In mid-May, Jordan Santana packed her skateboard and flew from Houston to Des Moines, Iowa, for a competition that was supposed to seal her trip to the Tokyo Olympics. The seventeen-year-old had taken second place at the USA Skateboarding national championships just a couple of weeks earlier, an honor she’d clinched by propelling herself from a concrete bowl—picture an empty swimming pool constructed for skateboarding—and into the void, rotating one and a half times, or 540 degrees, in the air before landing. She had added the trick, a 540 McTwist, to her repertoire after months of practice during COVID-19 lockdowns and was now among a handful of women ever to pull it off. With the 540 in her bag, Santana was considered a favorite to make the Olympic cut. If she earned just ten more qualifying points, her cumulative score would be enough to nab an invitation to Japan as one of six women to represent the United States in skateboarding at this summer’s Games—the first in history to feature the sport.
Then, one after another, the disasters hit. Rain in Des Moines cut into two crucial days of practice. Santana says she had less than fifteen minutes to rehearse her choreographed run before suiting up for the contest. What’s more, the skate park’s brand-new bowl hadn’t been broken in yet, and competitors had been suffering rough falls on the “sticky” concrete. During warm-ups, Santana came down hard on her elbow, sustaining what she now believes was a “small fracture.” (She didn’t bother getting an X-ray—to Santana, anything short of a clean break isn’t worth a trip to the doctor.) She got back on her board and took another tumble, this time slamming her ribs and skinning her palm. “It just snowballed,” she says, “and got worse and worse as the week went on.”
When competition time rolled around, Santana adjusted her helmet, tugged at the silver cross dangling from her neck, and prayed for the best. She put one foot forward, then another, and dropped into the course. Because of the adverse conditions, Santana had planned a combination of simple but impressive tricks for her 45-second routine. But on her first of two runs, while attempting a feeble grind—a trick that required her to carve up the side of a wall, then balance the back part of her board on a flat surface—she skidded onto her knees. On the second run she pulled off her first trick without falling, but her landing was awkward. “That set the tone for the rest,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, you just landed, like, wobbling everywhere. You have no speed. You have to pump as hard as you can to keep the run going.’ ”
She geared up to deliver a one-two punch called a blunt-to-fakie, which she’d performed countless times and almost never missed. All Santana had to do was maneuver her board’s back truck—one of the T-shaped axles that attach a skateboard’s wheels to its deck—over the lip of the bowl, then pop its tail to come back down. But when she reached the top, her wheels jammed, and she tumbled back into the basin. It was over. Santana finished outside the top eight, and her Olympic dreams were dashed. After the heartbreaking result, she sought advice from Christian Hosoi, one of the sport’s pioneers and Santana’s mentor since she first stepped onto a board. “You’re on your way to the top, and these are those moments that really test your ability to adapt, test your ability to have patience, test your ability to really rise to the occasion,” Hosoi told her. “Because it’s adrenaline that makes you do things that normally you can’t.”
A week later, at Houston’s Lee and Joe Jamail Skate Park, named for the late billionaire philanthropist couple, Santana is still smarting from the letdown in Iowa. “It was really unfair,” she says, absentmindedly flicking her foot back and forth over a skateboard decorated with the fading image of a Hawkeye comic book cover and a hand-drawn outline of Texas. “I was sitting there, thinking, ‘Your score is not going to increase, clearly, because you fell. What did you just give them to increase? That was the last thing for the Olympics.’ ” Later, she grasps for a silver lining: “If I would have had more time, it probably would’ve been a really fun ride.” She stands and begins skating idly around the bench where her parents, Israel and Karen, are seated. “Then I just thought, ‘You need to be prepared for the next one,’ ” she adds. “They got their team already; that’s fine. I’m just going to try to kill it and learn as many new tricks as I can.”
Just then, a man in his early thirties glides up to Santana, offering a fist bump in chill-guy solidarity. “Good luck!” he exclaims cheerfully before rolling away. “Who was that?” I ask. The family collectively shrugs, and Santana skates off for a quick loop around the bowl. “I have no idea,” Israel says. “Everybody comes up to her.”
Despite the Olympic disappointment, Santana is one of Texas’s best riders, known for her audacious style, composure on the board, and spine-jolting tricks. A member of the U.S. National Team, the high school junior has been traveling as a competitive skater since she was eleven, when she became the first girl sponsored by Hosoi Skateboards. According to Hosoi, Santana’s humility and work ethic—she practices six hours a day and adheres to the motto “No Days Off”—have been key to her ascent.
“She’s not one to really get consumed by the whole image or the culture,” he says. “She just wants to skate. She wants to be healthy, she works out, she’s disciplined. And that’s what it really takes to go to that next level and be a champion, because if you get caught up in sponsorships, money, traveling, and fame, you can get complacent.” Family support has helped, too: Santana’s father, a criminal defense attorney who dabbled in skateboarding as a teenager, has coached her since the beginning, and being homeschooled allows her more time to train.
Living in Houston, a city with world-class public and private skating facilities, is also a boon. The 78,000-square-foot North Houston Skate Park is the third-largest such complex in the world, trailing current record holder GMP Skate Park, in Guangzhou, China, and the Iowa venue where Santana’s Olympic quest met its end. “Jordan is a function of the fact that if you build the infrastructure, kids can take it to the highest level,” says Barry Blumenthal, a skater and former stockbroker who helped get the Jamail park built in 2008. “These are the best skateboarders we’ve ever seen.” Throughout Texas, municipal support for skateboarding has helped the sport transcend the days of scruffy riders fleeing cops and soaring through drainage ditches. Laredo currently boasts more skate parks per capita than any city in the country, and San Antonio has constructed sixteen public skate parks since the early aughts. Such public-sector support could turn Texas into a skateboarding powerhouse, with Santana, fifteen-year-old rising star Kendra Long, from Vidor, and seventeen-year-old Brighton Zeuner, whose family owns a home in Austin, leading the way.
As a devout Christian who chides herself for taking the Lord’s name in vain, Santana makes a surprising flag bearer for a sport that for years was considered little more than a punk subculture. Many of skateboarding’s most venerated and visible trailblazers were hard-partying, misfit men from Southern California, and half a century later, the West Coast remains skating’s home base. Thanks to year-round sunshine, easy access to skate parks, and a proliferation of skateboard manufacturers, magazines, and sponsors, Californians have long had a leg up on training and endorsement opportunities and, consequently, a sense of ownership over the pastime. “Here in Texas, we have to try a lot harder to get any recognition from the industry or California,” says Eric Visentin, a co-owner of Houston’s Southside Skate Park. “We have to earn every single bit of respect.”
The Olympics, with an estimated worldwide audience of five billion, would have been a convenient opportunity for Santana to claim some of that respect for Houston. But even without the Tokyo boost, she remains determined to make a living skateboarding. “When people see me in the park, they think that I’m being hard on myself, but I’m really not,” she says. “This is more than just having fun skating to me. This is my future. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
One Sunday in 2008, Israel Santana found himself captivated by a documentary that came on television while he was getting ready for church. The film, Rising Son, charted the life of Christian Hosoi, a high-flying, hirsute eighties skateboarding bad boy who was once among the most famous riders in the world. Hosoi had invented dozens of tricks, most notably the Christ Air, in which he’d launch into the sky off a vertical ramp, take his board in one hand, then spread his arms like Jesus on the cross before returning the board to his feet and landing.
But it wasn’t Hosoi’s daredevil maneuvers that almost made Israel miss the service that day—it was the athlete’s redemption story. In the nineties, the style of vertical ramp skateboarding that Hosoi practiced fell out of favor, with street skating—think nosegrinding on a park bench or sliding on a handrail—replacing vert skating in the public imagination. While his career stagnated, Hosoi’s personal life fell into a downward spiral, and he began struggling with drug addiction. In 2001 he was sentenced to almost six years in federal prison for possession of more than a pound of crystal meth with intent to distribute. He wound up serving four years and during that time became a born-again Christian. Following his release, he circled the globe as a pastor, sharing his conversion story and using skateboarding to connect kids with faith.
Moved by Hosoi’s journey, Israel spent the better part of a year wrangling the skater to visit his family’s then congregation, the Tabernacle Assembly of God. When Hosoi finally agreed, Israel bankrolled the construction of a six-foot-tall ramp in the church’s gym for the occasion. Hundreds showed up on that September evening in 2009 to hear Hosoi speak. The next day, he helped hoist a five-year-old Santana onto a board for the first time, gripping her hands as he rocked her back and forth at a local skate park. The moment sparked something within her. “Christian really made me feel safe when I was getting on the board,” Santana remembers. “I actually kept my balance going up the wall.” To Israel, the moment was nothing short of divine. “I had my agenda, God had his,” he says. “We were brought together for a reason.”
The following week, Israel took Santana to Jamail Skate Park and held her upright as she grew comfortable on wheels. The park was less than a mile from where Santana’s older sister, Lauren, took theater classes, and over the next few months, whenever the family would drop Lauren off for lessons, they would kill time at the skate park before picking her up. Santana would ride alongside the street course for hours, learning how to keep her balance and push the board forward with her left leg. “Skating was one of the first things that I caught on to and I wasn’t awful,” she says. Israel and Hosoi had bonded over their faith and kept in touch. Israel sent updates on Santana’s progress when he took her to the park, and Hosoi doled out tips and advice.
In January 2014, shortly after her tenth birthday, Santana noticed a Facebook announcement for a twelve-and-under skate competition in Galveston. Right away, she decided to enter. “I told myself, ‘You’re not going to win,’ ” she recalls. “ ‘I mean, you’ve never been to this bowl and never done anything. But why don’t you do it to say that you’ve done a contest?’ ” She didn’t yet possess the leg strength to push herself up the walls, nor did she come close to winning. But she would never forget how the crowd cheered for her or the thrill of hearing the announcer draw out the final syllable in her last name: “Jordan Santanaaaa!”
She was hooked. Santana started practicing two or three times a week and entered local competitions whenever she could. By that summer, she’d started dropping into the deep end at North Houston Skate Park. Before long, she was landing eyebrow-raising tricks. All the while, Israel documented her progress on Instagram. “This is probably why the people around the skate park call [her] ‘Air Jordan’!” he wrote below a slow-motion video of Santana taking flight off a ramp, grabbing her board in midair, and then descending.
Hosoi Skateboards officially sponsored Santana in 2015. She considers the first time she donned a “Team Hosoi” shirt at a competition outside Texas a defining moment in her career. The event, a contest near San Diego called Exposure, is known as the largest gathering of women skateboarders in the world. “I remember being so terrified,” she says. “I’d never skated in front of a crowd that big. Christian hugged me before my run and he was like, ‘Don’t freak out. This is a contest. You’re just going to have fun.’ ”
Santana started entering other competitions, each one more ambitious than the last. “Each time I did, I was like, ‘Oh, this is cool; I keep moving up the ranks,’ ” she says. “Then I found a support system, and I was like, ‘That’s even cooler.’ ” She made friends with fellow young skaters such as Minna Stess, now her teammate on the U.S. national squad. Soon Santana and her father were making regular trips to California to train with Hosoi and enter competitions. Hosoi toted a then-diminutive Santana around California skate parks with his sons, and his backing helped convince more sponsors to sign her.
By the time she was thirteen, Santana was traveling to contests roughly twice a month, and she kept earning better and better finishes. Back home, she stayed sharp by practicing aerial tricks at North Houston Skate Park. The following year, she realized what she needed to set herself apart: the 540 McTwist. Although the trick had become de rigueur for men back in the eighties, only two American women, Lyn-z Adams Hawkins Pastrana and Alana Smith, had managed to land it. Santana became obsessed with the trick. She broke it down into small steps, starting at the bottom of the ramp, with Hosoi guiding her through. “It was four months of nothing at first, learning how to spin and to land on my feet, instead of a blind spin [and] falling on your butt,” she says. She was in a rut. “I was screaming out of frustration.”
Hosoi recalled going through the same process decades earlier. “Everyone had to learn the 540,” Hosoi says, “because if you didn’t, it’s not progression. You’re not gonna place in those top spots. There were no videos [to learn from]. All I did for, like, four months or so, I did it all day, every day, until I made it. There was no doubt you were gonna make top spots—first, second, third.” After skaters cracked the 540, scores of daring tricks followed, with riders soaring higher and spinning faster than many in the community ever thought possible. “It blew the roof open of what’s possible for skateboarding in such a way that it changed the game,” Hosoi says. “And I believe that’s what’s happening in women’s skateboarding.”
Santana’s efforts to master the 540 wound up requiring sacrifice beyond time, tears, and patience. One afternoon in July 2018—on Friday the thirteenth, she’s quick to add—she twisted slightly wrong on a warm-up trick and fell, snapping the two bones in her lower right leg. “I always knew that I wasn’t invincible,” she says, “but I never thought that I’d be one of those skaters that would go and break something.” Following the accident, Santana was devastated. “When I was just sitting in bed, my first thought was, ‘Everybody’s out there competing. They’ve got a four-month jump on me. I don’t know how I’m going to come back from this.’ ”
After surgery, Santana was stuck in a cast for more than two months. When doctors removed it, her leg still felt shaky, but she gamely—and gingerly—got back on her board. In March 2019, about nine months after her injury, Santana won the Vans Girls Combi competition in California. “That’s rare in skaters,” Hosoi says, “when you have such a severe injury that you come back harder than you did the first time.”
Last year, when COVID-19 lockdowns canceled skate contests around the world, Santana channeled all her energy into perfecting the 540. The final obstacle turned out to be mental—she had to will herself higher into the air despite her instincts pleading with her to stay closer to the ground. In May 2020, she finally landed it. The breakthrough surprised her. She hadn’t circled that day on her calendar as the grand culmination of her efforts; she’d just headed off to practice at the Houston Vert Ramp, and the moment came once she got outside of her head. “Usually that’s when it happens,” she explains. “By accident.”
The fearlessness that Santana summoned to execute the 540 is part of a distinctly Texas lineage of aggressive skateboarding, says Craig Johnson, one of Dallas’s most decorated pros. “Texas style is, you drop in, bust big, big, big, big tricks, and as you run out of steam, you do the biggest small tricks you can,” he says. “And if you pull that off, no one can touch it. And I see that in her.”
The intensity of Texas skate culture comes from decades of scrappy, DIY riding on backyard ramps, in dried-out ditches, and in empty swimming pools. Before the recent boom in municipal support for skate parks, the sport and its practitioners were considered menaces; police often chased skateboarders out of public spaces. In the seventies and eighties, Texas riders turned to drainage structures that had been installed throughout the state to control flash floods. Curved basins alongside Houston’s bayou—with nicknames like “Meat Grinder” and “EZ7”—helped keep the sport alive in Texas. If skaters in Dallas heard about an empty pool at a run-down hotel, they would call friends in San Antonio and Austin, who would drive up and take turns in it. Sometimes they even rented pumps and drained pools themselves.
“It was very word-of-mouth, very underground,” says Lori Peltier, the Houston-raised founder of the all-women skate gathering Babes on Boards. “Everywhere you went that involved skateboarding, you’d pretty much run into the same crew.”
Along with the grassroots competitions they held on backyard ramps from Corpus Christi to Longview, Texans built a scene characterized by rowdy parties and brash skating. When they traveled out of state, they stood out: Johnson and fellow pro John “Tex” Gibson turned heads at an event in San Diego in 1980 when they unloaded a grill from their car and began cooking fajitas in the parking lot between sessions. “Their world was so manicured—we were not that,” Johnson says. “We didn’t need the West Coast, we didn’t need the East Coast. We’re Texas, and we mean it.” (Back then, the Dallas skate brand Zorlac would outfit Texans who traveled to California for contests with T-shirts that read, “F— you, we’re from Texas.”)
“There’s a bit of a lore in skateboarding about the Texans and that whole crew,” says Miki Vuckovich, director of development for USA Skateboarding. “The top skateboarders tended to be a little smaller, with a lower center of gravity—more nimble and agile guys. But [the Texans] were just these hulks of dudes and would fly through the bowls or the ramp and somehow manage these maneuvers. Nothing they did was dainty. Everything they did was just heavy and hard, and also stylish.”
Thrasher covered the roving “Shut Up and Skate” contests that drew countless skaters to Texas, at times commissioning Zorlac founder Jeff Newton to write road diaries documenting the crew’s antics. Newton also snapped photos of the events—and captured an iconic Texas skateboarding image when he shot Johnson, upside-down on a ramp, wearing pointed-toe, “cockroach killer” Nocona cowboy boots. “[Texas] really was one of the most powerful scenes on the planet, next to California,” Hosoi says.
You wanna slide in the bowl?” Santana asks with a grin. We’re at Southside Skate Park, staring down into a smooth concrete basin that, to me, looks like an express ticket to the emergency room. She has spent much of the afternoon schooling me in the basics—where to position my feet, how to keep my knees loose, how to steer. But as Santana gestures toward the six-foot drop, I’m on even ground, struggling to keep the board from taking me with it as if it were a stray banana peel, so I decide to pass. I will not become a decent skateboarder today.
I post up on a bench and let Santana do her thing. She darts around the perimeter of the bowl, leaping onto the ledge and grinding along with her wheels. Nearby, a cadre of teenage boys watches, breathless, their eyes flitting back and forth as she hoists herself into the stratosphere. She knots her body into staggering twists, a tangle of brown hair fluttering at her back. At the end of her ride, the onlookers bash their boards against the ground in a thudding show of appreciation.
Decades before Santana began dominating at Southside, the sight of supportive boy crews cheering on their female peers wasn’t so common. Vicki Vickers, one of Houston’s first pro women skaters, encountered a far different environment her first time on a board, on a summer afternoon in Port Isabel 46 years ago. Vickers had driven out for a surf competition, but a calm ocean had other plans, so she wound up joining a skate contest. “I jumped on a skateboard and fell flat on my butt,” she recalls. “The guys started laughing and said, ‘Ha ha, girls can’t skate.’ ” Determined to prove them wrong, Vickers started skating wherever she could. Three months later, Pepsi offered her a spot on the company’s professional team. In 1979 she told Skateboarder magazine that when she began riding on the West Coast, a group of male skaters hooted at her and tried to grab her body. Ever since, she’s been outspoken about women’s achievements in the sport—and about how the industry has never rewarded women with their fair share of adulation or career earnings. “I’ll be damned if we’re not out there breakin’ our necks just like the guys,” she told the magazine. “Only we don’t get paid as much, or we don’t get as well known.”
For decades, issues including pay inequality, a lack of role models, and harassment kept women, particularly women of color, on the margins of skate culture. Women who did pursue the sport had to fight for acknowledgment and esteem at every turn. The X Games were around for seven years before ESPN invited women skateboarders, in 2002. Two years later, female athletes at the X Games discovered that male gold medalists had been receiving $50,000 in prize money, compared with only $2,000 for women champions. Years of advocacy from top skaters like Mimi Knoop and Cara-Beth Burnside forced the X Games to begin paying equal purses in 2009, and other competitions have carried that standard of parity into the present.
Today, many young women are taking ownership of their skateboarding journeys on social media—and encouraging others to follow in their footsteps. “As soon as you see someone that you can relate to doing something that maybe seemed impossible before, all of a sudden it becomes possible,” says Knoop, now a USA Skateboarding coach. With the Olympics recognizing skateboarding for the first time this year, they have a new dream to chase.
“Before the Olympics, it was just us U.S. girls competing against each other for the top spot,” Santana says. “But since the Olympics have started, people are starting their kids in skating [at] three or four years old. And everybody is like, ‘Well, now that the Olympics are a thing, my kid’s going to do skateboarding. Because how hard could it be to be a prodigy starting this young?’ ”
After Santana’s performance in Des Moines knocked her off this summer’s Olympic team, I meet with her and her parents at El Tiempo Cantina, the family’s regular Tex-Mex hang. As we sit down at a heavy wooden table, Santana’s phone dings with a message. It’s from Blumenthal, the stockbroker turned skater, whom she bumped into at the skate park earlier that day. “ ‘I meant to tell you there have been many young girl novice skaters I have run into at Jamail who are trying skateboarding for the first time because of your [Houston] Chronicle article,’ ” she reads aloud. (The newspaper had profiled her in April.) “ ‘That’s a huge success, and keep on inspiring.’ ”
Santana was identified as a U.S. Olympic hopeful back in 2019, and since then, local news outlets clamored to cover her road to Tokyo. Now she has to figure out her next step, and Hosoi has been there to help her think it through. “There’s going to be a lot of successes and a lot of failures, and when you learn how to process that internally, it’ll be water off a duck’s back,” he told her after Iowa. “You’ll be back in the gym, back at the ramp, back at the skate park, back at the pool. You’ll be back thinking about what your next contest is, where it’s going to be, what you need to be prepared for.”
Throughout our meal, Santana seems unfazed by the setback. The qualifying events for the 2024 Paris Olympics won’t take place for almost three years, but she considers the extra time a chance to double down on training. “I try to think of it in a good way,” she says, dunking a chip into a vat of queso. “I definitely feel a little sense of ‘Man, well, gotta wait a little bit—and looking back on this, you weren’t ready.’ But I think I’ll be much more prepared next year. I’m just going to come back stronger than ever.”
Santana was one of nine women invited to compete in park skating at this summer’s X Games, in Southern California, where she intended to show the world that her nightmare weekend in Iowa was a fluke. (She took fifth place in park skateboarding at the July event.) She remembers the 2014 Austin X Games, where she sat in the grass as a ten-year-old spectator, craning her neck to watch women riders fly in the big air competition—an experience that spurred her to try vert skating. Before this year’s X Games, Santana said she would miss attending as a fan but that she was looking forward to competing against her idols, several of whom have become her close friends. “I still just don’t believe it,” she says. “I think it’s really cool to be seen in any kind of light that I saw them in.”
As we tuck into a heaping array of sizzling meat, charro beans, flour tortillas, and enchiladas verdes, the conversation turns to Santana’s obsession with Marvel superheroes. “If I had to choose between a skate trick and superpowers, I’d pick superpowers,” she says.
“But no girl’s ever done a 720!” her dad counters, referring to a trick that involves spinning two full rotations in the air before landing.
“No girls have had superpowers either!” Santana says. “I would get telepathy, and then I could tell what the judges are thinking.”
For the rest of 2021, Santana plans to work on variations of the 540. And, yes, she’s toying with the idea of tackling the 720: “Maybe I’ll shock everyone and do that one next.” She also wants to release her first signature skateboard and is partial to designs that emphasize her Texas roots—she suggests an armadillo behind the wheel of a Mustang. Her goal is to medal at the 2024 Summer Games, but she has no intention of moving to California to advance her career. “There’s more opportunities out there,” she says, “but I truthfully do want to stay in Texas.”
Before any of that, though, Santana is on track for a different milestone: the receipt of her high school diploma. “Eh,” she shrugs. “I think that’s just something that everybody does. Like, ‘Oh, look, I’m graduating.’ ”
“The famous story there,” Israel begins in a theatrical whisper, “She’s, like, twelve years old and says, ‘I’m not going to college.’ I say, ‘Yes you are.’ And she says, ‘No I’m not. I’m going to skateboard and travel around the world.’ In my mind I’m like, ‘Yeah, big dream.’ ”
Defiant, Santana glares at her father. “I still say that!”
This article originally appeared in the September 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Bayou City Roller.” Subscribe today.