Sammy Baptista | Credit: Ryan P. Cruz

Retired pro skater Sammy Baptista became a hometown hero in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, earning a reputation as early as age 11 for being one of the scrappiest and most fearless kids hanging around the former Powell Peralta Skate Zone ramps with some of the city’s best skaters. By age 14, he was rolling with the newly created Shorty’s skate team, traveling the world and living the fast life with skateboard rock stars such as Chad Muska.

For the next decade, Baptista helped skateboarding evolve, pushing the boundaries and becoming known for his supernatural ability to skate switch. (Skating “switch” is equivalent to shooting a basketball or throwing a baseball with your non-dominant hand — very disorienting and extremely difficult — except for Baptista, who is able to do almost any trick both ways.)

But even this dream life, where he was getting paid to travel and do something he loved, had its ups and downs. Throughout his career he battled through mental health issues, mostly by skating harder and drowning his feelings with the one thing that made him feel okay.

“I’ve dealt with a lot of depression in my life, and skateboarding helped fend it off,” he said, sitting on the deck of the outdoor bowl at The Orchid, a private skate-park paradise tucked away on a ranch on the outskirts of Goleta. Baptista hosts a summer camp at the dreamlike property, where he passes on his knowledge to the next generation of skaters, with a focus on using skating for self-care and managing a positive state of mind.

After retiring at age 30, Baptista said he was forced to come to terms with his own mental health issues when he could no longer throw himself into skating to solve his problems. It was a tough process, which was made even more difficult with the passing of several close friends and family members by way of drug addiction or suicide. In 2018, he was involved in a serious accident that left him in a coma for more than two weeks. It all reached a critical mass during the pandemic, when both his friend Avery Diamond and brother Rob Baptista died by suicide within a short period of time.

“That just changed everything for me, and I’m still kinda dealing with it,” Baptista said. He had been giving private skateboard lessons for a while and was ready to come back to Santa Barbara and do his part to open the discussion about mental health in skateboarding with S.B. Skateboard Academy. “I really wanted to come back and just change the dynamics of how people look at mental health.”

Now, at age 40, Baptista speaks with a hard-earned wisdom and new love for life, which he credits to his wife, Stacy, and their two children — a 2-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter. He quotes sports stars like Michael Phelps, the Olympic swimmer who famously spoke up about his own mental health struggles, saying “It’s okay to not be okay,” as well as cultural icons like Jay-Z: “Set goals; achieve them; set new ones.”

Baptista’s eyes light up talking about the golden days with the Shorty’s squad — “With Chad Muska, it felt like we were with John Lennon. I’ve seen people literally chase him through the streets in Berlin … the whole world seemed to gravitate around him.” But he is even more passionate when talking about his family, saying that now he gets even more joy from hanging around his kids every morning. He and his wife have started a family business, a nut-based, health-conscious snack company called Spacey, which is another extension of his new focus on well-being.

SB Skateboard Academy camps are currently running and will continue through mid-August | Credit: SB Skateboard Academy 

“Everyone says ‘Live fast, die young,’ but there’s nothing wrong with growing older and wiser,” he said. “Being older and having kids — that’s the words I live by right now.”

Although he can’t skate as hard as he used to, he said he feels honored to help kids develop their own skills, and he feels just as happy when he sees one of his trainees pull a trick as he did when he was sending himself down huge ledges years ago. 

He loves his new role as teacher and mentor, which also allows him to see his past in a new light. When he was a young teenager, local legends like Shorty’s founder Tony Buyalos saw his potential and helped him achieve more than he ever thought possible, and he hopes he can do the same in his own way. That includes sponsoring children from underprivileged areas each year to participate for free, and taking other at-risk youth under his wing to help as coaches.

And while the local skating culture is evolving, and old institutions like Shorty’s and Church of Skatan aren’t around like they were in his prime, Baptista said he’s happy to see new shops like Lighthouse carry on the deep local skating tradition.

“Santa Barbara’s this very low-key spot, but it’s major too. There’s so much talent that comes from here. So to have Shorty’s be so big, and from Santa Barbara, it just made me really proud — it was an epic moment,” he said. “Now, Lighthouse is the new vibe, and they’ve done a really good job of carrying the torch.” 

S.B. Skateboard Academy will run through August 11, every weekday at The Orchid from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. To sign up or for more information, visit

Sammy Baptista and some of the tiniest skate camp participants | Credit: SB Skateboard Academy


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