Former Pro Skateboard Champion Pursues Career In Nursing

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To say that James Kelly ’23 has made a career change is an understatement. The former world champion professional downhill skateboarder – who often reached speeds upwards of 75 mph  – is now an honors nursing student at Dominican University of California who finds inspiration in caring for others and is steering for a career as an ER or ICU nurse.

James’ interest in nursing began with his mother, Debbie Daunt, a nurse who has been teaching in the nursing department in the School of Health and Natural Sciences at Dominican for 16 years. However, the Petaluma High School graduate began making a name for himself in skateboarding as a teenager and turned pro after placing second at the world championships at the age of 18, excelling in a career in the sport that has taken him all over the world.

As it turned out, a skateboard climb outside Lima, Peru when he was 19 years old ultimately offered a glimpse into a different career path. He was on the outskirts of the affluent end of Lima when he crested a hill and saw “one the biggest ghettos in South America.”

He often reflects on that moment to this day.

“That view changed my world perspective in a moment. I realize how lucky I am to have the opportunity to have traveled and eventually go to a school like Dominican and to have the ability to progress and take risk,” James says. “I realize how important it is for people, who do have the luxury to be comfortable, to take care of and give back to people who don’t.”

That realization motivated James to start his own nonprofit, Skate United, a project aimed at Europe's migrant crisis. In the midst of the Syrian War he had moved to the Netherlands where he began working in distributing and designing brand name longboards when, while visiting the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in Rome, he was invited on a humanitarian trip to Lebanon. There he taught skateboarding to Syrian and Armenian refugees.

“I could see the escapism longboarding could provide and that it was such an easy model to recreate, was really inspiring,” James says. “So, I took that model and brought it back to the Netherlands.”

The nonprofit is still based there, but three years ago James and his Dutch wife, Dineke, decided to move in a different direction from the skateboarding distribution business. He had gained valuable experience in marketing, sales, and networking and it helped him establish connections on the West Coast.

When looking for a career in California, nursing was the natural next move for him.

“I know I didn’t I want to do this skateboarding thing forever so I looked at a career change, something that would make a little more sense long term, stable, and also be more fulfilling than working in an office I don't like the competitive nature of the American business world, and I wanted to go to work to help people,” James says. “I found nursing to fit the bill in a lot of interesting ways, especially just going to work every day to help people and give back and feeling fulfilled after spending a day at work.”

James was aware of Dominican’s beautiful campus and the excellent reputation of its nursing program and it was an easy commute for him via SMART train from Petaluma.

“Everything kind of made sense,” he says.

Nursing became his new career, but his old career, as a pro skateboarder, also afforded James opportunities to make an impact. During his first semester at Dominican, James gave a TedX presentation in Sonoma County on the “unbalanced perspective” and escapism. Dr. Perry Guevara, an English professor at Dominican, helped James prepare.

Now James has made the transition into the nursing program. He appreciates the support of his professors and instructors, but also likes the flexibility in his class schedule that allows him to take classes outside the nursing realm. For example, James was fascinated by a pirates class and a “Makings of the World” class he took with history professor Dr. Jordan Lieser that aligned with James’ interests in geopolitics and systemic change.

Eventually, James’ master plan is to work in an ICU or the Emergency Room. One would think as a pro downhill skateboarder James would have spent a lot of time in an ER, but he insists that he has never had a serious injury in his time training or competing.

There is a video of James that has gone viral of him falling off his skateboard speeding down a hill on the eastern Sierra Mountains. The impact caused him to slide for almost 50 yards on his shoes and gloves and scraped the skin off his left knee, exposing bone. The incident, he says, was scary but not debilitating and was captured during the first day of a week-long shoot.

The video, filmed by Arbor Skateboards to promote its James Kelly Pro Model, appeared on the Huffington Post website. It shows the wipeout.

“One of the worst falls of my career. I just misjudged the speed,” James says.

Yet, this is just one moment of James’ decade-long career that has seen him appear on ESPN’s SportCenter’s “Top 10 Plays of The Week” and has earned him a world championship title in his sport.

James isn’t competing anymore, but he does skateboard for fun. He can be spotted on the Dominican campus going to and from class on his skateboard. He is currently doing his Med Surge clinical at Kaiser Permanente in Oakland.

“Being able to be in the ICU and treat COVID patients seeing the effects of the virus on people is an exciting opportunity for learning,” James says. “It’s just as exciting as skateboarding is and to be able to help people feels fulfilling.”

James’ life, which was dedicated to exploration via going downhill at fast speeds around tight curves, is now devoted to an uphill climb into a new profession. The pandemic – and the visions of nurses and healthcare workers struggling to keep pace with the spread of the virus and its impact on patients – has accelerated his goal.

The nursing program at Dominican is preparing him for the next step.

“It’s taught me to be selfless. It’s rewarding to help people who can’t help themselves,” James says. “I’ve always done it in socioeconomic ways, but I’ve never done it in physical ways. To help someone take medications or even brush their teeth when they don’t have the ability to. To find a career in helping people that also works in the California economy is extremely fulfilling. I look forward to the next chapter in my life, and I can't thank Dominican enough for the expertise in facilitating this transition.”

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