By Luke Kenton
This blind man taught himself to skateboard through touch, feel and memories of playing video games in a bid to eradicate his depression and inspire others with visual impairment.
Diagnosed with Leber’s Congenital Amaurosis – a rare degenerative eye disease – at just 10-months old, Coco Atama began losing his vision before he could even form memories – but that wasn’t enough stem his affinity for extreme sports.
The 22-year-old, from Burbank, California, has been skating religiously for the past 15 years, and it’s not only his boarding ability that has improved during his one-and-a-half decade tenure – his mental health has, too.
Being the “first and only” blind child in his elementary school, Coco admits to being treated “more like a doll” rather than a person, as children and teachers alike were fascinated by his condition.
With fascination soon turning to bullying as his vision continued to decline; Coco fell into a deep state of depression, leaving him “hating school and every one in it,” he said, including himself.
All that would change in 2003, however, when, on his seventh birthday, Coco was handed his first skateboard – a gift that would literally turn his life around and provide him with what he calls the greatest possible therapy.
Teaching himself tricks through feel, touch and playing the video game Tony Hawk Pro-Skater, Coco said: “Other kids were fascinated with me [in school], but not in a good way.
“Even though I could see a little bit, I didn’t have any peripheral vision, so they kids would constantly take my stuff and watch and laugh as I scrambled around to find it.
“That was the start of my depression.
“I began to hate school and everyone in it – but most of all I hated myself.
“But when I got my first skateboard, skating would become like therapy and my own escape from the world.
“No matter how bad school was, I used to just skate around the sidewalk outside my house, or at the park and life would be okay again.
“For a while it was the only way I could be happy – it wouldn’t push me to do anything I didn’t want to do, put judgements on me or bully me.
“So I just held fast to the idea, that when I started actually trying to do tricks, it would be the right time and moment in my mind and body.”
Skating almost every day, Coco is now a sponsored skateboarder, become a legendary figure among skaters in his local skate park.
Making new friends and fans every time he appears, Coco is hoping to inspire others affected by visual impairment to chase their “own therapies” with his fearless approach to his passion.
He does, however, admit that skateboarding blind doesn’t come without its challenges.
Coco said: “After watching the X Games and playing Tony Hawk, it was almost a no-brainer that I’d eventually fall in love with skateboarding and want to do it myself.
“While being unique and unorthodox is the most fun way to live, I also picked the kinds of tricks I do because you can really feel and connect with the board, as opposed to looking at it.
“The first few years riding were spent developing a mic of my ever-changing eyes and always-reliable ears. Without my hearing I’d fail miserably.
“It gives me the ability to listen and have a field of awareness, not only in front of me but to the sides and behind as well.
“I just want to show the world that you should never worry about whether or not anyone else thinks you can do something.
“If you love doing it or want it bad enough, just do it.
“Having people hold you back sucks, but holding yourself back is even worse.
“I want kids who are in my situation to go out and find their own therapy, with passion.”
To see more of Coco, follow him on Instagram: @BlindThrasher.