can go in, it’s nice and mellow, you’ve got a pool table, maybe ping pong, footy on the TV, other TVs with a bunch of random shit. And just cheap beers. Who wouldn’t want to hang out in a place like that?
It sounds like paradise.
I’d probably open it in Geelong. I’d go back to where I started. I want to be that ‘cool guy’ who owns a bar and all my mates come in and we can just drink and chat.
You could have it all. You could have an amazing skate career and then open a bar.
Yeah, for sure. That’s the dream.