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Remembering Zion Williams, the skateboarder who lost his sight but didn't let that stop him

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

He was an unforgettable figure on the streets of San Francisco - an icon of the city's skateboarding community.

(SOUNDBITE OF SKATEBOARD LANDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh.

RASCOE: Zion Williams-Gaines was a teenager when he was shot in the face, blinding him in both eyes, but it didn't stop him from doing the sport he loved - riding his board with a white stick by his side. Two weeks ago, Zion died in his sleep, just a few days shy of his 21st birthday. One of those who knew Zion best was his friend Andrew Caulfield, a photographer and fellow skater, also known as Ando in the skateboarding community. I caught up with him recently, and he told me just how lucky he felt to know Zion.

ANDREW CAULFIELD: I can't really ever think of a time that he wasn't positive, you know, even after his accident. I think I spoke with him maybe five days after his accident, and he sounded exactly the same. I mean, just, you know, asking me about skating - when we could go skating, and - yeah, I mean, he was just, like, a very energetic, youthful, amazing kid. And he loved skateboarding, and he loved San Francisco, and he loved his friends.

RASCOE: You know, you talk about after the shooting that left him blind - I mean, you would think that that would have been incredibly difficult for him, but you're saying that he was positive, like, even then - even at just after it happened?

CAULFIELD: You know, in our community, there is a handful of blind skateboarders who have excelled in the sport and have done quite well, but a majority of them had progressive disease that led to blindness, so it was, like, a transition for them. With Zion, it was a little different. I mean, he just was blind one day after being shot. But he just - that was his main focus. And he really inspired me, you know? He inspired me to, like, kind of take a look around my world and to realize, like, hey, man, we can all push through these things - these little things that we deal with, if he could deal with this stuff.

RASCOE: How do you skate when you can't see?

CAULFIELD: You know, obviously, I don't know 'cause I'm not blind. But watching him skate - you know, he used his cane quite a bit, and he kind of felt out the area around him. One of the interesting things that I saw him do that I thought was really, really special was he had a speaker with music playing. And he told me, like, oh, put the speaker, like, this certain distance 'cause I can hear where it's bouncing off of, like, the ledge that he was trying to skate. So he was using sound a little bit, and he was using his cane and, I think, just pure, like, memory a little bit of how it felt to skate when he had sight. He was just determined to push himself. He didn't really have any fear, and just seeing what happens, you know?

RASCOE: Do you have a favorite memory of Zion?

CAULFIELD: Yeah, I do, actually. There was, like, this trick he was trying to do years ago - a couple years ago. It was before his accident. And I was living in - I had been living in Spain for a couple years, and so he kept hitting me up to take a photo of it, but I was living in another country. But his, like, determination to get this trick, I thought was so cool.

RASCOE: Did he get the trick that he was trying to...

CAULFIELD: He did. He did, yeah. He got it. He got it with a - he got it, and he filmed it, I believe, and then he took a photo with a fellow photographer in San Francisco named Ted Mader (ph).

RASCOE: Is there anything that you just want everyone to know about Zion?

CAULFIELD: Oh, man. You know, I think the No. 1 thing I could say is that he was honestly one of the most positive people I've ever met in my life. And, you know, he's inspired me to be a little bit more positive and, I hope, everybody else as well. You know, difficult things happen to all of us, and it just - there's always a way through it, you know, and he's proof of that. You know, he had one of the most difficult things happen to him ever in life, and he pushed right through it. And, you know, he was on the verge of making his - kind of making his dreams come true. It's so - you know, I wish people could - I wish more people could have met him because he was such a positive soul. I mean, he was such an incredible human being, so...

RASCOE: That's Andrew Caulfield, a friend of Zion Williams-Gaines, a blind skateboarder who died last month. Thank you so much for being with us and telling us about your friend.

CAULFIELD: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.