Why you should care
As countries around the world prep for skateboarding’s Olympic debut, these tweens and teens are reaping the benefits.
From winning contests to effortlessly executing the same tricks as their decades-older peers, the new generation of female skateboarders can do just about anything. Anything, that is, except get into a PG-13 movie.
Around the world, female skateboarders as young as 10 have been turning pro and setting their sights on collecting medals in global contests, from Southern California’s Vans U.S. Open Pro Series to Minneapolis’ X Games to the upcoming SLS World Championship in São Paulo, Brazil. Skateboarding has always harbored hopeful young teenagers trying to earn a living on four wheels. But at this year’s X Games, where the world’s best converge each summer to show off their stuff, an undeniable trend emerged along both age and gender lines:
The 13 youngest athletes at X Games Minneapolis 2019 were skateboarders, and eight of them were women.
What’s more, the 2019 X Games Women’s Skateboard Park field, with an average age of 16 years, 3 months, was actually the youngest discipline in X Games history. Only six years ago, at X Games Barcelona, the average age was 23 years, 9 months. And the sport as a whole is largely represented in the public mind by men now in their forties, like Tony Hawk and Bob Burnquist.
But that could change. “The women’s skateboarding market has grown over the last few years,” says Mimi Knoop, president of the Women’s Skateboarding Alliance, the world’s premier organizing body for women’s skateboarding. “There’s much more value there for everyone involved, so there are places for them to go now if they want to pursue a career in skateboarding.”
Are there ever. Earlier this year, 22-year-old American Mariah Duran became the first-ever female skater signed to Mountain Dew’s Dew Skate Team. It’s no coincidence that Duran is also a member of the United States’ inaugural women’s skateboarding team, hoping she qualifies to compete in Tokyo in 2020. There’s a parallel with women’s snowboarding — Mountain Dew signed American Julia Marino to its snowboarding team in August 2017, just months before Marino competed for Team USA in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics.
Sponsors such as Nike, Adidas, Vans, Converse and Mountain Dew have been rapidly signing female skateboarders to contracts ahead of skateboarding’s debut at the 2020 Tokyo Games. “The Olympics was definitely a big factor in getting a lot of the bigger companies to come on board in a legitimate way, contracting out female skaters,” says Knoop.
Japan has produced arguably the most impressive core of young female skaters, including Cocona Hiraki (10), Momiji Nishiya (11), Misugu Okamoto (13) and Yumeka Oda (13). That’s no surprise, as the host nation hopes its athletes can keep the first-ever gold medal in Olympic skateboarding on home soil in Tokyo next July. The International Olympic Committee does not specify an age limit to compete in the Olympics, but each sport’s governing body may. In the case of skateboarding, World Skate has no such limit.
“We knew there was this influx of young Japanese talent, but some of them were so young they had never really competed internationally until this year,” says Brandon Graham, who does play-by-play commentary for all X Games skateboarding events. “So we just didn’t really know how good they were. It’s really neat to see.”
However, the young Japanese shredders have some stout competition around the globe.
If she qualifies for Team GB, Sky Brown, 11, will become the youngest Olympian in Great Britain’s history. Brazil’s Rayssa Leal, 11, already boasts a laundry list of sponsors, including Nike SB. These sponsorships allow her to support herself and her mom, Lillian, who quit her job to travel the world for Rayssa’s contests. Rayssa’s father stays home to take care of her 4-year-old brother, Arthur, who also skates. “She’s been living off skateboarding for the past two years,” says Lillian, through a translator. “She just hopes she can get paid better and better.”
These young women are, of course, aware of those who paved the streets they now ride. The world didn’t see its first female skateboarder reach pro status until 1998, when American Elissa Steamer signed with Toy Machine. It is sponsors that allow female skateboarders to stop thinking of the sport as a side hustle and focus on progressing their careers: Duran, until recently, worked at a pizza joint in her native New Mexico to support her skating. These figures aren’t widely distributed, but sponsorships can encompass everything from equipment to shoes and apparel to a monthly retainer meant to cover living expenses. Many sponsors also have hefty bonuses for athletes who medal in contests.
To date, the inclusion of women’s skateboarding in the Olympics is the greatest driver of increased sponsorship contracts for female skaters. And the exposure a select few of those skaters will receive after millions of viewers around the world see them wearing gleaming medals next summer will kickflip the sport into another dimension.