Thomas “Tommy” Carroll can skate ramps and concrete transitions with a competence, exuberance, and assuredness that would be the envy of even some more seasoned practitioners. His salient athletic ability is all the more impressive because a rare form of retinal cancer left Mr. Carroll completely blind at the age of two. (His eyes are prosthetic and he has no memory of being able to see.) A couple years ago, word of Mr. Carroll’s prowess even reached professional skateboarder Tony Hawk and resulted in Mr. Hawk flying to Glenview, Illinois so that the two could spend a day skateboarding together.Now a sophomore double majoring in journalism and international studies at Northwestern University, Mr. Carroll is, he says, one of only six skateboarders on campus. But the coterie is currently in the process of forming the “Northwestern Skateboarding Club,” which Mr. Carroll says will involve “lots of logistical planning in the winter, including shooting a promo video and then we hope to start having skateboarding events on and off campus in the spring.” In addition to his passion for skating, Mr. Carroll is an avid drummer—fond of jazz as well as big band music of the ‘40s. During this interview a friend arrived at Mr. Carroll’s parent’s home, where he was spending Winter Break. That afternoon the pair, in Tommy’s words, planned to “play music and jam.”
Joel Rice: What about skateboarding appealed to you?
Thomas Carroll: I started skateboarding in 3rd grade. I wanted something that you could do with a group of people that was also an individual thing—that you could work on, on your own. And skateboarding kind of fit that. Like, you can go with your friends but you can still work on it on your own. The pop culture around it also got me into it. There was the TV show Rocket Power. There was Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater.
For awhile it was kind of a surface thing. But the spring of 6th grade was when it was getting pretty serious. I was pounding my parents to drop me off at the skatepark everyday and I would stay there for hours.
JR: Were you one of the only people who skated in school?
TC: One of my close friends… or… we became close friends because we were two people who took it seriously. I won’t say it was because of us, but in fourth or fifth grade there was a surge in popularity, for whatever reason. And our gym teacher hosted after-school skate [sessions] in the gym where he built a lot of plywood ramps. So it was like a short-lived but pretty considerable boom.
JR: How did you go about familiarizing yourself with the ramp/bowl?
TC: It was trial and error. I kind of just picked it up from skating with other skaters and asking other skaters, like, “How do you do this?” and “How do you do that?” “What do you do on these ramps?”
At first it was kind of simple stuff, like rolling on a quarterpipe, doing a kickturn. But the first thing I really cut my teeth on was a micro-mini at the smaller skatepark in town. And that is where I learned all my lip tricks, my technique.
I guess a really big moment was when I learned to rock to fakie and tail stalls, because that opened up a really good way to maintain speed on a mini ramp, and I learned all my lip tricks from having that. That was when I started trying to take it to the next level and try and get some tricks at the skatepark that other people at the skatepark actually didn’t have.
JR: What does it feel/smell/sound like?
TC: The area I focus on is muscle memory. I’m always listening to the sound of my wheels—what surfaces they’re reflecting off of—because that helps me determine whether I am going off course or not. Like, this ramp puts you this way and puts you at this angle. Hearing I use as a reference. I can say, okay, I have this much room to 50-50. The sound is a reference point. The summer after sixth grade I just skated so much. It would be like 100-degree days and the ramps were metal and there’d be nobody there. The fields around the skate parks were all just dead and the grass would be dead. I’d just be skating and I’d take breaks every five minutes because it was unhealthily hot to be skating. And I just wanted to get good so bad.
JR: Is it scary?
TC: I mean, once you have a park down, it’s really exhilarating. Rolling into a big bowl. Starting a run. It just feels great. Like, so much power. It’s just kind of a feeling of power. When you’re hitting a line that you know that you have, it’s a feeling like you’ve mastered physics a little bit.
JR: Have you had bad slams?
TC: I broke my tooth once. I hadn’t slept much the night before; I had gone on a trip. And my friend called me and said, “Hey, you want to go skate?” And my parents said, “No, you’re too tired, you shouldn’t go.” I was like no, I want to go. First thing I do, I drop in and I hit the side of the ramp. I just slipped and chipped my teeth.
JR: Were your parents supportive?
TC: My dad was pretty cool. My mom was more worried. But if I wanted to do it, she supported it. Luckily there’s been some positive media attention and scientific studies showing the adrenaline and stuff generated by [skateboarding]. It’s a good alternative to drugs and stuff like that. I feel like there’s been some positive light shed on it.
JR: Who is your favorite skater?
TC: Who is my favorite skateboarder and why? Well, as a person, probably Tony Hawk. I haven’t skated with that many professional skaters. But he was awesome to skate with. Just a really, really nice guy. If we were the same age I would totally want to be his friend and skating partner, you know? No matter how much better he was than me.
This is kind of funny. When Tony Hawk was interviewing me, he was like, “So who’s your favorite skater?” Maybe he’s used to interviewing younger skaters and they’re like, “You, Tony Hawk!” But I just I straight up told him, “Rodney Mullen.” Because he invented so much stuff. The reaction was first shock then, like, laughs.
JR: Were other kids impressed?
TC: Actually, I had a [high school] radio show at the time. So I’m like, “Hey, you interviewed me. Can I interview you on my radio show live?” So we did that and it generated a lot of interest and a lot of callers.
JR: Did anyone ever discourage you?
TC: There were people who discouraged me. They were like, “There’s no way. You’re going to kill yourself. Blind people can’t skateboard.” So I just ignored them.
I wanted to impress people. Definitely. I wanted to show that I could go big. I definitely always felt that pressure. Unless I was the best at a park, it was like, “Well, you’re pretty good… for a blind kid.” I always felt pressure to try to be the very best at any given skate park because if I was only “good” people would judge me as just being great for a blind skater. I wanted to be a great skater, period.