Christchurch rider has the need for speed

Elissa Mah likes to go fast.

The 33-year-old Christchurch rider represented New Zealand at last month's World Downhill Skateboarding Championships in the Philippines, coming third in the elite women's class.

The event, which saw more than 80 competitors assemble from 18 nations, took place on the beautiful but treacherous Sampaloc to Talisay Road on a 2,300 metre-long track which drops almost 300 metres along its snaking course of sweepers and hairpin bends.

Riders reached speeds of more than 80kph on the course and they can clock 100kph on other tracks.

"Downhill Skateboarding is basically riding your board down a hill as fast as you can. It's all in the name and is pretty straightforward," Mah said.

"The main form of competition is races. Races are generally four person heats, head to head racing and single rider timed racing."

Mah is a self described "late bloomer" when it comes to skateboarding and sport in general.

"I started really late. I grew up as a really non-sporty kid," Mah said.

"In New Zealand, we're a sporty country, but the sports that get promoted here are ball sports; netball, soccer, rugby, those kind of things. Non of that ever really clicked for me, so I always thought I was not capable of doing anything physical.

"But, I tried aikido, a Japanese martial art, and was actually quite decent and got up to third down black belt and I realised I could do things and I started to try more physical activities."

Though it wasn't until she was in her 20s that Mah got into skateboarding.

"When I was at UC (University of Canterbury) around 2010, my brother and his friends started skating and I gave it a try and it was really fun being able to put a little effort in and then just balance and roll without having to push. That was a really great feeling. I started doing it more and got my own board and found a group in Christchurch called the 'Garden City Sessions" and they skated hills a lot as well.

"I gave that a go, didn't really expect much of it because I was like 'oh my god you have to pad up and wear helmets and slide gloves and this seems really dangerous and scary'. But, I worked my way into it, learning how to stop at slower speeds and how to be safe and it just grew from there."

Elissa Mah. Photo: Supplied / Elissa Mah
Elissa Mah. Photo: Supplied / Elissa Mah
Knowing how to slow down is an important part of the sport, but it's not easy when you don't have any brakes.

"Before you learn to go fast you need to be able to stop. So we have a strong emphasis on safety and learning to control your speed through a variety of methods," Mah said.

"They include sliding your board, so that's using the friction of your wheels on the road surface to slow you down. Foot braking is using the sole of your shoe on the road to slow you down and air braking, shifting from our aerodynamic tuck position to standing up and increasing your surface area to create wind resistance and slow you down."

Mah finds the sport exhilarating but also therapeutic.

"It's freeing because it takes such a high level of concentration that you're not thinking about other things. You're not thinking about issues you might be having at work or any other problems or stresses you might have at home or in your life because you have to concentrate on what's around you."

Mah headed to February's postponed 2023 Downhill Skateboarding World Championships in the Philippines and fell in love with the course and scenery.

"The track was amazing. It was the first time we've raced at it and it was incredible. The surface was amazing, the corners were banked properly and cambered correctly. It was on point. The location was really cool, too. We were racing right next to an active volcano and it was smoking when we arrived. It was an epic location."

While the track was top tier, Mah wasn't sure how she'd go at the event which ranked racers based on solo timed runs down the course.

"You've got some of the fastest women in the world there. The pressure was on.

"I usually tend to do better at full grip tracks where I'm doing a lot of tucking. Historically in the Asia-Pacific region a lot of the races are on fast, less technical hills, so drifting on corners and I don't have as much practice at that."

Mah knew she could compete, but she still didn't expect a top three finish.

"It was a big surprise to get on the podium. I was aiming for a semi-final finish and went into race day seeded No.4.

"I actually crashed in the quarter-finals. I was very lucky to be able to get back up and catch up to the other three riders and come second to progress, with the bottom two failing to advance.

"I knew from then on couldn't make any mistakes."

She said standing on the podium was a career highlight.

"It was an amazing feeling. I've done races before when I've been on the podium but this was the World Champs run by World Skate (the sport's world governing body) and was completely different.

"Having the New Zealand flag draped over my shoulders was an incredible feeling. Being able to wave the New Zealand flag on the podium meant so much more to me than any other time I've been up there as I was representing my country and I want to grow my sport and inspire others to take it up and it felt symbolic of that. It was really, really cool."

Mah's next competition is in Australia this weekend at the Yarra Ranges Downhill Festival.

It's the only World Skate sanctioned race in Australia this year.

Later in 2024 Mah hopes to be in Italy for the World Skate Games, which happens every two years.

"That one is going to be big, everyone wants to be there."

Mah also hopes to one day see her sport included in the Olympics.

Speed climbing and park and street skateboarding have been added for this year's Paris Games and Mah believes downhill skateboarding should feature in the future.

"Definitely. That is what the downhill advisory board for World Skate are advocating for. We would love to get downhill skateboarding into the Olympics.

"It's a really easy sport to understand, you chuck four people on a board and the first one down the hill wins."

By Joe Porter