It’s the kind of footage that wouldn’t look out of place in any family’s video archive, a toddler taking her first tentative steps at the playground.
But for the 14-year-old American Minna Stess, the grainy, early footage signals something more momentous. It shows her cautiously trying to climb onto a skateboard, only for it to squirt out beneath her and roll away down the hill. An adorably clumsy chase ensues, and the cycle is repeated again. And again.
Pretty much every day of her life since, Stess has had those wheels beneath her feet — skateboarding has become the story of her life and those little wheels have taken her all over the world.
“Why do I think I’m good at skating?” she asks rhetorically in a CNN Sport interview. “I don’t know. I do it for fun.”
‘Is it serious now?’
When you’re a kid with a dream, life comes at you fast. For Stess and her family, it’s been so fast that they didn’t even realize they were serious about her skateboarding; it all just happened in a blur.
“Is it serious now?” joked her mom Moniz. “I honestly don’t know. It’s just become something that we have always done; we just kind of went everywhere. Maybe, by some people’s standards, that would be serious!”
Having caught the skating bug from her older brother Finnley, she was often the only girl competing locally in California. Then the trophies started rolling in and she arrived on the national scene as the youngest member of the United States team. As one of the best Park skaters in the world, Stess is now hoping to compete at the Olympics in Tokyo.
She can’t remember much about the early days of her journey, but she can remember when others started noticing what she was up to.
“I knew it started getting serious because a bunch of bigger magazines were there, like a bunch of photographers, at least 20 or 25,” she explained.
Stess is recalling her first professional competition, the Girls Combi Pool Classic in 2018, in which she was the only skater to put down a flip trick, finishing ninth and walking away with $1700 in prize money.
“They were taking photos and for some reason I was more worried about them taking a photo of me during the contest and having a flash in my eyes. That’s kind of insane for me; I was just so scared I was going to get hit by the flash and I would fall.”
She was fine that day, but she has fallen at other times, sometimes badly; that’s how she knows that skateboarding is what she really wants to do.
“I have determination, like if I fall, I’ll easily get back up. Some people get hurt and then they just stop because they don’t like getting hurt. Getting hurt is the biggest part of skateboarding.”
In 2019, at the age of 12, she broke and dislocated her elbow; it took three surgeries to repair the damage and kept her out of action for three and a half months.
“I remember saying to my dad, ‘Now that I’m hurt and I can’t skate, I really know how much I love it.'”
Like many athletes over the last year, Stess has had to get used to the idea of sitting on the sidelines, as the coronavirus shut down many skateboarding competitions. But she’s at least had a place to practice — her backyard.
She was six when her parents decided to dig up the roses in the garden and install a skate park for their kids.
“I remember trying to get them in for dinner,” her father Andrew told CNN, “and they were like, ‘I got to land this trick!’ For your baseball kid in Minnesota or Michigan, you have a batting cage or in Toronto you put the hockey rink in your backyard. It’s fun.”
The ramps are lit, so sometimes Minna can skate until 11 o’clock at night; no later though, because, “I don’t want to annoy the neighbors” adds her Dad.
Skateboarding was designated an Olympic sport in 2016 and is set to debut at the Games in Tokyo.
Once the iconic five interlocking rings were associated with boarding, things began to rapidly change, especially for female skaters who noticed new opportunities opening up.
“Every [Olympic] sport has to have both men and women,” said Moniz. “So it really helped crack open the women’s options. There were options that existed before, just not on the same scale as the men.”
For 14-year-old Stess though, nothing much changed; she was already used to competing in a mixed environment.
As her father recalls, “It was all co-ed early on; that’s all she knew. She won an ATV award at a big national contest called King of Groms and it was 35 boys and Minna. They were all her buddies; she didn’t see them as boys, just other skaters.”
As Stess remembers it, “I don’t think anyone cared back then. I’m just skating and we’re all doing the same thing and having fun.”
‘Be a kid and hang with her friends’
She’s ranked as one of the world’s top 20 skaters, but she must be in the top three nationally if she’s going to get to the Summer Games in Tokyo; if so, she’d be one of the youngest ever athletes to compete for the United States at the Olympics.
In fact, if it wasn’t for the virus and the postponed games, she could have been the youngest American to compete since the 1960s. The delay though, might have benefited her.
“She’s so young and has so much time,” remarked Andrew. “She’s going to grow a lot in the next year; it’s an opportunity to be a kid and hang with her friends.”
Having finished third in the USA National Championships and fourth in the 2020 season, Stess knows that there’s a high chance of making it to Japan, and a strong performance in the upcoming National and World Championships should clinch it.
A trip to Tokyo to represent her country would have been unthinkable when she was curled up on the couch with her mom, watching the ice skating or the gymnastics or Michael Phelps in the pool.
“I never thought [of it as] an Olympic sport because it’s more like a hobby,” she says. “That’d be insane for me, like — a 14-year-old — because I haven’t experienced anything that crazy. But I think it would be a really life-changing experience.”
And she can’t quite identify her emotions about the prospect of skating in Tokyo: “Probably more scared than excited. Or nervous. But I mean, it’d be awesome; but I’d just be really nervous.”
In any case, she would welcome the chance to run into the four-time gold medalist Simon Biles in the athlete’s village.
Stess says she would ask the iconic gymnast about dealing with pressure. However, it sounds as though the teenager has figured out some of those answers already: “I just skate and I skate. I don’t really think about it.”
‘Empathy for people’
She has, though, given some thought to the world that she’s growing up in and how she might one day be able to use her platform to affect social change.
“I’ve joined some local protests for BLM (Black Lives Matter) in my town so I’m trying to be a part of it as much as I can. You know, I’m 14, but I do see what’s going on in the world,” she said.
“She’s got an amazing amount of empathy for people,” says her dad. “I’ve seen people make comments saying, ‘Hey, you’re one of the only people I see wearing a mask on video, skating.’ Our job as parents is to make the best human, not the best athlete, and I’m very proud as a parent to see her grow as a human.”
“I think Minna has become more aware of the world around her,” adds her mom, Moniz. “With the coronavirus, it’s made everybody think more globally than locally.”
It’s hard to predict what the future holds for Stess; she’s very much living in the present and there isn’t much of a past yet because she’s still so young. But whatever happens, it’s all about skateboarding.
“I would like to skate my whole life and pursue that as a career,” she said. “I’ve done a lot so far. It’s hard to think about the future; I just like to stay in the moment.”
It’s barely a moment since she got started, but she’s not chasing the board down the hill anymore. Minna Stess is now chasing some very big dreams.