Meet Ben Anderson: The Kamloops skateboarder who's using the sport to deal with addiction

You may have seen him skateboarding around town and wondered why he still does it.

At nearly 50 years old, Ben Anderson continues grinding, riding bowls and tearing up the streets of the city. A forefather of skating in Kamloops, he's been around since its explosion in the '80s and he'll continue on well into the sport's bright future. He can't stop. He won't stop.

"(I'll stop) when I'm dead or I can't walk anymore. It's for life. I've dedicated my life to skateboarding because skateboarding saved my life," says Anderson.

An outlet for his anger as a teen, skateboarding culture initially nudged him toward drug addiction. But after rock bottom, rehab and recovery, it's also been a tool that has kept him clean for the last 16 years.

Growing up in Kamloops in the early '80s, when skateboarding was still a fringe activity for outsiders, an adrenaline junkie like Anderson naturally gravitated toward it. He liked that it was a sport of rebellion. Before there were skate parks, it was just a group of kids rolling down the city's many hills on plastic or fibreglass boards, searching for thrills.

"Skateboarding was such a freeing experience," he says. "It was absolute freedom to express myself in a creative and artistic way. It was different than what other people did as their form of creative expression."

That creativity was expressed in other aspects of skating as well, like when Anderson and his friends came up with a name for their skateboard posse: Team Aggression. There was Shred, Grind and Anderson was Rip. (He still goes by the nickname Ripper to this day and one of his many tattoos is the iconic Powell-Peralta Ripper, an artistic design that features a skeleton tearing a hole in the deck.)

Skaters also had to get creative in where they spent their time. Skating around town would often lead to clashes with RCMP, citizens or other cliques they didn't see eye to eye with. Before and after the summer, they could skate in the banked concrete of drained pools, but sometimes, tearing down the hills of Columbia Street was the only way to go, and the people who lived along their favourite routes knew it too.

Anderson says some people would dig trenches along the skaters' most common paths to prevent them from cutting onto their lawns and damaging grass when they tried to slow down. Police would also be out looking for them, and if a skater was caught, their board would be confiscated.

While parents could easily go down to the station and get their kid's board back, a lot of the older skaters were on their own. That meant if they lost a board and they didn't have the money to replace it, they might steal a new one from someone younger than them, while on a day trip to Kelowna or Vernon.

"They did what they had to do to get their boards. It sounds sideways and I don't want to give skateboarders a bad image, but it was a very rebellious thing back then," says Anderson.

Ben and TamaraBen Anderson and his wife Tamara. (via Ben Anderson)

Part of that rebellion included drugs and alcohol as well. Anderson was straight-edge until 1986, when he moved out of his parents' house and began living on his own. That newfound freedom led to him smoking weed daily and drinking nightly before heading out to skateboard.

It continued to be part of his routine as he travelled around, doing some skating throughout California before settling down in Vancouver for a few years. That's where his addictions became worse. He got involved with cocaine, and before long, he didn't even have the passion to skate anymore.

"All I cared about was finding ways and means to get more drugs. I spent a lot of time in the Downtown Eastside hanging out in the bars; I did a lot of trafficking weed there. I couldn't traffic cocaine because I couldn't keep it long enough. I'd use it so bloody quick."

Eventually, Anderson hit a rock bottom far lower than any of the empty pools he used to skate in. First, while using, he accidentally burned his parents' house down. Then, he committed armed robbery. The latter led to charges, and he was facing up to three to five years in prison. Instead, he was given two years less a day and was able to avoid federal or provincial prison. He was served with community time while he attended rehab.

"Everything I loved and cared about was taken through my addiction. The drugs were just a symptom to an illness that I had, that I could only fix through reestablishing myself on a spiritual level; with nature, with humanity, with skateboarding, with 12-step programs, that sort of thing."

Along with his program sponsors, his friend Grant Hartley was a big support during his recovery. Initially, when Anderson got out of rehab, he was scared of every aspect of his old life: tattoo shops, skate parks, anywhere he might run into temptation. But Hartley urged him to get back into skateboarding, and soon enough, Anderson was back to "skating like a maniac." Instead of being an introverted, aggressive activity like it was when he was young, skating became a social, salutary sport. 

"I love the feeling of the wheels under my feet. The speed, the carving, the whole lifestyle that I continue to live related to skateboarding; it's just the most beautiful thing that I have as an outlet," he says. "It makes me feel alive, it's a form of therapy that gets me out of my head. It's not that it helps me to escape my problems, but it's recreational time, it makes me feel physically healthy. It affects my mental, emotional and spiritual health. It's incorporated in all of that."

Anderson is now married and has a family, but his battles with addiction continue. It's not drugs or alcohol – he hasn't touched either since the robbery – but rather compulsive overeating that he's fighting. Currently, around 300 pounds, Anderson is trying the same tactics of spirituality and skateboarding to overcome his latest hurdle. Even in the face of another addiction, he's aware that his battle with drugs will never be over.

"I'm never out of the woods when it comes to drug addiction, but I have a lot of armoury around me where it's not like I'm not one bad decision away from using. My mom passed away a few years ago. My first thought wasn't to get high. I've lost jobs because of poor decisions, there was no thought period around getting high. Part of this disease is that people that have the addiction act out in self-destructive behaviour."

Skateboarding won't be one of those destructive behaviours. Aware of the possibility of concussions, broken bones or even death that can occur, Anderson says he plays it a lot safer on a board now than in his youth. He has an obligation to his family and his job (as a residential support staff) to stay in one piece, so he's not hitting up the half-pipe or big hills as much. He's taking it easy out at the park with a few other friends that still skate, encouraging the next generation. 

With his busy work schedule, Anderson says he isn't getting out as much as he would like, even though that still amounts to skating three to five times a week.

So if a few days have gone by and you haven't seen Ripper out at the skate park, assume something is wrong. Because like he says, skateboarding is his life, and it's one addiction he'll happily never kick. 

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