Jake IlardiSkateboardingNews

‘Saved’ By Skateboarding, Jake Ilardi Chases A Second Olympic Berth While Giving Back To Sarasota

by Steve Drumwright

Jake Illardi competes in men's street skateboarding at OQS 1 in Shanghai, China (Photo by OIS/IOC)

There’s a lot going right for Jake Ilardi at the moment.

He just celebrated his 27th birthday in Dubai, UAE, his twin brother recently held a private screening in their hometown for a documentary about the skateboarder and Ilardi is working to create a major impact on his community.

Even with all that, there’s something that Ilardi covets: A second trip to the Olympic Games in street skateboarding.

It won’t be easy. The native of Osprey, Florida, was in Dubai in early March as part of the Olympic Qualifier Series. Ilardi finished 15th, which was good enough to move up to the sixth and final spot on the U.S. skateboarding team that is currently competing in Shanghai (May 16-19) and will travel Budapest, Hungary (June 20-30) for the final stages of qualifying for this summer’s Olympic Games Paris 2024. His performance at those two stops will determine his fate for Paris.

“I believe I can do it,” said Ilardi, who ranks No. 31 in the world. “I’ve done it before, and I definitely can do it again. Going to Shanghai and Budapest are going to be a big opportunity for me and some other athletes because the point values are almost tripled.”

Having finished 11th in men’s street at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, Ilardi carries heavy expectations into this next round of qualifying.

“I’ve made it once, and people are expecting me to go again,” Ilardi said. “It would be nice to go again for 2024 and to get to fully experience it this time — because I feel like during the (Tokyo) Olympics, we really didn’t get the full experience because of COVID and because no fans there, masks everywhere, restrictions this and that. So it’d be nice to go to Paris and fully be immersed in the French culture and do it right.”

Ilardi said it was “eerie-looking” in Tokyo with a sparkling skate park for such a grand event but the stands virtually empty, except for some volunteers, fellow athletes and coaches. He pointed out that people did line up outside the venue and along the bus route to offer their support. While it was not the grandiose experience that skateboarding expected to make in its Olympic debut, Ilardi still feels part of history.

“Man, that was an honor not only to just represent the U.S., represent my country for skateboarding, but also just to rep skateboarding as a whole, the whole world of skateboarding,” Ilardi said. “I believe it’s had a really positive impact on skating. Since that’s happened, there’s been a lot more skate parks being built, there’s been a lot more skaters starting to skate ... because they saw the Olympics and municipalities are accepting it more.”

Ilardi’s hometown of Osprey has been more than hospitable to skateboarding, much of that thanks to the local boy who made good. Much like the city of about 6,000 on the Gulf Coast of Florida, about 20 minutes south of Sarasota, Ilardi’s story has been hardscrabble.

Jake Ilardi competes during the men's street semifinals at 2023 Uprising Tokyo on May 27, 2023 in Tokyo. (Photo by Getty Images)

Ilardi and his twin Nate were separated from their parents at a young age, so one of their grandmothers stepped in to raise the brothers. It was she who introduced Jake Ilardi to skateboarding when he was 4 years old.

“Skating definitely saved my life,” Ilardi said. “I don’t know what I’d be doing right now, probably be like a bookworm or something or having gone to college for something I didn’t want to do. Skating definitely saved my life. It gave me an outlet, it gave me something to do every day, something to look forward to after school. It taught me that you fall down six times, you get up the seventh and you keep going.”

While Jake Ilardi continued on the skateboard path, his twin became more interested in filmmaking. Nate Ilardi paired with director Liam Jordan to follow Jake’s quest to make the Tokyo Olympics. Cameras were on the skater for about 18 months, but it took a while for him to warm up to the project.

“Honestly, at first, I was totally against it,” Ilardi said. “I hated having the cameras on me 24/7 and didn’t really want to do it. But then once we were filming more down the line, getting like some support with it, I realized I could use that as a platform to show the rest of the skaters and the rest of the people that if you get involved enough with your community, you can do anything you want or you could do something great for your community, like empowering the local skate scene.”

The documentary, “Into the Spotlight,” screened for local residents in early February. Ilardi wasn’t sure whether there would be a wider release of the film.

What the project did do was continue to grow the interest in skateboarding in the area. Now, Ilardi is working on doubling the size of the skate park at Sarasota’s Payne Park, which he said has grown too crowded for the city’s burgeoning skate scene. Some of the money comes through Ilardi’s nonprofit, Skate City SRQ. It’s a project that means a lot to Ilardi.

“We only have one park here and it’s 20 years old, and I mean concrete only lasts so long,” Ilardi said. “We have surrounding communities that are blossoming with different skate parks popping up all over. My goal is to just get more areas for the kids to skate because not every kid has a ride to the skate park, not everyone can get to the skate park from where they live in Sarasota or Venice or surrounding neighborhoods.

“I want to not only expand Payne skate park, but I want to expand the network of skate parks in Sarasota County. I want there to be more spaces for kids to skate, scooter, bike, whatever type of wheeled activity — I want it to be for everyone. I want everyone to have somewhere safe to ride.”