Alexis Sablone's creative blueprint for success
It is widely believed that Ivy League graduates are more likely to land on higher-paying career tracks, that their prestigious grooming yields high-octane job options as employers eagerly seek out well-qualified stock.
So, it should come as no surprise that Alexis Sablone, a 2008 graduate of the Department of Architecture at Barnard College (the women's college of Columbia University), took home $40,000 last August for one brief afternoon on the job.
But the detail that might shake up some alumni picnics is that the Ivy young gun's plush paycheck was remitted for just one hour of masterful work -- on a skateboard.
"It's crazy," Sablone said in a telephone interview with espnW this week. "You can make a year's living in one day and it all comes down to an hour of your life. Not to get really dramatic, but it's true. That's how it happens at X Games."
The 24-year-old, who grew up in Old Saybrook, Conn., began her love affair with the skateboard at a young age. But with no skate park or scene to roll in in the scenic seaside New England town, Sablone spent hours each night honing her craft, alone with her four wheels.
"I would just skate alone every night in the garage and on my porch. In fifth grade, I changed schools and there were a few skaters there [in Madison, Conn.]. We would all bring our skateboards to school -- I don't really know what we did with them, though, because we didn't skate at school! But that was the first contact I had with other skaters," Sablone remembered with a laugh.
"The closest skate park to my parents' house was in Guilford, and that was like 40 minutes away. I tried to go there every weekend. But during the week it was just me."
At age 12, Sablone entered her first skate contest, an all-girls skate jam in Rhode Island.
"I skated pretty well in that first contest," she said. "I got second place. Elissa [Steamer] won. I remember it was on Mother's Day, but I wouldn't even let my mom watch. I still don't let anyone come to contests because it makes me so nervous."
After a strong debut, Sablone entered another contest about a year later. "I think it was in New Jersey and I won that one," she said. Then she added with a laugh, "Elissa wasn't there, though."
Soon after appearing in just two formal competitions, Sablone fatefully crossed paths with skate pro Kris Markovich (who then rode for Element Skateboards) at the Eastern Pulse skate park in Milton, Conn.
"One day I was skating alone at that park and Kris Markovich was just there, I don't even know why," she said. "We talked a little bit, and after that I started getting boards from Element. I skated for them for a while, but I was young, and was never officially on the team. Still, that's how it all started."
The following year, Element flew Sablone to California for a contest. Ironically, what happened at her first high-profile skate jam edged her closer in the direction of that architecture degree.
"I was so excited to be flown out to Huntington Beach for that contest," she said. "So excited, so nervous, everything. And then I rolled my ankle really badly on the first trick of my run. I couldn't skate anymore. I was completely devastated. I was so disappointed that I just decided right then that I would never do contests again. And I didn't. I didn't enter another contest until my first X Games after I graduated from Columbia."
As a high school student at the Hopkins School in New Haven, Conn., Sablone applied for early admission to Columbia.
"I didn't fill out any other applications. I knew I wanted to go to school in New York," she said. "I still remember getting the acceptance letter in the mail. It was a big envelope, so that was a good sign."
Through her four years in college, Sablone lived in the dorms on the urban campus, and handily made her way through the rigors of the Columbia curriculum. "It wasn't easy. I was pretty much at my desk for like four years straight. You don't sleep much when you study architecture," she said.
Though Sablone had stopped skating the contest circuit, she remained immersed in the vibrant New York skate scene. But the skate blogosphere made its own assumptions about Sablone's whereabouts.
"People came up with some crazy explanations for my 'strange disappearance,'" she said. "Like that my parents told me I wasn't allowed to skate anymore, or that I lost my legs! There was some funny stuff going around."
But Sablone maintains that her contest hiatus was the result of nothing more than a hefty college course load and a healthy aversion to the pressures of competition.
"I just couldn't do contests for a while," she said. "I didn't want to. They made me miserable. I got too nervous and I just decided I was done. When I make my mind up about something, that's it. And that was it."
Sablone was sponsored by èS skate wear throughout her contest hiatus, but made her priorities to the company very clear.
"I was skating for èS back then, but I just sort of did my own thing," she said. "I told them I didn't want them to have expectations of me that I wasn't in a place to fulfill. I just wanted to go to school and skate for fun and not feel like I was pissing anyone off at the skate companies in the meantime."
After graduation, architecture degree in hand, Sablone decided to get back on her board, in a competitive sense. She entered X Games 15 in the summer of 2009, and despite suffering broken ribs early in the competition, the rookie went home with a silver medal in Skateboard Street and a beefy back pocket.
In her sophomore X outing the following year, Sablone got her first taste of gold, topping seasoned comp veterans Leticia Bufoni (silver) and Marisa Dal Santo (bronze).
But even after that level of competitive success, Sablone remains tempered by the unnerving pressure of contests.
"Any one of those girls can win if they have a really good day," she said. "I don't think I did well my first two years out because I took four years off to go to college, or whatever. Of course I'm happy with the way it worked out. I went to school -- which is what I always wanted to do. I met some of my closest friends in those four years, and I continued to skate for fun. That was the timing that was right for me.
"By 2009, the whole ankle injury thing was finally history and I was past the whole no-contest mindset. I'm not going to say it was all luck, but I do feel very lucky to have done well in my first two X Games. But now there is more pressure than ever."
This year, the defending champion is looking forward to X Games 17, but said she still won't sleep the night before the showdown.
In Sablone's mind, her future pursuits could take her anywhere, from a drafting table to a concrete playground.
"The thing is, you graduate from college and you have a degree, but you still don't really know what you're going to do," she said. "I had skating waiting for me and I wanted to try that direction. Things worked out.
"After this X Games, I'll move back to New York. I'll keep skating, and I'll keep drawing. I'll probably have to get some random job because I'm needing a little bit of structure right now. I've been doing freelance work, some skateboard graphics and concept art, so I'm kind of using my degree. And I've been thinking about going to grad school. Who knows? I'll figure it all out as it comes."
Sablone will compete in the Skateboard Street women's final at X Games 17 on Friday at 5:30 p.m. ET. Watch it live on ESPN3 and catch all the contest results and event recaps at ESPN.com/action.
Mary Buckheit is a freelance journalist in San Diego. She can be reached at MaryBuckheit@hotmail.com.