Heaven on 4 Wheels + a Deck: Skateboarding's Lacey Baker
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because four wheels and fearlessness come in all shapes and sizes.
By Eugene S. Robinson
There’s this weird sort of urban-suburban jitter that we all know, that first announces itself sonically.
SLAP. And if you turn your head at the right time and you’re in the right place, you’ll see some kid on a skateboard on the street, off a curb, up against the side of a building or down a flight of stairs. If you’ve really won at this right-time-right-place roulette, then that “kid” is 23-year-old Lacey Baker and you’re watching her craft all kinds of cool out of railslides, kickflips and ollies, skateboard moves filed squarely under “harder than it looks.”
“Yeah, people either forget that this is play or go the other way and think it’s only play,” says Baker, who is from Southern California, the unofficial birthplace of skateboarding, originally a pastime for surfers to stay sharp when they weren’t surfing. “It’s both and probably a little dangerous and crazy but, you know, I’m in therapy and it’s the best thing ever.”
Physical therapy or the other kind?
She laughs, but when you watch her, it is beyond clear that Lacey Baker’s street skating is in a whole other place. And by 2006, at the age of 14, when most of us were worrying about Sadie Hawkins dances, she was knocking back wins at Canada’s Slam City Jam as well as the West 49 Canadian Open, and a bronze finish at the X Games XII in Los Angeles. Subsequently, a rapid climb through the ranks saw her scoring silver X Games bows in 2013 and eventually gold at the Games in Austin, Texas, in 2014.
All while skateboarding has become a kind of commercial lingua franca for cool, since anyone whose gig involves packaging “edgy” will at some point or another film a skater doing a kick turn or a board slide and then pair it, either below or above, with some corporate logo. And there you have it if you’re exposed to any sort of media these days: something freeing, dangerous, daring — and usually dude-based. This fact is not at all lost on female skateboarders, who are so underserved that there aren’t even reliable stats on how many are doing it. Our estimate, cobbled together from a variety of sources, is that out of the 12 million skaters in the U.S., 9 to 25 percent of them are girls and women.
Lacey Baker does not give a damn. Skating since the age of 5, she did it as a kid sister goof. It makes sense, given her background. Her father, the late Marshall Rohner, was punk rock royalty. The sometime guitarist for T.S.O.L. used to tape pics of her and her brother to his amps. After age 11 or so, along with around 10.6 million other kids in the U.S. under the age of 18, according to American Sports Data — more than were playing baseball in 2001 — Baker started skating with a passion.
“The thing is, girls can be great gymnasts,” says Matt Etheridge, former photographer at skateboard bible Thrasher. “So the issue was never ability. But skating, for whatever reason, has always been kind of outlaw, and that made it heavier to get into, just vibe-wise.” None of that heaviness would have mattered to a kid whose father had had anything to do with T.S.O.L., one of the weightier hardcore acts around. And then tragedy: Baker’s dad died when she nearly 14, struck down by drug use, prison and ultimately AIDS.
It was around then that her career began to skyrocket. All her wins and that bronze finish were enough to make those who pay a portion of the bills take notice. In short order, sponsorship dollars from some of the names that mattered — Billabong, Independent Truck Company, Bones Wheels — were floating Baker’s way, along with TV spots and a Thrasher proclamation that her part in a popular skater video was “one of the best female street/tech parts” they’d ever seen (making no never mind that she’s into women, has asthma and has sported a nagging on-and-off knee injury).
And still the divide looms, fueled not by real gender animus, but rather maybe by a perception that women’s skateboarding is still relatively nascent. Tommy Guerrero, member of the famed Bones Brigade, holder of the 15th Annual TransWorld Skateboarding Awards’ Legend Award and co-founder of Real Skateboards, said during an interview at his San Francisco digs, “Watching her vid part? She’s a good street skater, for sure.” And street skating is no joke. Skateboarders use cities and their structures as playgrounds, a notoriously unforgiving and grindingly tough terrain, particularly when compared to the more flow-y halfpipe skating that gives the X Games such great show value.
“A good street skater, but that’s relative, I suppose,” he says. “Could she place top 10 in a pro comp? No. If it’s an all-female comp, then I’d say she’s probably top five. Maybe top three.” None of which matters when the polyurethane wheels hit the road and you understand that the number of women who skateboard is considered relatively on par with those who surf and snowboard — sports largely absent of any real outlaw appeal. Another badge of honor: Afghanistan arguably has the highest percentage of female skaters, despite armed struggle and religious fervor.
“I know my limits,” Baker said on Jennifer Moon’s Adventures Within radio show. “And I don’t want some life-changing injury that affects the rest of my life.” But skateboarding for her — “It’s obsessive” — has led to a certain kind of nonpolitical sangfroid. The taciturn Baker breaks it down the only way, in the end, it makes sense to break it down: “I do whatever I feel like doing.”
Badass. Outlaw. Perfect.