Aya Asaqas: Moroccan skateboarder hopes her Olympic dream can inspire next generation

The 21-year-old is on the verge of becoming the first Arab and North African female skateboarder to qualify for the Olympics

Moroccan skateboarder Aya Asaqas is breaking cultural barriers

Moroccan skateboarder Aya Asaqas is breaking cultural barriers
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Over the past five decades, skateboarding culture has influenced sport, fashion, music, art and architecture, all while fostering a sense of community, belonging.

For 21-year-old Moroccan Aya Asaqas, skateboarding means many things. At first “it was like an escape”; a way to learn more about herself, explore her own limitations and push them as far as she could.

Asaqas got into the sport through surfing six years ago and has never looked back. The Rabat native, who is on the verge of qualifying for the Paris 2024 Olympics, found “a beautiful community” that spans all corners of the globe.

“It has too many different aspects that you can completely apply in your personal life out of skateboarding. But first it was just the thing that fulfilled me the most,” Asaqas said in an interview with The National.

“It was like an escape, learning about yourself, your limitations. Being able to believe that as a human being, the way we are built, we’re capable of doing more than we think we ever could be able to.

“Besides the fun, the joy, there’s a beautiful community; the people you mix with, maybe sometimes worldwide with the competitions, you have different cultures and backgrounds, you build friendships and mutual respect, which is awesome.”

Above all, Asaqas has found that skateboarding is about acceptance and “freedom”.

“The skateboarding scene, culture and life – I suppose, what the skaters live by – what makes it so special is that it doesn’t have to be a certain way,” she said. “A skater shouldn’t be this or that or wear this or that. It’s all about what makes you comfortable because no one is judging anything, not what you wear, not what music you listen to, it’s about self-expression.

“They let you express yourself the way you feel, with no fingers pointing at you. I think it’s freedom basically.”

The path towards experiencing that freedom was not easy. Skateboarding is a male-dominated sport as it is, but there were a few extra hoops Asaqas had to jump through to carve a place for herself as a skater back home in Morocco.

“In the first days of me skating, it wasn’t an acceptable idea for my parents. It was something that we’re not familiar with, it’s not something really women do where I come from. It was unusual,” she said.

“So there were really ups and downs, screaming and fighting and things like that until we got it settled. Now that they fully understand and see how I keep up with it and how it makes me feel good doing it, and with competitions and when they see stories of me in the news, they are supportive and pushing me and asking how they can help me.”

Currently No 44 in the World Skateboarding Rankings, Asaqas is on course to become the first Arab and North African woman skater to compete at the Olympic Games. She must first contest the two Olympic Qualifier Series stops in Shanghai (May 16-19) and Budapest (June 20-23) before securing her spot in Paris but has a strong chance of making it as the top-ranked African skater.

When she first took up the sport at a local skate park in Rabat, competing was far from Asaqas’ mind.

“I was just being myself, just riding the board, just getting the most fun I can get out of it,” she said. “So I wasn’t thinking of competing. But with time I got some opportunities. It wasn’t about winning or losing or about accomplishments, but it was more like the win of more generations to come. It was the opportunity to represent the whole country, and also the whole female skateboarding scene that is dreaming of skateboarding.

“The opportunity to influence and inspire generations to come, why not? It’s like 40 million people [in Morocco] and I was the one there, so it was meant to be. I just took the opportunity.”

Asaqas’ first international competition was a Dew Tour stop in Des Moines, Iowa, where she got to see the sport in a new light and on a much grander scale. She says it was a “crazy experience” witnessing the pros up close and realising there was a far more professional approach she can take to skating.

The opportunity to influence and inspire generations to come, why not? It’s like 40 million people [in Morocco] and I was the one there, so it was meant to be.
Aya Asaqas, skateboarder

Being part of a development programme set up by World Skate allowed her to take part in such events and fly to training camps in places like Rome and California, which she describes as a “dream come true”.

“When I go there, it’s not like the way that I used to know skateboarding, it’s like another way, it’s how successful people do it,” she said. “So you’ve got to plan the tricks you dream of that you want to land, you’ve got to plan the way you want to land them. After you’ve got reflection time: if it happened, then good, if it didn’t, what went wrong? How can you make it? So it’s a disciplined way to attend to your objectives. It’s no longer just skating, but it’s more like training and accomplishing goals, which is beautiful I would say.”

Asaqas has no coach and is mostly preparing for the Olympics on her own. She takes her board and goes to various skate parks across Rabat, because there isn’t one venue that offers all the different obstacles she needs to train on.

Occasionally she would jump in her car and drive for six hours south to Agadir, to skate at her favourite park, which features all the transitions she likes to experiment on.

Skateboarding was added to the Olympic programme in Tokyo 2020, featuring two disciplines: Street and Park. Asaqas does Park skating and still cannot believe she is in a position to represent Morocco at the Games this summer. Being 44 in the world and competing against the best in the sport has validated all the decisions she has made thus far, she said.

“It just shows me that I wasn’t doing anything wrong, I was right in everything I was doing when I chose to pursue the passion of the sport I love the most and to keep doing so,” Asaqas added.

“I was right in every decision I made to pursue this. Because then if I had stopped at any stereotype of things, the culture, life principles, values, or politics, or how Africa is, I wouldn’t be the place I am today. I would just say believe in your intuition and what you feel that you’re capable of.”

Asaqas tore her anterior cruciate ligament in 2021 and had surgery two years ago. That injury has healed but she recently found out she has a grade three fracture in her internal and external meniscus, an issue she is dealing with through plasma injections and pain management until she can undergo another surgery after the Olympics.

“Not only skateboarding, but all the extreme sports, it’s obvious you’re not going to be losing anything else besides your health. So since day one you agree to this,” she said

For now, Asaqas is fully focused on preparing as best she can for her upcoming events. Besides practice, she plans her own physiotherapy sessions, recovery, nutrition, and mental training and doesn’t see flying solo as a limitation.

“I go to the park by myself but still you have skaters to learn from. We learn from each other," she said. "Sometimes there is not a coach, yes, but this doesn’t define where I should go. I can be the coach of myself, I can set my own goals. A coach will have good experience to share but that doesn’t mean we cannot make the same effort for ourselves."

Should she make it to Paris, Asaqas is clear on what her goal is for the Olympics, one that goes beyond results and medals.

“It’s a mission itself, just between me and myself, to inspire and influence not only the people that are skating now, but the generations to come, to show other potential athletes that they can also do it and they can get there if they try hard enough,” she said.

“I see it as an accomplishment for like a lot of other people to come and showing them the way. Just to have someone they look up to, the people that are dreaming of skateboarding.”

Updated: May 02, 2024, 8:31 AM