- Associated Press - Saturday, August 2, 2014

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - Mike Berdis soon might leave his cozy concrete-covered corner of Columbus Park for the vast concrete maze of New York City.

The 3,000-square-foot skateboard park near West 16th and Poplar streets in Erie’s Little Italy neighborhood has been his safe haven since it opened nearly five years ago. He grew up riding his skateboard in the park. He also discovered the dream that helped him cope with the ups and downs of adolescence and find the motivation to succeed in school and life.

“I definitely want to become a professional skateboarder,” said Berdis, 18, an Erie native who has competed in and won amateur events in New York City and other major cities.

Most recently, he earned the $500 top prize in Nike Skateboarding’s Go Skateboarding Day competition June 21 in New York. He might move to New York or California as early as next spring to continue showcasing his skills and building connections in hopes of realizing his dream.

Until then, Berdis will spend most of his days with friends in Columbus Park. That’s where his skateboarding roots are.

“If I didn’t have skateboarding, I feel like I’d be lost,” Berdis said.

Berdis has aspired to reach great heights in skateboarding since he first stepped onto a board his mother, Kim, gave him as a gift for his fifth birthday. Back then, he honed his skills at Shebang Skatepark, an indoor facility on West 12th Street that closed in 2005. He immediately was hooked, Berdis said, because of “how I could progress, and I didn’t need anybody else to progress with me. … I could do it on my own. I could just grab my board and go out and skate.”

Erie’s downtown became his skate park as he grew older. Berdis skated with friends everywhere from parking lots at local businesses to Perry Square. He often was chased away, but Berdis kept going back to skate, even after adults threatened to call the police.

Berdis and other area skateboarders yearned for a place to call home.

“We tried a lot of other parks and nobody wanted us,” said Kim Berdis, Mike’s mother and founder of Skate Erie, a group that spearheaded the construction of Columbus Park’s skate park through donations and grant money that totaled about $200,000. The skate park opened in September 2009.

“People seem to be critical of things that they don’t understand or maybe they don’t know about,” said Marc Buccigrossi, 40, Skate Erie’s vice president and an avid skateboarder since the mid-1980s. Skateboarders are viewed as “outcasts or misfits,” he said, because skateboarding “goes against the grain of what’s considered to be normal by society’s standards.”

Buccigrossi noted that he has skated with federal judges, police officers, postal workers and schoolteachers at parks across the nation.

Meanwhile, Mike Berdis has proved a skateboarder’s looks can be deceiving. He has the long hair and laid-back demeanor of a traditional skateboarder. He was defiant at times as a teenager, Kim Berdis said, and wasn’t always interested in school. However, he graduated in June from Central Career & Technical School’s sales program. When he’s not competing, he works part time in the Millcreek Mall at Zumiez, a national chain of clothing stores geared toward skaters, snowboarders and surfers.

“The skate park (and) having skateboarding in his life have kept him grounded,” Kim Berdis said.

He has overcome challenges to build his skateboarding career, namely breaking the same arm four times.

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