Getting radical

Skating might have been for punks, but they were as traditional as they come -- until some girls came along with the toughest 180 ever.

By Tristan Patterson
Published August 28, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

When Lindsi Thompson was growing up, teenage girls on skateboards were about as common as teenage boys in cheerleader uniforms. It never occurred to her that one day she'd be a pro.

"I always just wanted to be a hairstylist," Thompson explains on the opening day of a shop she's running with her boyfriend, Ryan Wickman, on South Coast Highway in Oceanside, Calif.

The store is called Ghetto Skateboard Shop, and her co-owner boyfriend is the kid who taught her how to skate back when she was growing up in Mammoth, Calif. But Wickman just skates for fun now. Thompson is the sponsored, traveling, getting-paid-to-ride- a-skateboard half of the couple. This summer, she quit her job as a hairstylist to prepare for the upcoming "All Girl Skate Jam" in San Diego. It's the first and only all-girl pro tour.

Thompson and Wickman met when she was 15 and he was really into skateboarding. "Hardly any girls were skating that I knew of," she says. "I grew up in Mammoth, and I know I was the only girl skater there. It would have been better if there were more girls, 'cause it was a little odd. But it was fun, so I learned anyway."

Still, when it came time to pick a career, Thompson decided to rent a station at a beauty salon. It seemed like the ideal choice at the time. "It was cool, 'cause I could be my own boss. I'd work all day cutting hair, but if I didn't have any clients, I could just take off and skate."

In the '80s and '90s, teenage girls were increasingly told that they could and should do whatever boys did. Many mothers encouraged their daughters to get out there and rumble -- and many girls did. But of all the youth movements emerging at the time, perhaps only rap music rivaled skateboarding in its marginalization of girls.

Unlike other so-called "extreme sports" like in-line skating or snowboarding (both coed from the start) professional skateboarders clung to the belief that girls were happy groupies who bummed cigarettes in the bleachers while their boyfriends got radical.

Patty Segovia, founder of the All Girls Skate Jam, had been going to the Action Sports Retailer (ASR) trade show for years before it occurred to her that a professional girls' event was viable. For her, ASR was simply a way to find other girls who skated. "It would be a good time to round up a posse of girlfriends and just skate," Segovia explains.

"And at that point, I just thought why not get some prize money and throw in some prizes and make it a contest?"

So she did. By 1996, at the age of 25, she had "demo'd" the All Girl Skate Jam and was dead set on finding sponsors and making it official.

For Segovia, who grew up in Southern California, the sexism in skating was shocking. "It was so ridiculous," she says. "I couldn't even go to a skate park without being heckled and having the guys tell me that I didn't belong there." Competitions were no better. There were precisely three professional girls: Elissa Steamer, Jen O'Brien and Cara-Beth Burnside. There wasn't a girls' division. The girls just showed up and skated with the boys.

When Segovia met Burnside, who had grown up only 15 minutes away from her, they quickly hit it off. "We ended up traveling together, being skate gypsies," Segovia recalls. But even when accompanied by "the best girl skater in the world," Segovia didn't see much of a change as far as acceptance of women in the sport was concerned.

"You walk up to a ramp and you're invisible," Segovia says of the years she spent skating with Burnside. "You put out your deck to drop in the ramp. The quickest one to get their board out and drop in the ramp is the one that claims the ramp. But even when we were out first with our boards, the guys would keep snaking us. Everyone does it to a certain extent, but they would just do it to us ridiculously, nonstop, not giving us a chance to go at all. They were just beating up against us."

Around the same time Segovia was getting snaked on ramps in California, Catherine Lyons was sitting in the bleachers on the opposite coast, watching her boyfriend skate. "As lame as it sounds, I was just a pure 'betty,'" she says of her last years as a teenager. "I'd drive my boyfriend and his friends to the ramp, watch them skate and then drive them all back."

Finally, after yet another breakup with the same skater boyfriend, Catherine got out the skateboard he'd given her for Christmas. "I just decided: I'm gonna get on this board and ride to work and back," she says. "And then it bit me. Nothing had made me feel that good."

When Lyons met Elska Sandor, she had never even seen another girl skater; and like Segovia and Burnside, the two quickly found they had a lot in common. "When Elska and I first met, it was at this ramp that was built in the Brooklyn (N.Y.) Anchorage," Lyons recalls. "And at the time, I was talking to the designer of the ramp, asking if there was some secret time that girls could come in and have access because it was so ridiculous! New York didn't have any other skate parks, so it was just packed with these guys that had been skating since they were 10 and here I was at 22 being like, 'Can I get on?'"

Both Lyons and Sandor were working at skate shops at the time and were acutely aware of how badly the industry ignored girl skaters. "Our idea was just that there might be this huge market of women that either want to skateboard, or don't know they want to skateboard because they haven't even considered it."

In 1996 they formed a company, Rookie Skateboards, the first all-girl owned and operated skateboard and clothing company. That required establishing an identity in the new, highly corporate world of skating, so they got themselves a booth at the ASR.

But Lyons quickly found that the industry thought they were out of their minds. Lyons recalls: "All the bigger companies were just looking at us like, 'What is this? What are you trying to do?'"

For Segovia, trying to organize an all-girl pro event, the reaction was even more severe. "I had to create a revolution," she says matter-of-factly. "Guys were like, 'What do you think you're doing? You can't do this. There are not even enough girl skaters to do an all-girl skate event.'"

What's so ironic about the industry's exclusion of girls from the sport -- in an era when pretty much every other sport actively encouraged female participation -- is that skateboarding began as a coed activity. In the early 1960s, surfers started putting wheels underneath their boards to get to and from the beach and their girlfriends came along for the ride.

Back then, skateboarding was about as aggressive as roller-skating, and daring in an "Afterschool Special" kind of way. Boys and girls did crazy tricks and their parents wondered why they couldn't just hang out on the beach like Frankie and Annette.

In 1965, Life magazine featured a girl skater -- in capri pants and a cardigan, no less -- on the cover. The cover caption read, "The craze and menace of SKATEBOARDS. San Diego's Pat McGee, national girl's champion, does a handstand on wheels." The sport was about as cool and rebellious as an episode of "Gidget" until the 1970s, when it evolved from a beach pastime into a rowdy countercultural statement. It was in this transition that it became an exclusively male endeavor.

Skateboarding's first superstar was a punk kid named Tony Alva. Unlike skateboard superstars of today (think Tony Hawk and his famous 900 maneuver), Alva's popularity didn't come from his competitive skills, but from his attitude. Along with a crew of skaters who went by the name of Dogtown, Alva introduced the world to the aggressive and dangerous world of "pool riding," in which the spills were often more exciting that the moves.

Alva accepted a role in the Leif Garrett flop "Skateboard," then quickly turned around and called the teen idol a pussy in People magazine. It was his teen-rebel rebuke of Garrett, rather than his mainstream success that preserved his standing as the No. 1 skater in Skateboarder Magazine's 1979 readers' poll. Without the rebuke, he would have simply been another punk who went pop.

In the subsequent Skateboarder magazine interview, Alva broke down the lifestyle of a pro skater like a true rock star. Drugs, he said, were "a part of any modern-day personality's life." Partying meant "throwing the TVs out the window."

Needless to say, by the time Alva was through with the sport, the only girls on the scene (excluding the groupies, of course) were throwbacks to the gimmicky world of early skateboarding, like Ellen O'Neal (who rode alongside Alva and Garrett in "Skateboard.") O'Neal was known for her "daffies," tricks that involved riding two boards simultaneously. Needless to say, "daffies" paled in comparison to Alva's pool-riding brand of outlaw skating, a style and attitude that would set the tone for skateboarding well into the '90s.

The skateboarding industry may be loath to admit it, but it had reacted to the image Alva set for the sport by going pop. The industry might not have sold out, exactly, but rather figured out a way to sell. And what it was selling was the currency it held with teenage boys who dreamed of being the Tony Alva for a new, decidedly more mainstream generation.

But skateboarding has always been about kids doing what they're not supposed to, and Lyons and Segovia remained true to this spirit by refusing to listen whenever anyone told them skating wasn't for girls.

For Segovia, proving the industry wrong meant not only proving that there were enough girl skaters in America to hold a competition and create a tour: She also had to prove that the girls were good enough to captivate audiences, and willing enough to dedicate themselves to a culture that had forsaken them years ago.

Thompson, the hairstylist from Mammoth, remembers when she got a phone call from Segovia -- a total stranger -- in 1997, pitching an idea about what skateboarding girls could do. "She called me up one day and invited me to the first All Girls Skate Jam. I was stoked. I was so stoked," she says. "I was like, 'How does this girl know who I am?' She just heard that I could skate and called me up, I guess."

It's been four years now since the Rookie Skateboards and the All Girl Skate Jam presented themselves to the skate industry at the ASR trade show. Rookie has steadily grown to the point where Lyons no longer wonders whether there are enough girls (and boys) out there willing to buy product from a company owned by two women. Her biggest fear now is whether the bigger-market skate companies will co-opt the idea of marketing skate culture to girls -- and bolt the door shut again.

Similarly, Segovia has proven that if girls like Thompson are given an opportunity to make a living skating, they are ready and willing.

"It all boils down to creating something that's as big of a deal as the All Girls Skate Jam," Segovia says. "Getting something that makes the girls feel special. We doubled the prize money for them. The upcoming contest is $10,000. The sponsors are taking notice that the girls are doing this seriously and it's not just a little fad. They're breaking their bones ... They skate five hours a day just as hard as the guys."

Now Segovia has the responsibility of dealing with all the young girls considering skateboarding. "I'm, like, the Ann Landers of girl skateboarding," Segovia jokes. "These girls write to me and I have to write back. They're like, 'Ooh, I've been getting heckled at a skate park.' 'Ooh, my mom won't let me skate.' 'Ooh, my doctor said a girl's body's not physiologically meant for skating.' 'Ooh, my Dad won't let me put in mini-ramp in my backyard.' 'Ooh, I was called a lesbian.' And I have to be like, 'Come to the next event. You're OK.' We have to teach them."

It's a big responsibility. As Thompson says of her new career choice in a sport that hasn't seen significant female participation in over 30 years, "Patty Segovia's my agent and she's taking care of me now."

Tristan Patterson

Tristan Patterson is a writer living in New York.

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