Tokyo 2020

Grinding for Gold: Bay Area Teen Skateboarding Phenom Rides Toward Olympic Dreams

She's USA Skateboarding's youngest national champion ever, and an alternate for Team USA in Tokyo — but 15-year-old Minna Stess says her number one goal is to dominate the Olympic skate park in 2024

NBC Universal, Inc.

What to Know

  • 15-year-old Minna Stess became USA Skateboarding's youngest-ever national champion after winning the 2021 women's park competition in May
  • Minna lives in Petaluma, California, where her parents allowed her and her brother to take over the entire backyard to build a concrete skate park where they play and practice
  • Skateboarding is a brand new addition to the Olympics, and Minna will be an alternate for Team USA this year as she trains to qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris

Skateboarding has its own culture and its own language, and this summer, Olympic viewers all over the world will learn about ollies and nollies, Smith grinds and backside airs.

But of all the words in the skater lexicon, it takes only one to describe 15-year-old Minna Stess: "steezy."

"It's like making something look good without even trying," she explained of the word that's a mixture of "style" and "ease."

A teenage girl sits with a skateboard on a chair made of skateboards under a tree
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
15-year-old skateboading champion Minna Stess sits on a chair made of old skateboards in the backyard of her family's Petaluma home.

Minna gave us a crash course in skater lingo as we stood in the middle of the glistening white concrete skate park that's taken over her family's entire backyard. A basketball hoop and a single rose bush are among the few other things left.

"My kids love to skateboard — can you tell?!" quipped Moniz Franco, Minna's mom.

Minna says it's her older brother who first turned her on to skateboarding — before she was even old enough to walk.

"I was, like, crawling on a board," she chuckled.

Minna Stess gave us a tour of the skate park that takes up her family’s entire backyard. She and her brother helped design the park when they were in elementary school — long before Minna’s Olympic dreams began to take shape.

It was never intended to be a competitive endeavor, she insists. It was purely a form of entertainment — until it became obvious that she was a lot better than everyone else.

"When I was younger, I just thought it was really fun," she said. "I started doing some competitions, I started winning some stuff, and I thought, 'Well, yeah, man, maybe I'm pretty good.'"

Skateboarder demonstrating an ollie
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Minna demonstrates an ollie — a common way for skateboarders to jump in the air — on a small concrete hill in her backyard skate park.

As a young kid, Minna was already attracting attention from sponsors: first, local skate shops, then equipment brands. But the Olympics weren't something a young skateboarder could aspire to — until now.

"Definitely the 2024 Olympics," she said when we asked her next big goal. "It's so far away, but so close at the same time."

Skateboarding is making its Olympic debut in Tokyo, and is already approved for inclusion in the 2024 Olympics in Paris. Men and women compete separately in two events: park and street. Minna competes exclusively in park.

"Street's going down things, like down stairs — and I don't like going down stairs," she explained. "I just like flying high and going fast, and that's what park is, basically."

skateboarder jumps in the air with trees and a setting sun behind her
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
In competitive skateboarding, park events are held in a concrete bowl-shaped arena. Here, Minna demonstrates how skateboarders fly in the air and do tricks around the bowl's edges.

Park events are held in a giant concrete bowl filled with obstacles, and skaters are expected to do tricks on as many of them as possible, within a limited time, without falling. Points are awarded for such things as difficulty of tricks, flow of the routine, style and originality.

"Learning tricks that people aren't doing is the big thing," Minna said.

Minna grabbed attention by doing exactly that during the 2021 national women's park final: she performed a kickflip on a nearly-vertical wall, in a move so gravity-defying she might as well have been skating on flat ground.

"That was a full-blown street kickflip!" exclaimed one of the announcers on the USA Skateboarding webcast when Minna landed the trick on her second run.

a skateboarder who just finished a winning run makes a silly face at the camera while still wearing her helmet
Courtesy: USA Skateboarding
At age 15, Minna Stess became the youngest winner of a USA Skateboarding championship. The helmet she wore while competing has since been collected by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Reflecting on it a few weeks later, Minna was patently nonchalant about the whole affair.

"That was kind of, I guess, like a 'statement' trick," she said. "People thought I was making it my signature trick now. ... It was just a kickflip, I wasn't trying to make it my signature trick, but now it is."

As Minna demonstrated that signature trick over and over again in her backyard, it became clear she's starting to outgrow the concrete ramps and obstacles she and her brother helped design when they were in elementary school. Indeed, to train for Paris and beyond, Minna has been spending more and more time traveling to the elite skate parks of Southern California.

skateboarder in mid air
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Minna said she loves flying through the air just for fun in her backyard skate park — but for serious skills development, San Diego's advanced training facilities are the place to be.

"A 500-mile commute to San Diego County," Minna's mom reflected. "I think there's a lot of things that I consider normal as the parent of a skater that other parents would say, 'That's not normal.'"

Minna said she wants to make a life out of skateboarding, and hopes to add pro skate brands to her growing list of sponsors. She already proudly rocks her Santa Cruz Skateboards gear at every competition and interview. And she knows what would look really great on top of those stylish clothes: an Olympic medal.

Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Minna Stess proudly rocks gear from sponsors including Santa Cruz Skateboards when she competes and gives interviews. She acknowledges the clothing would look even better if it were paired with some shiny Olympic hardware.

"I remember watching the Olympics and being like, 'Oh, that's cool, I probably will never be in the Olympics, because I'm not doing an Olympic sport,'" Minna said. "But now, it is an olympic sport, so it's really weird."

Because Olympic qualifying is based on a full year's worth of competitions, Minna is an alternate for Team USA in Toyko — but she's already begun making her mark on American sports history. As the youngest person to win a USA Skateboarding national championship, she was asked to submit the helmet she wore during the competition to the sports collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. She did — and the manufacturer was more than happy to send her a shiny new replacement.

skateboarder demonstrating a switch blunt
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Minna Stess demonstrates a switch blunt in her backyard skate park.

Though she's been called a prodigy and a rising star, Minna reminded us she's still human, and gets pre-competition jitters just like anyone else.

"I still do get nerves — like, every single time," she said. "I just try to tell myself it's not that big of a deal. I mean, it is that big of a deal, but I try to calm myself down by saying that."

As for the Olympics, Minna tries not to think too hard about the sheer magnitude of the biggest sporting event on the planet.

"There's always competitions," she said. "It's kind of just a bigger competition now."

Contact Us