FLINT, Michigan — After nearly 50 years in business, Captive Sports remains a cornerstone for skateboards, motorsports and alternative culture in Flint town. What many may not know about the skate shop located inside a renovated fire station is how it came to be.
This is the story of Rheina and Vlad “Val” Skripnik, a uniquely American story of entrepreneurship, a trek across the Alps, finding love on a Montreal beach, and building their lives together in Flint. The two sit close on the sun-washed corner couch in their storefront/home. They laugh at their own jokes and talk over one another without missing a beat as their yellow lab, Lily, lounges nearby.
It’s a challenge to get them to sit down. The two seem in constant motion. Val works in the back at his bench as Rheina tends shop in the front. Brightly colored graphics adorn T-shirts and boards are stacked up the walls. There are custom to vintage decks, some 30 years old. Nearby are wheels, even some rare ones such as the 1970s polyurethane roach wheels from Australia. There are also shoes, grip tape,and everything else you might need or want before hitting the halfpipe or the street.
“I’ve got to admit: I’ve never actually stepped foot on one,” Rheina laughs. “I didn’t really understand the appeal, because it seems the kids would fall down a lot.”
And, yet, she is nothing short of an expert. She can quote brands, industry stats and tricks like a walking back catalog of Thrasher Magazine — and she does it all with a slight French Canadian accent. “You have to stay current with a lot of the new stuff and try to sell the older merchandise online — but we’re careful to keep the rarer finds for ourselves,” she says with a wink.
Her accent hints at the roots of their story.
Val grew up in Bosnia, which then was a part of Yugoslavia. His sister had met a man who grew up in Flint and Val aspired to one day join them there. He and a friend journeyed through the Julian Alps to reach Austria, made their way to Germany, and began the year-long process of immigrating to Canada.
Just two months after he arrived in Montreal, he and Rheina met on a double date, even though neither spoke the other’s language.
“My girlfriend met a buddy of his that was there before him in Montreal, and one day that buddy with my girlfriend said I have a friend arriving and that was him, and we wanted to go to the beach and to the movies, and she asked me if we wanted to meet him,” Rheina says.
It was July 1, 1961. Together, they celebrated Canada Day and today, they recall that first date joyfully.
“He couldn’t speak a word of English, and me and my girlfriend only spoke French,” Rheina says. They used some hand signals and Val’s friend to communicate. The message seemed to get through.
“Two years later, we were married,” she smiles.
Val bought a scooter in Canada. Drawn by Val’s relatives, the promise of work, and a hope for the American dream, they made the 600-mile trip to Flint on his Vespa on their honeymoon.
“He had some relatives here and they told us to come on over that there was good work here and you’ll get work in your trade,” Rheina says. “He was a toolmaker and true to the saying, once we went through a long process to immigrate here — the very next day he was working in the shop.”
Val laughs, adding: “Had to change my luggage for my tool bag and lunchbox.”
The pair started their West Court Street business in 1970, after Val left Chevrolet Precision Tool and Die. The store started out as Motor Sports, selling motorcycles, scooters and mopeds.
They eventually bowed out of the competitive motorcycle side of the business and found their true calling with skateboards in 1984.
“The children started coming to work at the store, and when they became teenagers, they had some friend skateboarders and this is why we started it — because there weren’t too many places around at that time that sold that stuff,” Rheina says.
It was a tentative start. Val started by ordering just five boards, and Rheina told him he would never sell them all.
“But we sold all of them the same day they came in,” Val laughs.
“Before I sold the last one, I ordered 10 more,” Rheina says.
As Val ordered more accessories, boards, and wheels, the distributors raised questions. “We would have to explain: No this is for skateboarding, not mopeds,” he says.
“That’s why we changed the name,” they say in unison.
Over time, more and more kids started hanging out at the shop and the business grew. They expanded into another house and eventually the old firehouse. “We pretty much have the block,” Rheina laughs.
Now grandparents, they look back on the ups and downs of running a skate shop. “We were not free as much as we wanted to be, I suppose,” Rheina says. “People would come from other parts of the state and they had to find us here. We couldn’t really expand or take time off and that was hard sometimes.”
But Val adds that he wouldn’t change it. “We have had really good years — good years, bad years and hard years,” he says. “But we have good customers. That has really helped us through.”
Val says that as time moves on, their family sometimes urges them to retire and take a break.
Someday, they say, they will. At least a little.
“Our daughter Kim and her son, who is 12, he is just dying to get into the business, so we know it is in good hands and we’ll still be around to help her and coach them on some things,” Val says.
After raising three children and running the business for just shy of a half-century, it’s hard to imagine the Skripniks — or Flint — without Captive Sports. Although their journey together started far away, their roots today are firmly planted here. At home.
“We got where we are because we did things ourselves and knew there was a need for us to be here. We were home,” Rheina says.
Captive Sports is located at 1834 W. Court St. on Flint's central westside. For more information, call 810-341-6060 or check out their Facebook page.