Being shot in both eyes and completely blinded did not stop Zion Ricks-Gaines from skateboarding. It made him want to do it even more.
“I still want to go pro, I still want to accomplish being a professional skateboarder,” the 19-year-old said as he readied a kickflip at a skate park in San Francisco.
He wants to share that enthusiasm with everyone he meets.
“I want to start more skate after-school programs for students. I feel like I wouldn’t have really looked in that direction if I had my sight,” he said.
Ricks-Gaines’ life was derailed outside a bar late last year when a man who had been drinking began shooting at him and his friends as they made their way home.
He was hit twice. One bullet destroyed his right eye; the other smashed the socket around his left, puncturing the eyeball and leaving it deflated and withered.
“It’s like night-sky purple ... with no stars,” he said of his vision.
After a long stretch in the hospital, he was fitted for a prosthetic eye.
Not content with a regular iris and pupil, he opted instead for an eye with the logo of his favorite skate brand, Spitfire, a grinning head of flames. He pops the prosthetic in and out of his socket on demand.
Soon he was back at the skate park, doing what he had been doing since he was 12.
“When I hopped on my skateboard, I felt like I had something to connect to my old life,” he said. “I felt a weight off my shoulders.”
Anyone who has spent time at a skate park will have marveled at the improbable feats of balance and daring on casual display.
Helmetless skaters race over wooden ramps, hurling themselves in the air as their board twists and pivots at their feet, before magically correcting itself to land right side up.
Metal rails offer almost 2m of board-sliding glory — or rib-shattering pain if it all goes wrong.
It is tricky, even in ideal circumstances, but harder if you cannot see the banks, ledges and curbs you are attempting, or even the board you are riding.
“When I approach a new obstacle, I usually feel it out with my cane, or ask friends what they see, how it’s set up, what should I try to look out for,” Ricks-Gaines said. “And I just work my way up and find what I’m most comfortable with.”
It helps that with seven years of skating, a lot of what his body needs to do is muscle memory, he said.
“If I want to land a trick, I know I can do it by committing and not being scared to fall,” he said.
He still falls.
“All the time,” he said, while laughing. “But that’s just a part of it. I fall now more than I used to, but it’s not from skating. I’ll try to skate a ledge, the grind won’t work and then I’ll pick my board up and start walking, and walk into the ledge and fall.”
Fellow skaters — who spray-painted a ramp with his name the day after he was shot — happily guide Ricks-Gaines through the park.
Dexter Lotz said that being blinded has made Ricks-Gaines an even better version of himself.
“He’s always been positive, but now he’s super positive,” said the 24-year-old, who has been a friend for six years.
“He seems like he got a second chance and he really needs to use it... He seems like he wants to share that with everybody around him,” he said. “It’s obviously unfortunate what happened, but what he’s doing is beautiful.”
With a criminal case against his alleged attacker under way, Ricks-Gaines shows no signs of bitterness toward the man who took his sight, focusing his anger instead on the gun violence that blights the US, and which claims tens of thousands of lives every year.
“I personally believe we don’t need guns,” he said. “I feel like we would be a way better society if we learn to do jujitsu or any style of fighting and handled it that way and put the guns down.”
He said that one day he wants to have children, and to be able to tell them about his experience, but what he tells them is never going to be negative.
“I could sit at home and just be sad because I have no vision, but that’s not gonna do shit for me, you know?” he said.
“I just appreciate everything I’ve got. Ninety percent of what you have is how you respond to it,” he added. “I feel like I really am so blessed to just be where I’m at in life.”
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