Sound Beach resident Todd Leighley’s mustache is freckled with gray and his face shows lines of age, but he doesn’t mind. Though his left leg was amputated below the knee after a motorcycle crash in 2009, and now he wears a thick carbon fiber prosthetic, all that matters to him is that he continue the sports he played as a kid, namely skating. He has embarked on a mission to try to get a skate park built in his community.
“I’m fat, middle aged and one legged, and I’m having the time of my life,” Leighley said.
For the past four years Leighley, the 47-year-old emergency services specialist for public electric company Public Service Enterprise Group, has been advocating for the construction of a skate park in the Sound Beach area, which he hopes to call Hawks Nest All Wheel Park. What he has in mind is something to help those kids in the area who aren’t keen to participate in the usual team sports.
“Skateboarding is looked down upon — it’s not embraced and supported like football and lacrosse,” the skateboarder said. “The parks are coming, and they can’t keep fighting it forever.”
When he was 6 years old Leighley said he learned to love skating. He became mired in a culture that conveys freedom: freedom of expression, freedom from problems, freedom to go where you want. His appreciation for the culture deepened when he moved to Hawaii in his 20s and became involved in the surfing scene. It was a continuous part of his life until 2009 when he was involved in a motorcycle crash, suffering compound fractures in his femur, tibia and fibula. The leg had to be removed, and he did not know if he could continue with all his favorite sports from his childhood.
It was around the time shortly after the accident he said he learned, in the Brooklyn Bike Park, which was a different type of skate park, of something called a “pump track,” where riders build momentum through the up and down motion of wheels on a track with several ups and downs, either with a bike or skateboard.
“It’s like a roller coaster, but instead of a roller coaster that would use machinery to pull carts up hill, here you’re using your muscles,” Leighley said. “You’re pumping and using it to get speed. It tricks you into using your muscles.”
He said that type of skate park revitalized his lifelong passion for skating. The transcendent experience of boarding around the block is something he said he wants his community to feel.
While the skater exudes passion from every pore, Leighley has had trouble generating the right type of interest for the project from the community. While there are multiple mountain bike trails in the area and the Shoreham BMX track right behind the Robert S. Reid Community Center, there are very few options for a skateboarder other than sidewalks and roadways, not unless they want to travel many miles to either Riverhead, Amityville or Huntington.
Joseph Mannix, a Copiague social studies teacher, is also a community leader when it comes to the Huntington skateboarding community and has walked the steps Leighley is trying to follow. As a veteran skater who has been boarding since “the clay wheel days” of the 1970s, he is the one chiefly responsible for the East Northport Veterans Park Skate Park. It was built after years of working with his community, starting with skating lessons that eventually built up into clubs and a driving interest of local children, adults and eventually support from the town.
“At [the Greenlawn Skate Park] I started a lessons program and summer camp which became so successful that the town got interested, and they saw how much revenue they were making and how healthy it was,” Mannix said. “I was pushing for those kids who are not so into organized sports, or kids into organized sports who want the personal experience of skateboarding.”
While those parks remain popular, Leighley said he believes a park filled with transitions, pools and quarter pipes can only apply to 20 percent of adrenaline sports enthusiasts because of how daunting they seem to a newcomer. He said a pump track can apply to people of any skill level since riders can take any path at their own pace.
Port Jefferson resident Rachel Whalen, 30, a friend of Leighley’s, said she just got back into skating about seven months ago, and as a single mother raising two children, she wants to have a place near her home where she can exercise along with her kids.
“I would use it, I would want my kids to use it too,” Whalen said.
Despite the setbacks in trying to get the project off the ground, the Sound Beach resident said he has become closer to his community through his skate park campaign. Leighley became involved with the North Shore Youth Council, where executive director of the organization Janene Gentile said he teaches local kids basics in martial arts. While Gentile sees him as a caring man, she said others in the community have been unnerved by his classic skater-rebellion style personality.
“[Leighley] has the personality of a very radical dude, and while he’s trying to temper it, some people get taken aback,” Gentile said. “He’s a radical dude, but he’s caring, compassionate and passionate about his vision.”
Skateboarders agree that tenacity is the foundation of the sport. As long as one keeps at learning a trick, despite its difficulty, eventually any technique can be learned. It’s why Leighley said he will not be giving up on his vision any time soon.
“Kids need hope,” he said. “They need these things, they need these lifelines to pull them up.”