Though built like a heavyweight fighter, Damien Rider skateboards with the grace of a dancer. He may just be mucking about in this inner-Sydney laneway, but there’s no mistaking he’s been riding for a while – 34 years, in fact, on and off. “Guys who are skaters are always skaters,” he says. “It’s in my blood. There’s just something about the solitary freedom.”
Lucky, because he’s about to do more skating than any man should. In late June, he’ll set off from Chicago on a mission to skate the original Route 66 – the 3940-kilometre stretch of mostly disused American highway. All going to plan he’ll end up in Santa Monica a tidy 66 days later. “It’s tornado season and some parts are desert,” he says. “It’s going to be torturous fun.”
Solitary freedom? Well . . . hopefully not. Rider’s wish for this ride is that he becomes a kind of real-life Forrest Gump, attracting legions of fellow pilgrims along the “Main Street of America”. He wants the company of people carrying emotional wounds. Why? Because he thinks he can help them.
To fill in the blanks, Rider swaps his deck for an armchair and provides a glimpse into his childhood in Eighties Adelaide. He was six, he says, when his mother brought a new boyfriend into the home. A hulking alcoholic, the newcomer would hurl Damien against a wall before beating and raping the boy’s mother.
This went on for nine months until the man shot through, returning briefly a couple of years later to inflict more terror.
“Skating was my way of escaping,” says Rider, who’d scoot off to the local skate park for the ephemeral comfort of company. “You scream out, but no one helps. No one wants to step in when it’s someone else’s family.”
Let It go
The boy grew into a shell of a man, wracked by post-traumatic stress disorder, unable to trust or love. He thought there must be a way to make things better, but what was it?
“All my life I was trying to find what would make me happy – genuinely happy, not just the fake smile most people put on and I was putting on.” Alas, getting good at one sport or another, wooing a desirable girlfriend, travel to some far-flung place, making lots of money, getting hitched . . . all these things loomed as the answer. But once ticked off, none filled the void.
Then, in January last year, Rider embarked on a journey. After paddling out to sea off his Gold Coast hometown of Coolangatta, he turned south. Destination: Bondi Beach, 800km away.
Over the three-week marathon, made with no support crew and immortalised in the movie Heart of the Sea, Rider battled sunburn, profound hunger and fatigue, and unimaginable muscular pain. But it was out there on the ocean, he says, that he finally buried his past.
How, exactly? Rider proposes that prolonged physical pain brings emotional pain to the surface. Alone on the waves, with nothing to distract him, the anguish came in a gush and was purged. “All you can do in these endurance events is keep going forward,” says Rider. “They flip your mind over.”
The paddle induced a catharsis that changed everything. “I now have not one bit of emotional attachment to anything from my past. It’s like I pressed a reset button and my life started again.”
These days Rider, 40, says his raison d’être is to inspire others who are depressed, anxious or stuck in a traumatic past. Having already formed PACA (Paddle Against Child Abuse), he’s now set up The Rider Foundation with a view to establishing gyms around the world for disadvantaged kids. He’s not asking Average Joes for money; he’ll finance these projects from his own pocket and corporate sponsorship.
A crew will film his Route 66 odyssey and cut the footage into a movie. “But, to me, the film is secondary,” says Rider. “The traction I get along the way is more important.” That means attracting hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fellow skaters, as well as using YouTube and traditional media to spread his message of renewal. The imagery is quasi-religious: a man made whole through redemptive suffering showing followers how to banish their ghosts on a mystical stretch of road.
Rider knows you don’t have to have endured beatings as a child to feel broken. None of us has made it this far unscathed. We all have shit going on both in our lives and in our heads.
“The point is you’re still here having a crack,” he says urgently. “It’s rare that any plan comes together exactly how you thought it would. Just be proud of who you are, accept what’s happened in your life and keep moving forward.”
– For more information, head to paca.com.au
To get his kicks on Route 66, Rider has prepared his legs for punishment beyond reckoning. Here’s the brutal lower-body workout that will leave you
ready for anything
What To Do
“I’ll do this routine twice a week after some stair sprints and an upper-body workout,” say Rider. “Your goal is to get to 100 reps for each exercise without racking the bar. Take breathers when you have to, but hang on to the weight.”
Stand with your legs shoulder-width apart, feet pointing slightly outwards, barbell across your shoulders. Brace your core and drop into a squat until your thighs are parallel with the floor, then drive back up. Do not overload the bar. Rider uses 40 kilograms.
Think of this as a rear-loaded deadlift, where the bar is behind your feet and runs up the back of your legs as you lift it off the floor. Keep your chest up throughout the movement. Again, Rider uses 40kg.
Stand on a box roughly 15 centimetres high while holding 20kg dumbbells in each hand. Step down with one foot before pressing off the ground and returning to the start position. Alternate 10-rep sets for each leg until you’ve racked up 200 reps total.
Stand with a barbell across your shoulders, as per the squat. You can probably go heavier for this exercise. Tilting forward slightly for balance, squeeze your calves and stand up on your toes, holding that position for 2-3 seconds on each rep.