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Skateboarding's popularity has skyrocketed since its early outsider origins, but for a lot of its history, the sport has seemed largely reserved for straight, white men. Special correspondent Christopher Booker reports on how the closed-off culture of skateboarding is becoming a lot more inclusive.
Its popularity has skyrocket. It sets an early outsider origins. But for a lot of its history, there's been a barrier around skateboarding itself. Learn the vernacular, the aesthetic, and of course, how to skate and you can gain admission, but that entrance has seemed largely reserved for white heterosexual men. Special Correspondent Christopher Booker reports on how the closed off culture of skateboarding is becoming a lot more open.
In 1997, when Alexis Sablone was 11 years old, she convinced her parents to send her to Woodward, Pennsylvania, to attend what was at the time, one of the few skateboard camps in the world.
Alexis Sablone, Skateboarder:
I was the only girl in the entire camp, it was like 600 guys and me.
Did that discourage you at all to be like one of 600?
No, I didn't care at all. I was like, so I was just excited to be there.
Having fallen in love with skateboarding the year before, Sablone was a minority and what was still a subculture. The X Games was only in its third year and Tony Hawk had not yet landed his famed 900 Aerial spin move.
And it was just me and like guys would, like oh my god. Yeah, that's the girl. I hadn't skated with other girls, but they'd never skated with a girl either. So to them it was surprising and then I was just one of the crew.
Well, not exactly, Sablone was exceptionally talented and driven. By 12, she become a sponsored skateboarder. And her 2002 appearance in the skateboard video PJ lads wonderful, horrible life, established Sablone as one of the best female street skaters in the country. This was all happening as skateboarding visibility was creeping into mainstream culture. From video games to McDonald's advertisements, skateboarding was everywhere. And there were growing opportunities to do it professionally at least for men.
You know, no one was knocking down my door saying like, we want to pay you, come out to the West Coast and be a pro skater. Like, it doesn't matter how good I get, I'm never going to be able to like make a living off this or succeed here. Like it was just something you accepted.
But Sablone didn't stop, her path forge, not with corporate deals but contests. Since she first entered the X Games in 2009, she has won seven medals. This kick flip part of her first place win in 2012. Her contest skating helped pay for her undergraduate degree at Columbia, and graduate degree at MIT. But it was not enough for a full time career.
For so long, you hear guys skaters talk about how everyone can learn from skateboarding, like skateboarding is for everyone. And for so long, just like wasn't true. It left out girls and gay people and trans people and like just go down the list.
But Sablone says, for women, the skateboarding world looks very different than when she started. In recent years, large corporations have been putting more and more money behind female skaters. She now partners with converse and has their own signature shoe. The interest starting a few years before Sablone became the oldest member of the first U.S. Women's Olympic skateboard team.
Now, it's really starting to change. And I think social media is a huge reason that we've seen that the growth we've seen because I think that it used to be like there were these pockets of girls skating here and there and there was no way for them to find each other really now you're — you have access to this, like global networks. And so that gives you some form of community and then has also really helped build actual like physical communities because it's a lot easier to find people.
It was through social media that skater Shauny Stamm along with partners Kori (ph) and Ann (ph) was able to start PANSY, a Brooklyn based group they described as a skateboarding based mutual aid organization for trans and queer people.
Shauny Stamm, PANSY:
So we basically just wanted to help create a safe space where like we could meet people where we can say like, hey, there's other people that want to skate that are maybe like, not your traditional skateboarder. It's super inclusive. Like it's — it's like the most at home I felt ever like in my experience of doing anything.
PANSY holds monthly meet-ups and skate parks across the city that invites people to come skate, swap gear and talk about issues within their community.
Have you run across resentment? Are there anyone that's basically saying, we should just skate like, we don't need to bring an identity and identity discussions into this space?
Here and there, we'll have like negative responses, their skateboards put out a video called ruining skateboarding. And it's all about like these amazing like Trans and Queer skaters, like doing their own thing. And there was like a really crazy response to it, a lot of transphobic comments, homophobic comments, but it's just a perfect example that they knew what they were doing. They knew they were going to put this video out and that people were going to get mad about it. But then that's kind of the whole point is like skateboarding is a toy. We're supposed to have fun and be together and be a community.
Why do you think skateboarding lends itself to this conversation and this type of effort?
Skateboarders, like, seek out skateboarding because it's different. And so because of that, I think that queer people and like marginalized people seek out skateboarding because it's different, and then we find each other within that.
But the expanding umbrella of skateboarding isn't exclusive to gender identity, or New York City.
Justin Bishop, Skateboarder:
I've been skating for 21 years, 16 years with sight and five without.
At 25 a degenerative eye disease took the last of Justin Bishop's eyesight. And for four years, he didn't touch his skateboard. But then a friend suggested he try again.
Those five, four years that I wasn't skating, I was lost. I didn't really know who I was. And the mayor had skateboarding back. I was knee again.
Recently Grind for Life, an organization that raises money to help cancer patients with travel expenses, hosted an event for adaptive skaters. It was part of a broader effort by USA skateboarding to get adaptive events into the 2028 Paralympic Games.
Yeah, the adaptive skateboarding world is been growing a lot. We have a limb difference, amputee skaters, wheelchair skaters, deaf, blind, visually impaired.
Where do you think you are five years from now?
Five years from now, hopefully getting beat by new kids, you know, because like, if new kids don't come up then this was a gimmick. But if new kids come up and start beating us and start like, you know, putting their foot in the skate park and start like taking us out of the rankings, they then it's an adaptive sport, it's always been like if you're a skater you're a part of us but now it's like if you like — if you're a skater, we don't care about anything as long as you're on a skateboard, you're part of our club.
For "PBS News Weekend," I'm Christopher Booker.
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Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
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