Jules Henry spends a lot of time in Peters Parking Deck just blowing off steam with his best friends. On any given afternoon you’ll find at least three or four people grinding rails, practicing manuals, and perfecting their ollies.
Henry, a computer engineering major, is part of a student organization that has grown to over 180 members in the past four years with little more than word of mouth and boundless enthusiasm for a nontraditional sport.
The Georgia Tech Skateboarding Club got its start back in 2015 as a loose coalition of student skateboarders with a passion for the sport. Founded by computer engineering major Shan Suen and computational media major Charleston Ford, the group started small—very small. In his first semester at Georgia Tech, Suen was skating to class and met Ford along the way. They immediately bonded over their love of skateboarding. A few weeks later, when Suen participated in Greek Rush, he brought his board and caught the attention of another skateboarder, mechanical engineering major Dan Davis.
“Now I had two friends to skate with,” said Suen.
The guys decided to have their own version of Rush. Any time they saw someone on a skateboard, they approached them and recruited them. Suen started a GroupMe for the handful of people they found and slowly the group began to attract others. In the spring of 2018, the group was officially established as a student organization with Davis as their president.
The perception by some that skateboarding is a public nuisance provided the fledging group with their official name. The story goes that in their first semester at Tech, Suen and Ford were on the Skiles walkway during a class change.
“There was a lot of foot traffic and we were heading to class on our boards. This older man came up to us and started yelling at us, ‘Y’all can’t be out here doing your Tiddlywinks!’ I looked at Charleston and said, ‘I have no idea what a Tiddlywink is’ and then we both burst out laughing. So it became our name,” said Suen.
The style of skateboarding practiced by the Tiddlywinks is called “street skating.” Its main differentiator is that skaters use the natural urban environment as their arena. Public spaces that include obstacles such as stairs, handrails, walls, and benches become the street style skateboarder’s playground, replacing the drained swimming pools and half pipes of another popular style of the sport known as “vert,” short for vertical.
In addition to practicing tricks, the Tiddlywinks also capture a lot of photos and video of their sessions. Recording their tricks gives them the chance to review their techniques and improve them. Many engineering students pick up photography as a hobby because it’s a blend of creativity and technical ability. Henry argues that skateboarding has a similar appeal.
“The way you see an obstacle and approach it may be very different from someone else. It has technical challenge, creativity, and endurance all built in,” says Henry.
Other life skills that skateboarding can provide are the ability to take risks, to learn new things, and that it’s okay to fail.
“You’ll fall a lot. You just get up and do it again,” said Sumit Mondal, an M.S.E.E. student who joined the group as an undergraduate student.
One aspect of the sport that draws Mondal is travel. “There are famous skate sites all over the country—all over the world—and it’s a great excuse to travel with friends or make new ones wherever you go,” said Mondal.
Mondal who studied at Georgia Tech-Lorraine in Metz, France during the summer of 2017, visited Ford who was studying in Barcelona, Spain. They skated one of the most iconic skate areas in the world: the plaza of the Museu d‘Art Contemporani de Barcelona (The Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona or MACBA).
“It’s like you are a painter and everything in the city is your canvas. Every place has possibilities – you find something cool and skate on it,” said Mondal, who describes his day of skating in Barcelona as the best day of his life.
Considering that skateboarding culture includes technical skill, creativity, and determination, it’s no wonder that many Tiddlywinks are engineering students. Talk of incorporating skateboarding into Senior Design projects, motorizing boards, or attaching accelerometers to decks for data collection show the unique perspective engineers bring to the sport. But at the end of the day, it is good old fashioned comradery, self-improvement, and stress relief that motivates these riders.
“It’s really pretty simple. We get together. We skate. We do it again the next day,” said Henry.
Last revised May 15, 2020