Female skateboarders’ Olympic path set by pioneering fight for equality
Like so many skateboarders, Cara-Beth Burnside started on the sunny streets of Southern California.
Growing up in Orange, south of Los Angeles, Burnside remembers a skatepark called “The Big O” opening behind her house in the late 1970s.
She showed up on opening day and, to her surprise, wasn’t the only girl there. For Burnside, who would become an early pioneer for women in skateboarding and an influential member of the skate community, that visibility was key.
“I know that importance of girls seeing girls doing something,” Burnside said in a recent telephone interview. “It just sort of validates in your head as a female … OK, I saw it. Now I know I can do that.”
And for a kid who couldn’t sit still, the skatepark provided a refuge.
“I would just go to the skatepark every day and just start getting better than the boys that used to make fun of me,” Burnside said. “Right away, I picked it up. And I would go every day and skate for hours during the summer.”
With three X Games vert titles in the early 2000s among other major wins, Burnside was one of the sport’s earliest female stars and helped create a course for the women competing today.
Skateboarding appears on the Olympic program for the first time in 2021, and while the community had mixed responses to the addition, many agree it increased opportunities for women to earn money through contests and sponsors.
The path to greater opportunity for female skateboarders is partly a product of work by Burnside, now 48, and her peers. Not surprisingly, it meant pressing for change so the next generation could continue to grow the sport.
A Skateboarder Turns to Olympic Snowboarding
When Burnside began competing, there were no separate categories for girls. She continued to skate against the boys while attending Santa Rosa Junior College, but the lack of a women’s division in most contests made it nearly impossible to earn prize money.
Skateparks sometimes felt unwelcoming to women at the time. She didn’t always like going alone when she might be the only woman there.
Burnside transferred to UC Davis to play soccer, close to the mountains around Lake Tahoe. A new sport soon piqued her interest: snowboarding. A sport in which women were competing against other women, opening up more earning potential in prize money.
Burnside started going to Tahoe with friends on weekends. She got a job at Boreal Mountain, checking in ski and snowboard boots and clipping passes so she could purchase lift tickets.
As her skills on the snow improved, she began entering snowboarding contests.
“[I thought], I’m just gonna snowboard so I’d have money to skate,” she said.
Burnside was talented enough to turn pro in snowboarding. Her calendar crowded with contests, travel and sponsor activities. But summertime meant returning to her skateboard. She continued to enter skateboarding events because she felt her presence, and that of other top women, was needed to maintain a high level of competition.
Others in the industry worked to grow the sport for women around the same time: Patty Segovia started the All Girl Skate Jam contest in 1997 for women to earn prize money, increase their exposure and provide space to skate together.
Skateboarder and filmmaker Lisa Whitaker created Girls Skate Network in 2003, a website to support female skateboarders. Nine years later, she launched Meow Skateboards, a brand that continues to sponsor female skateboarders today. Burnside credited action sports network Fuel TV for its efforts to cover women’s skateboarding.
Exposure at a time when female skateboarders didn’t have much of it was key, Burnside said.
“People never [saw] girls skating,” she said. “So then girls do not skate. ... I just knew it needed to be seen all the time and promoted more, but it just wasn’t being promoted enough, or seen on TV.”
In her second sport, Burnside qualified for the first U.S. Olympic snowboarding team in 1998. She finished fourth, just off the podium, in halfpipe at the Nagano Winter Games.
While skateboarding was her first love, success in snowboarding helped Burnside grow her influence. In addition to being sponsored by Burton as a snowboarder, she became the first female skateboarder to have a signature shoe, released by Vans in 1997.
“Doing well and snowboarding and skating for a long time, I was able to have a voice,” she said, “and start making changes, or trying to, at least.”
Call to Boycott Leads to Change
Like Burnside, Mimi Knoop took to skateboarding as a child. When she moved to San Diego in her early 20s, she was immersed in a vibrant skate scene and started competing for the first time.
“I just kind of ended up in a place where it was like the skatepark mecca of the country at the time without knowing it,” she said in a telephone interview. “All of the sudden, I had all these skateparks available to me, which I never had growing up.”
This was the early 2000s. Knoop said she was entering contests just to see if she could top her last result. She became one of the greats, winning five X Games vert medals.
“If I had known the actual landscape, I maybe never would have tried,” Knoop said. “It was kind of flying by the seat of my pants.”
Contest opportunities were inconsistent, Knoop said, and prize money was low. She estimated that purses were $1,000 for a woman who finished first in a contest at that time, and up to $2,000 for a big contest.
“It was not the type of thing where you could earn enough money to pay your bills,” she said. “It was more like, ‘Oh, I could pay my car insurance with this money.’”
Sponsors for women were also fairly uncommon.
“Outside of just the top tier, there wasn’t really much to go around,” she said. “Every once in a while there’d be a new brand that would get behind girls’ skateboarding, women’s skateboarding, and then [they’d] just fizzle out.”
Knoop said other skateboarders – men and women – were generally welcoming when she started competing. Most of the men scraped by from contest to contest, too.
“I always felt pretty supported by the male skaters,” she said. “Skateboarders are pretty compassionate people.”
As a community of female skateboarders continued to grow, so did the push for more contests, larger purses and equal opportunity.
“Moving to Southern California and meeting people like Cara-Beth Burnside and Jen O’Brien … they’d been struggling since the early ‘90s to try to make it happen,” Knoop said. “I kind of learned through them what the landscape was. And just one thing led to another.”
Knoop, Burnside and former agent Drew Mearns founded the Action Sports Alliance in 2005, a non-profit of professional women in skateboarding and other action sports.
At the 2005 X Games, the women competing – including Burnside and Knoop – reached a boiling point. The winner of the men’s vert would make $50,000, The New York Times reported. The women’s winner: $2,000. In addition, women’s events would not be aired on TV.
The female competitors organized to boycott.
“We got everyone in a room,” Knoop said. “And everyone just jumped on board, and it really happened organically like that. … We just decided not to show up the next day to see what would happen.”
Burnside remembered commotion.
“They’re like, ‘Where are the girls? There’s all these photographers, and they’re waiting for the girls on the street course, and they’re not skating, and where are they?’” she said.
Knoop said input and decision-making power were the most important issues they wanted addressed.
“We literally just said, ‘Look, we want a voice. We want a voice at our events. ... If you can promise to meet with us, then we’ll show up to skate,’” she said. “And so they did.”
The women’s competition in 2005 went on as planned. But a year passed, and the requested meeting never materialized. The New York Times ran a story on the struggle for increased pay and exposure for female skateboarders in July 2006, one week before the X Games were scheduled in Los Angeles.
Burnside, Knoop and Mearns met with ESPN executives before the competition that year. They pinpointed their main requests: to increase women’s prize money over a few years’ time so it was more comparable to what men earned, to grow media exposure of women’s skateboarding and to organize their own events.
After that meeting, things started to change. As requested, Knoop said, the Action Sports Alliance was given authority to organize women’s competitions at the X Games from 2006 onward, which, among other things, helped ensure top athletes were invited to compete. They also created the breakdown of the purse on the women’s side and increased it each year. In late 2008, ESPN announced it would award equal prize money to men and women at the X Games starting in 2009.
Burnside said she felt some backlash from her advocacy and the threatened boycott, but she was inspired by women in other sports who fought for equality.
“I knew it was the right thing to do,” she said.
Olympic Opportunity Connects the Generations
On Aug. 3, 2016, the International Olympic Committee announced that skateboarding – along with surfing, sport climbing and karate – would debut on the Olympic medal program in 2020. This past March, the Tokyo Games were pushed back to 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The addition of skateboarding to the Olympics created more earning opportunity for women, particularly through sponsors.
“Big shoe companies like Adidas, Nike, New Balance,” Knoop said. “The perceived value went way up in women’s skateboarding after the Olympics came into view.”
The Olympic inclusion is somewhat divisive. Many in the community embraced it, noting increased visibility and earning potential for men and women. Others fear its status as an Olympic sport will disrupt a long-celebrated culture of free-spirited expression.
Burnside can speak to her experience as a snowboarder for that sport’s Olympic debut.
“It just changes the whole sport,” she said. “Both snowboarding and skateboarding are kind of a rebel sport, and now it’s going to be a structured sport. ... I’m not saying that’s bad, it’s just different.
“It’s going to bring more money into the sport and more money for girls to do things.”
Alexis Sablone, a U.S. skateboarding team member in women’s street, spoke about increased opportunities brought by the Olympics.
“The Olympics have really done a lot for gender equality in terms of being a place where women are paid fairly and valued,” she said, according to British magazine i-D in July 2019. “Just in the last few years, [female skateboarders] went from basically not earning any money outside of competition to being able to make a living, and I credit the Olympics for a lot of that.”
The effort of women who fought for equality in skateboarding isn’t lost on those competing today.
Mariah Duran, a U.S. Olympic hopeful in women’s street, idolized the women she watched on YouTube as a kid, when she was often the only girl at the skatepark in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She followed women like Elissa Steamer and Marisa Dal Santo. She binge watched videos on the Girls Skate Network.
“[Seeing them] made me even more hyped, because I was like, ‘Wow … there’s other people out there,’” she said.
Duran followed her older brother into skateboarding and saved money from working at a pizza restaurant to fund her way to contests. She took a break from college, using scholarship money to cover her expenses. In 2018, she signed with Adidas. In 2019, she was the first female skateboarder signed by Mountain Dew.
“People in the industry have been fighting for women to get equally paid, and for me, I just came in at the right time and was ready for it,” she said. “My level of skating was good enough to be able to sign with a company to get consistently paid enough to quit my job.”
Duran echoed the positives of Olympic association.
“It’s definitely grown the [women’s] industry. I see a new girl skater every single time I go to a contest,” she said. “It’s going to be more accepted because you can be an Olympian, if you really want to.”
Knoop retired from competition about five years ago. Today, she’s a coach and manager for the U.S. women’s national team and president of the Women’s Skateboarding Alliance, an organization she founded in 2015.
“I started to receive more fulfillment helping guide the next generation,” she said. “Almost like moving the chess pieces behind the scenes has become more exciting to me than actually skateboarding.”
Knoop is encouraged, she said, when she looks at the landscape of skateboarding today and the opportunities available to women.
“It’s a really cool time to be alive,” she said. “If you’re a woman athlete, I mean, the sky’s the limit.”
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