American skateboarder Mariah Duran can remember the exact moment she learned she'd be representing the United States at the Tokyo Games, when skateboarding would make its Olympic debut.
"It was definitely unreal, I feel like it took a little bit of time to fully sink in," recalled Duranto Shape. The top-ranked female street skateboarder in the U.S., Duran said after taking the call she took to the time to "process" everything. "I was just sitting there, trying to process it and I was telling my parents, 'Wow, I can't believe it, that's crazy'… I was just super excited and could not believe that this was the conversation and that I was going to be a part of it [the Olympics]," she said.
An Albuquerque, New Mexico, native, Duran — who has been skateboarding since the age of 10 — was one of 12 athletes selected to represent Team USA's in the sports inaugural competitions. And while Duran did not medal in the women's street skate event, in which skaters compete on a street-like course featuring obstacles such as rails, the 24-year-old is forever grateful for her first Olympic opportunity. "Such an honor to skate in the Olympics," wrote Duran on Instagram on Saturday. "Although things didn't go as planned, I was able to show the world what it's like to get back up and finish strong no matter the outcome. This is only the beginning for me."
The Tokyo Games, which had been delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, has put a different kind of spotlight on Olympic athletes as they continue to speak about mental health. Gymnast Simone Biles, for example — who pulled out of multiple events due to struggling with her mental health and "the twisties" — addressed the pressures she had been feeling in candid social media messages. Going into the Olympics this summer, Duran recognized the importance of being in the right frame of mind.
"Every time I step on the board, I'm taking a risk. So of course I need to be as connected to my board as if I'm competing every day. So as far as that, just making sure the mental headspace is right," explained Duran. "But coming to this stage and the environment of being in the Olympics is just so different, to see all of these athletes and knowing they're the top. It's such a different environment, [compared to] in a contest where there's the top skaters and then there's newcomers... it's amazing to be around that environment, and and I feel like there was a lot of pressure going into this contest even when there wasn't a crowd or anything like that."
"I feel like there was a lot of pressure coming with each and every individual skater because, of course, it's the first one ever, everybody wants to do good, everybody deserves to do good," she continues.
Japan's Momiji Nishiya took gold in the women's street skateboarding event followed by Rayssa Leal of Brazil in second and Funa Nakayama, also of Japan, in third. (Related: Non-Binary Skateboarder Alana Smith Posts a Powerful Message After Competing at Tokyo Olympics)
Although Duran will not be competing in this week's park skateboarding event, in which skates competed on a hollowed-out course that includes a series of complex curves, she'll be focused on a bigger-picture goal: longevity in the sport. "You look at Tony Hawk and he's still getting it," said Duran of the 53-year-old skate legend. "I'm going to try to take care of my body so I can go as long as possible to give myself the opportunity to still compete, to still perform at a high level." And in a sports culture that's focused on going big right now — and probably staying home later — Duran's focus is an admirable one. (Related: Alexi Pappas Is Out to Change How Mental Health Is Seen In Sports)
In addition to taking care of herself, both physically and emotionally, Duran has also teamed with two campaigns, Always' Keep Her Playing and P&G Athletes' Skate Like a Girl, inspiring young women to stay in athletics. "I just really want to start the conversation, inspiring young girls and young women to continue in sports because I want them to understand that it's not just about winning or losing, but it's about finding who you are in those moments when you really need it."
Much like Duran and other athletes have shown at the Tokyo Games this year, the heart of a champion isn't measured by athletic prowess, but the strength within.