Rollerblader skates for inspiration
By Sarah Campbell
Rowan Helping Ministries will likely stick out when Austin Szelkowski recalls his 3,000-mile rollerblading trek across the United States.
The 24-year-old Michigan native said he had never stayed in a shelter before arriving in Salisbury on Wednesday.
“It was a new experience,” he said. “They fed us well, I had a warm shower and a place to sleep.”
When his search for a place to crash using couchsurfing.com came up empty, Szelkowski knew he was going to have to find another free place to stay “out of necessity,” but admits he didn’t mind.
“I wanted to force myself to experience it just to kind of gain that perspective and to have experienced it.” he said. “And to be able to say I stayed a night in the shelter, I know what it’s like, I talked to the people there.
Szelkowski called staying overnight at the shelter a “humbling experience.”
“Opportunities come in strange places, but you have to be open enough to allow those things to happen and sometimes that means doing something that is uncomfortable …,” he said.
Szelkowski left Rowan Helping Ministries about 9 a.m. Thursday, embarking on a 43-mile trip to Charlotte.
Marking his 670th mile in Salisbury, he typically rollerblades about 50 miles a day, traveling on basically any roads except interstates.
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Many wonder why he’s rollerblading from coast to coast and he says the answer is simple.
“The purpose in the basic sense is to inspire people to take on big challenges, to believe that they can do anything if they just have the courage to start, ” he said. “The core message is to inspire entrepreneurship and a pioneering spirt.”
During his trip, Szelkowski has been stopping at schools and colleges along the way to encourage young people to be trailblazers.
“Based on the way the economy is right now and the way things are going, obviously, we need new jobs to fix the situation,” he said. “The best way to create new jobs is through start-up companies, through entrepreneurship … people basically making their own way.”
After graduating from Kettering University in December 2009, Szelkowski realized he wanted to carry that message to young people throughout the country and began brainstorming an avenue to do so.
“I had no way to get my foot in the door,” he said. “There’s a dime a dozen people trying to speak for a living.”
The idea to travel across the country, starting in New York at the Statue of Liberty and ending in Santa Monica Calif., came to him on the way to a Memorial Day cookout last May.
“I was thinking about the movie ‘Forrest Gump’ and I thought about what he did, he ran across the country,” he said. “I thought well that’s crazy and then something clicked in my head and I thought what if somebody were to do something similar with speaking.
“It’s one of those things where you have an idea that you immediately throw under the bus and say ‘I’m not going to actually do this.’”
After a few nudges from friends, Szelkowski decided to take the plunge.
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The original plan was to walk, but Szelkowski decided that wasn’t very exciting or interesting enough.
“Then I thought about biking and I thought, well, biking is too easy, which is probably a ridiculous statement,” he said. “Then I thought about running, but I didn’t want to run 3,000 miles.”
When a friend mentioned skating, Szelkowski knew that’s what he wanted to do.
“Going across flat land, skating is harder than walking but easier than running,” he said. “But going up a hill, it’s by far harder than both.”
Szelkowski admits it had been a while since he rollerbladed.
“I got on the skates and I was all wobbly,” he said. “But, you know, you learn and you kind of get yourself back in the groove.”
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Next, Szelkowski had to find sponsors to back his journey.
“I basically needed $15,000 to get started by the end of September,” he said. “All the way up until two weeks before I was leaving we had raised about $500 … but I was still somehow certain that it was going to happen.”
Eventually, Szelkowski got connected with Dan Hussain, president of American Pioneer Ventures, a company that helps start-up ventures moved forward.
Szelkowski said Hussain shared the ideas he was trying to spread through his motivational speaking company, Austin Tells, and that shared vision led to a partnership.
Hussain agreed to finance the Skate across America and within three days Szelkowski and his business partner, Dillon Norton, bought a motor home and camera equipment.
Norton’s company, Resistance Marketing, has been helping Szelkowski get the word out about the tour since they met last June.
During the skate, Norton has been filming a documentary about entrepreneurship as a way to revitalize the American economy.
“I have been wanting to make a documentary along those lines for a long time,” Norton said.
The pair will be interviewing entrepreneurs along the way and seeking out specific bloggers such as Seth Godin, Gary Vaynerchuk and Tim Ferriss.
“They have a lot of great advice to offer in terms of talking to somebody who wants to start a company,” Szelkowski said.
And, Norton said, the skate gives him footage of something besides people just talking.
Norton drove the 1989 RV city to city from New York to Raleigh, with Szelkowski catching up each day.
When they reached Raleigh, Norton had to return to work in Michigan and Szelkowski began looking for places to stay along the route.
“I’m couch surfing from Raleigh to Atlanta,” Szelkowski said.
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At the completion of the skate, Szelkowski and Norton will be heading to Detroit.
“We’re actually working on a revitalization project with the city, which will be a start-up competition for entrepreneurs and innovators,” Szelkowski said. “It’s going to be modeled after a similar competition that was done in Boston in 2010 — Mass Challenge.”
Szelkowski said the competition will foster innovation by helping start-ups drive their businesses forward.
“Some people call (Detroit) the armpit of America, but from my perspective it’s the biggest problem, if you want to look geographically at the country,” he said. “It’s the biggest problem, so, therefore, as an entrepreneur and as an opportunity, it’s also the biggest opportunity.”
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Szelkowski will hit the following major cities before landing in Santa Monica, Calif.: Atlanta, Ga., Birmingham, Ala.; Memphis, Tenn.; Little Rock, Ark.; Dallas, Texas; Fort Worth, Texas; Amarillo Texas; Albuquerque, N.M.; Flagstaff, Ariz.; Phoenix, Ariz. and Palm Springs, Calif.
Throughout the journey, he’s carrying an American flag over his shoulder.
“For me, the flag represents freedom more than anything else,” he said. “It represents to me living as greatly as you dream and going after your passion.”
He’ll also continue encouraging others to chase their dreams.
“Start today, start now,” he said. “The connections you need, the resources you need, the people you need, everything you need will find you if you have the passion and the commitment to make it happen.”
Szelkowski said if people have a good idea they shouldn’t wait.
“Be careful of ‘some day,’ ” he said. “It’s a dangerous word.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.