The Boarders: A Look Downhill in Photos

“Car!”

The shouts echoed from the bottom of the hill where Toby Arculli and Richard Garner reached over their heads, crossing their arms in the shape of x’s, the warning signal when oncoming traffic blocks the road.

At the hill’s summit, Owen Dexter-Meldrum stood waiting. He wore khaki pants and a light t-shirt. His shoes were worn, their soles shaved from the friction between rubber and road, the threadbare laces faring little better. When the lane cleared, Owen took a few steps back, breathed, and ran forward, quickly tossing his skateboard to the ground. He bolted. The road rolled beneath him as his wheels buzzed like sifting gravel. He crouched, moving body to concrete, and placed his hands on the heated tarmac, sliding down by the pull of gravity.

After a few runs, a faculty van ascended the hill and stopped before the boys. The window rolled down. The faculty member stared at them, issuing a warning: “It’s illegal to skate on public roads, you know that?”

The three sophomores mobilized almost instantaneously, crowding the small window with their boards in hand.

“We’ve read the laws,” they said. “If there’s no sign against it, we can ride.”

The faculty member stared incredulously. He smiled and nodded with approval.

The boys pushed downhill.

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Owen Dexter-Meldrum rides down Thacher Road. The Thacher Downhill club pushes the boundaries of traditional skating, riding on steep slopes.

That afternoon, a few members of the Thacher Downhill club met to skate. Each outing is an event. The skaters fastened pads to knees and sheathed their hands in sliders— the protective gloves embedded with plastic discs used to surf along concrete. As they prepared, the boys inhabited another world, one with its own lexicon grounded in physics. They talked about torque and acceleration, gravity and tension, drifting and friction. Wearing helmets embellished with stickers and scratches, the troop discussed which hill they wanted to ride first.

Last year, during Finals Week, Richard watched Owen as he tore down the school’s roads, shifting between different maneuvers. Richard, the founder of Thacher Downhill, is more reserved than the other riders. He’s often quiet during sessions, his face suffused with the same focus he displays while on his board. A newcomer to the sport, Richard felt that his inspiration to form the club came in that offhand moment during the last weeks of school:  “I saw Owen doing tricks with the board and it seemed pretty cool, so I started doing it, too.”

That week, he told me, the two went out to Thacher Road in the early mornings. The pair descended through Ojai’s fog, Richard borrowing one of Owen’s boards. They skated as the sun rose, paving new lines in the hours before finals. Owen, an experienced rider with years of practice under his belt, offered advice to the club’s head. In a sense, the convergence of veteran skill and beginner enthusiasm is the linchpin of Thacher Downhill. The group’s core members —a faithful cross section of sophomore boys— reflect a blend of longtime boarders and those eager to learn.

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Richard Garner practicing near Thacher’s lower campus. Banned from Perimeter Road, the group utilizes Thacher’s driveways for sessions.

Mateo Thacher, a day student whose breadth of prior knowledge animates the club, walked into our interview giddy to describe the sport. His hair disheveled and the fringes of his skate shoes in tatters, he fawned over longboarding, veering from topic to topic without taking a breath. For him, the lure of adrenaline keeps him anchored to his board. “When you’re going down it’s like, ‘go go go,’ ” he explained.

Yet despite this racer mentality, Mateo brought a mechanic’s precision to the sport. He dwelled on the components of a longboard during the interview. In one moment, he illustrated the importance of custom trucks and bearings. The next, he offered his take on what makes a quality deck. He told me, “As you get better at longboarding, you learn all the tech: wheels, board, everything.” These parts, he noted, are the lifeblood of longboarders, allowing them to customize their rides and achieve the high speeds Mateo loves.  

Referencing Louis Pilloni and Shane Allen — professional icons in the world of downhill skating— Mateo described the hazards of the sport. He used intricate hand motions, pantomiming the speed and movement with which longboarders tackle new runs. His eyes widened and his voice crescendoed.

Mateo delights in that feeling of inner-triumph after mastering precarious tricks. “You always have that doubt in the back of your mind, but that risk is why I like it most,” he said. “You have so much adrenaline going through your body, especially once you hit that really fast speed and you hit a sketchy turn and make it.”

His first time boarding, while near the southern edge of campus, he tripped, skidding along the sloped surface. Mateo recalled, “I was going way too fast. I was sliding so much that I needed to roll so that one side wouldn’t get shaved off.”

Having skated seriously before Thacher, Mateo is no stranger to the sport’s dangers. A few years ago, he once suffered a fall that left the bone on his knee exposed. Meanwhile, Mateo often returned from sessions, quickly pouring hydrogen peroxide on fresh wounds and filling bags of ice to wrap around his knees and ankles.

He looked upwards when recounting the incidents and laughed. “I don’t know why I keep doing this.”

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Toby Arculli shows off his sliders. The gloves, padded with plastic disks, allow skaters to perform tricks along the pavement.

For the club, longboarding is a form of catharsis. Mateo mentioned that as he skates, “It’s perfect serenity at the same time mixed with extreme focus. You feel extremely calm and then go into the slide.” Toby echoed this sentiment, describing Downhill sessions as an escape from Thacher’s rigors: “It’s a great way to pass time. You stop thinking about homework and for a little bit, you just think about the slide, trying not to fall.”

During his interview, Toby reflected a mischievous quality. His true demeanor, irreverent to say the least, hides behind the patina of an easygoing surfer. During sessions, he frequently looks downhill with fear, only to turn to the side and crack a joke. In many ways, he’s the comic relief of the group.

Himself a beginner, Toby was inspired much in the same way as Richard— watching his peers in action. He purchased his gear set on sale for $80— a pair of gloves, pads, and helmet. His board, a Sector Nine emblazoned with a swinging logo and the image of a starry night, rests outside his dorm room beside two other longboards.

On the front end of his board, duct tape sticks in unkempt rows over a gaping dent, draping the nose like bandages over a scar. This is the aftermath of his most memorable day riding downhill.

“I was going way too fast for my experience and couldn’t get into a slide and ended up being thrown into the air,” he told me, a smile creeping across his face. He paused during his retelling, adding dramatic effect to his story. His appetite for adrenaline got the best of him, he explained, showing me a series of scrapes that streaked the length of his thigh. After falling from his board, Toby tumbled near a rock, kicking up dust and leaves in his wake. Gravel smeared his pants and shirt.

His helmet lopsided and caked with dirt, Toby picked himself up and dusted off his hands, excited by the headway he’d made. He retrieved his board, assessed the damage, and flashed a thumbs up and a smile to the others above him.

“It was a pretty dope day,” he added grinning.

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Despite the close call, Toby picked himself up and dusted off his pants, excited at the headway he’d made.

Owen holds the same appreciation for downhill skating as his peers, his devotion to the sport apparent in every aspect of his personality. Outside his room stands a custom rack that houses four distinct boards. His helmet and pads are mounted on the stand’s sides, giving it the appearance of an altar.

“It’s a meditative moment,” Owen told me in his room, leaning forward for emphasis. “It’s a relationship with the hill. You look at it and wonder where you’re going to slide, what’s the most beautiful line to take. Nothing goes through my head but the plan and how things might change.”

Owen’s dorm room, strewn with clothes and crumpled papers, is a red herring, masking his focused attitude under a veneer of disorder. Above his desk, another skateboard idles near a pair of gloves. “As soon as I go into that slide, everything just slows down a little bit,” Owen said, his eyes fixed on the board above his head. “I feel the pressure on my feet but nowhere else. I guess I just know that everything will go to plan.”

When Owen pushes downhill, his presence is undeniable. Among the most skilled in the club, he takes risks, carving chaotic, flashy trails on the concrete. On the backside of his helmet, stickers marshal in groups. “If you can read this, bump draft me,” one reads. The others advertise logos for GoPro, Muirskate, and 187 Killer Pads. Skating downhill, the stickers are the last thing you see as he flies out of sight.

Owen, mirroring Mateo’s energy shaded with his own ambition, believes that ultimately, Thacher Downhill should be a platform for everyone. Before the interview ended, Owen took the board from his desk and handed it to me. “That’s custom,” he said. “Come on, I’ll teach you if you want. I’d love to.”

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Owen’s helmet is a prominent feature of his longboarding, featuring stickers from various extreme sports companies.

Thacher Downhill members hold the same love for longboarding for many reasons— the adrenaline, the sense of achievement, and its unique feel. Yet, as each examined the sport, drifting between anecdotes and explanation, they all circled back to the group’s underlying trait: camaraderie.

When the crew sets off from the dorm, running to shady driveways across the school, they not only share the collective experience but also their passions. Learning from one another, they attempt to build on their weaknesses, having fun all the while.

“Everyone’s trying to start somewhere,” Mateo remarked, detailing how Thacher Downhill is meant to welcome skaters of all skill levels. “I’ve taught friends and know how frustrating it can be. I think when all is said and done though, it really comes back to having a good session with friends.”

Richard had similar views, expressing his hopes that the club could offer all students an outlet: “I just hope that we can make it into a really fun club for everyone. We can provide something where people can hang out and have fun and watch others and get better.”

When the central Downhill members began sophomore year, Richard wanted the club to move beyond their exclusive friend group and into the broader Thacher community. Shortly before the student-run club fair, Ms. McMahon approved the group’s request for official club status. Upon hearing the news, Richard burst into my room. With Toby and Owen close behind, he began hollering with joy.

The excitement he expressed brought to mind his favorite moment with the club. Outside Mr. Berigan’s house after an advisee dinner, Richard took his longboard for a few runs down Thacher Road. “I was practicing this new slide and every time I kept falling off,” he remembered. Mr. Berigan encouraged him, though, challenging him to try once more.

“On my fifth try, I got my speed and just kicked my feet out,” Richard told me. “I just had to work it out. That was my favorite memory. Just landing the first slide.”

After cruising downhill in broad arcs, he dismounted. He picked up his board. Satisfied and dizzy, Richard began walking uphill.

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Owen and Richard on Thacher Road.

A special thanks to Luke Letscher and Mr. Yates, whose gracious help made this article possible. Also, thank you to the Downhill sophomores, who invested their time to interview, take photos, and share their thoughts on a sport they love. Keep mobbing downhill, boys.