On a blazing hot January afternoon in eastern Los Angeles, Lacey Baker rides her skateboard to the side of Rosemead Skatepark to pick up her phone. Over the rhythmic din of wheels descending ramps, the slap of decks sliding up and down railings, and yells of “Yip!” and “Yew!”, Baker takes a business call with her team at Nike SB. She’s going over the details for the forthcoming release of her latest shoe design, which she is now wearing while pacing the perimeter of the park—slim black high-tops with a crisp white swoosh. Behind her, weaving in time, are skaters Samarria Brevard, Vanessa Torres, Alexis Sablone, Jenn Soto, and Mariah Duran, who have traveled from as far as across the country to be photographed by Arto Saari, a pro skater turned lensman assigned to capture this pivotal shift. And at this moment, Baker is its embodiment: a 25-year-old X Games gold medalist who is putting forth endless hours to fine-tune her championship-winning noseslide 270s, and making a living wage off it, too, with the support of a major brand and an exponentially growing fan base who encourages her to be unapologetically herself.
Women, of course, are not new to the sport of skateboarding—since the skateboard was invented in California sometime around the middle of the 20th century, women such as Patti McGee, Peggy Oki, Kim Cespedes, and Laura Thornhill have played integral roles in the sport’s development. Women are, unfortunately, radically new to the industry of skateboarding, which has long been a boys’ club of contests, sponsorships, paychecks, and glory. The world didn’t get its first woman pro skateboarder until 1998, when Elissa Steamer was signed to Toy Machine. “It was a huge deal. There was no way around it,” says Steamer, an undisputed legend for her contributions to the sport, over the phone—though, she admits that in spite of the lack of opportunity, being a pro skater was a goal she’d had since she was a little girl.
By its very nature, skateboarding produces boundary breakers: At its core, it’s a sport of doing something that has never been done before in a place where no one has ever done it. Skateboarders are people who look at a curb, a crack in the pavement, or a cellar door and see opportunity. For instance, when Cara-Beth Burnside became the first pro woman skater to get her own shoe in?1994, it was because she simply brought the idea to Vans. “No one was going to hand it to me,” says Burnside. She applied the same attitude when she and Jen O’Brien convinced the X Games to host a women’s demo in 2002. A year later, women had their own official platform at the international event, though it wasn’t exactly an act of equality. Women’s practice times were scheduled at dawn break, before the male competitors even stirred in their beds. The pay discrepancy was especially egregious: At the X Games, the men’s champions earned 25 times as much?as the women. Burnside and Mimi Knoop enlisted the help of lawyer Drew Mearns and formed the Action Sports Alliance. “A lot of people think it [was] about girl power. It was so not like that,” says Knoop, sitting on the edge of an empty pool with her board in the San Fernando Valley. “I just wanted to skate. If I could get a sponsor to pay me, that meant I could skate more and didn’t have to have a job working somewhere else. So, for me, it was about creating that opportunity for other girls.”
Watch: How Women Skateboarders Are Changing the Sport—All the Way to the Olympics
In 2005, the?Action Sports Alliance?staged a women’s boycott of the X Games until pay and media coverage were improved. A year later, they landed a meeting with John Skipper, then president of ESPN, who agreed he would bring the women’s prize winnings up every year until it was equal to the men’s earnings. “He was true to his word,” says Knoop. In 2008, the women and men’s champions both took home $40,000. “And it’s been equal ever since.”
Other major competitions have begun to follow suit, with the international Vans Park Series joining the pledge just two years ago. But corporate sponsorships were still slow to the draw. It was only last year that Baker, who has been pro for 12 years, was able to quit the graphic design job that financed her skating career after becoming Nike SB’s first openly gay woman skater. And it’s only been a few months since Brevard became the first professional African-American woman skateboarder to sign with a major skate brand, Enjoi. “We’re just now getting support, which is awesome. Right on for progress when it’s happening,” says Baker, adjusting her Meow Skateboards baseball hat over her buzz cut. “But we’re not even close. I still want to be present for [the pay discrepancy] and be here for queers who skate. People getting recognition for what they do and what their skill sets are—not for what they look like and what the media thinks they should look like—you know what I mean? Let’s redefine that.”
With more women’s sponsorships, which offer a travel budget and significant prize purses and endorsement opportunities, the advancement of skaters’ lives and interests are starting to become possible. Sablone, for example, used her competition money to pay for architecture graduate school at MIT. “It’s a little bittersweet in the sense that I’ve been doing this for almost two decades. How awesome it would have been if all of the opportunities that are coming up for this generation would have existed for us,” says Torres, taking shade beneath a tree in the East L.A. park. “But it’s sweet in the sense that it’s happening, and I feel like women like Lacey, Alexis, and I played a part in that.” She watches her roommate, Soto, 21—the first to arrive that morning on set and the very last to get off her board at nightfall—relentlessly slide up and down a handrail with varying degrees of success. “She’s going to the Olympics,” says Torres, acknowledging the inaugural movement of the sport to the international stage in 2020. However controversial the act of pulling skateboarding from its outsider roots onto the global platform, Torres and her peers are stoked.?The hope, they say, is that a future generation of women like Soto will no longer feel the pressure to be anything but better skaters.