Skateboarding Queen Patti McGee - OZY | A Modern Media Company

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because all cool kids should know how to ollie. So should uncool kids.

The 9-year-old disassembled a roller skate and used a 2-by-4 to craft her first skateboard before careering down a gentle slope outside her house in 1950s San Diego. To pick up speed, she sat sideways and held her feet off the ground. 

Then Patti McGee bumped it up a notch, building a wheeled box, which she’d seen on TV. But “it didn’t take long before I broke that,” she says. So she returned to the board and started standing on it as she haltingly made her way down the hill in a bid to master the wheeled contraption. For a “real” skateboard, she stripped her BunBuster roller skates of their wheels, and her brother made some decks in woodshop.  

By 1965, at age 19, McGee was an iconic image of California culture. Even today, 50 years after the women’s National Skateboard Champion was featured on the cover of Life magazine, the image of a teenager with a bouffant hairdo performing a handstand on a moving skateboard captures the essence of wholesome, effortless cool. McGee, the first woman inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame, started skating back when it was barely a sport — in the early 1950s, when sidewalk surfers rode homemade and often unsafe boards cobbled together from roller skate parts. Originally more focused on surfing, McGee dabbled in and then switched over to skateboards long before the craze was dominated by droopy-trousered teenage boys.

Her sculpted blond hair and colorful fashion choices sent a clear message: You can be a girly-girl and still kick ass.

“Patti was a real icon, one of the first women to gain that recognition on a global scale,” says Courtney Payne-Taylor, founder of Girls Riders Organization, which teaches and promotes women’s skateboarding. McGee is testament to the fact that women were involved at the highest levels of the sport from the very beginning, proving “that everyone can skate,” Payne-Taylor adds.

When McGee launched her career, skateboarding was considered a family-friendly hobby. But as it gained a foothold, safety concerns in the pre-helmet era dampened the enthusiasm, and by 1965, the year McGee landed on the cover of Life, several municipalities had instituted public skateboarding bans. Norway would go even further in the late ’70s and make the sale or ownership of a skateboard illegal. Ironically, this fueled an even more rebellious street sport, which was soon taken over by males. Later, when skateboarding advocates began to get bans reversed, the challenge was how to market to a female audience. “Girls don’t know about that history … where women were completely involved,” Payne-Taylor says. Until, that is, they come across images of McGee.

Payne-Taylor is careful to point out that male skaters today tend to be very supportive of women in the sport, and women are the fastest-growing segment of skateboarders, with workshops nationwide teaching girls how to ollie (where both board and rider pop into the air without the rider using her hands). But the sport tends to play to the explosive strength of males, who continue to dominate. “You don’t see as many women in the competitions,” Payne-Taylor says. On city streets, though, it’s a different story: There, she sees as many girls skating as guys.

 

A distinctly feminine athlete, McGee used her surfing and gymnastics training to infuse her on-board moves with balletic grace. Her sculpted blond hair and colorful fashion choices sent a clear message: You can be a girly-girl and still kick ass. “We were just making up the tricks as we went along,” McGee says. She even made up her famous handstand trick on the spot, calling on her diving skills while improvising a few minutes of freestyle in the first National Championships of 1964. 

Even though McGee’s skating career tapered off during the street-sport years of the ’80s, at 69 she’s still very much a part of the culture. She works alongside her daughter Hailey, who runs OGBetty.com, a company that makes female-focused skateboards and gear. Together they hope to ensure a future for girls in skateboarding while fostering an appreciation for the skill and grace that the women of the 1960s brought to the sport. “I try to participate … and get these old bones out there whenever I can,” McGee says, though she’s done with tricks these days and is more careful to wear padding. Her greatest power, though, is serving as an inspirational symbol for girls who want to take on the wind and wheels.

“She’s a beacon,” says Payne-Taylor. “She’s a reminder that women were respected at the highest level.”

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