Ponce no longer skating under the radar

Gaby Ponce is just like any other teenage girl, except when she's flying through the air.

Ponce is a shy, soft-spoken junior at Tenafly (N.J.) High School, but when she grabs her skateboard and hits the ramp, she's anything but ordinary.

That much was evident last summer, when the then-15-year-old prodigy was invited to X Games 14. As one of the youngest competitors in the vert finals, Ponce attacked her run with no fear and finished fifth overall. The performance gained her acclaim from all corners of the skating world and made her well-known as one of the sport's top up-and-comers, but Ponce took it all in stride.

"I wasn't nervous," she says. "I was just thinking about landing all my tricks and doing the best I can. I was stoked on fifth place, though."

Ponce's confidence is a brand of laid-back swagger unique to skateboarders, and it's a far cry from the personality she possessed before she started ripping up the parks.

"Gaby was a very quiet kid, and she still is quiet to some extent," says her father, Ken. "But since she's been skating, you can see the change."

Ponce is shy by nature, reluctant to raise her hand in class even if she knows the answer, but she started coming out of her shell six years ago. She got her first skateboard as a Christmas gift when she was 10 years old, and she immediately put it to use in the driveway, rolling back and forth.

After learning the basics, Ponce convinced her parents to take her to the local skatepark. She improved rapidly after starting on a four-foot mini ramp, and by the time she was 12 she was begging for a trip to the nearest vert ramp.

Her father saw the progress she was making and eventually gave in. He drove her 45 minutes to a 12-foot halfpipe in Elizabeth, and the trip turned out to be a turning point in Ponce's career. After standing on the ledge for half an hour building up her courage, she finally took the plunge and dropped down at full speed.

"The first time I went down a full-size ramp, I was definitely scared," Ponce says. "But I made it down on the first try, and that was all I needed."

Since then, Ponce has been unstoppable. She entered her first contest at 14, taking seventh place at a Mountain Dew Free Flow competition in Philadelphia, and she's only gotten better since then.

Despite living in New Jersey, thousands of miles from the center of the skateboarding universe in Southern California, Ponce was able to attract several sponsors. One of those sponsors, Sk8grl, sent her YouTube clips to X Games officials, and Ponce was chosen to compete on the sport's biggest stage.

Ponce was in the process of becoming a star, but she did a good job avoiding the spotlight.

"When she went to the X Games this summer, no one around here really knew about it," says Thomas Elefante, the vice principal at Tenafly. "She didn't mention anything about it. When I read about it afterward, I was astonished to find out she was this amazing daredevil-type athlete."

Ponce has never been one to brag or bring attention to herself, and it's typical that she wouldn't want to spread the word about her X Games appearance. When she came back to school in the fall, however, the community was waiting with open arms.

All the local papers wanted her story, her schoolmates wanted a firsthand account of her Los Angeles experience and the Tenafly City Council even sent her a letter of commendation.

"Everyone's been so supportive," Ponce says. "Everyone is very positive and wants to see you succeed around here. After the X Games, a lot more people were approaching me wanting to talk."

Ponce's success has helped her develop away from the park as well. Her father and Elefante say that for someone who had been reluctant to speak up, she's visibly more poised and at ease with herself.

"She's much more approachable and relaxed, and that self-confidence is all due to her skateboarding," her dad says. "She can be shy, and it was hard even for the family to get her to open up. Now, she's not talking your ear off yet, but she's not shying away in the corner either. It's been almost a 180-degree turn."

Ponce says her transformation started with her skateboarding success.

"Skating is my life," she says. "It's so much fun for me, and when you're having a good time and doing well, you have that positive feeling all the time. That helps me with my confidence even when I'm not skating."

Ponce's personality shines when she's riding, and she's constantly making new friends while competing. Her skating pals are scattered across the country (and even beyond), so she's really looking forward to traveling to
Tampa, Fla., in March for the Tampa Am, the first big vert competition of the year.

She's been working on several new tricks that she hopes to have down in time for the event. And after the Tampa Am, another X Games appearance could be in the works.

"I'd love to get another chance at the X Games," she says. "I got a lot of exposure from it last year, and it was a great experience. And I think I could do even better this time."

A bold statement coming from the suddenly not-so-shy Gaby Ponce.

Mike Grimala covers high school sports for ESPN RISE.