TOKYO – They were children sitting at a dais in a roomful of adults. The gold and silver medal winners of the first Olympic women’s street skateboarding event, fearless in their leaps off ramps and railings, suddenly looked small at the victory news conference.
Japan’s Momiji Nishiya and Brazil’s Rayssa Leal, two 13-year-old girls with their mothers allowed special exceptions to the ban on fans and family at these Olympics, gazed into the blaze of television lights and a world that had gotten very big for them very fast. The questions came like thunder, many carrying some variation of the same idea.
How do they feel about winning in something as important as the Olympics? Nishiya held her gold medal and smiled shyly behind a mask. Beside her, Leal, the silver medalist, giggled and shrugged.
“I want to go back to being the little girl I am,” Leal said in Portuguese. “I don’t want to have responsibility. I want to go on being the lively little girl I am for all of Brazil.”
The Olympics are changing, which is why there are now events such as street skateboarding. But skateboarding itself is changing, too. A lifestyle long dominated by young white men in a closed culture defined by the dual pursuits of freedom and living outside the mainstream, is something broader now. As women have broken into competitions such as the X-Games, they have opened the sport for everyone.
The change is seen in the flurry of marketing deals and endorsement contracts that have come for female skaters in the past couple of years. But the change also is seen in girls such as Nishiya and Leal – the generation after the first X-Games stars – who have known only a world that includes competitive skateboarding, and they charge through runs in their competitions with shocking precision, taking risks on their boards that few females have before them.
“For so long the female competition scene – I don’t want to say it was stagnant, but it wasn’t moving as fast,” said American Alexis Sablone, who finished fourth on Monday. “In the last two years the [rising] level [of competition] has been incredible to see.”
At 34, Sablone is everything Nishiya and Leal are not. She has a graduate degree in architecture from MIT, is an artist, a graphic designer and has created her own shoe for Converse. For years, she was the only girl at the skateparks and already has navigated the messiness of discovery and relationships to identify as queer.
Sablone’s girlfriend back in New York, Josephine Heilpern, likes to say she “has created this Venn diagram of all these things that won’t connect but all connect in a way,”
At times, Sablone is amused to find herself in the finals of competitions surrounded by teenagers. She joked about recently seeing Leal’s mother at a skating contest and thinking, “I’m older than you.” But she also sees something bigger, an awakening, a new generation. When Nishiya and Leal first started showing up at events at 11 and 12, along with other similarly intrepid girls, she knew the future had arrived.
“There will be prodigies,” she remembers thinking, and those prodigies “are here and they’re going to show other girls around the world what’s possible.”
As a street skateboarding purist, raised with the old disdain for the mainstream, Sablone had mixed feelings about the Olympics. She has held such feelings about contests for years, choosing to compete in things such as the X-Games as a way to make money because female skaters couldn’t get endorsement deals that always went to men. She pushed to make the first U.S. Olympic team because street skateboarding’s first appearance in the Olympics seemed like something too important to miss.
But then she made Monday’s final and was in fourth place before her final trick, the lone adult still on a leader board filled with teens. She looked at the numbers and made a quick calculation. She could try something safe and hope to put herself in position to win a medal, but that seemed risky given the way Nishiya, Leal and eventual 16-year-old bronze medalist Funa Nakayama from Japan, were landing outlandish tricks.
She decided to go for something big, a trick known as a kickflip backside 50 50 on a wide railing built onto the course. She knew she could do it, and for a moment it seemed she might, before she tumbled to the ground trying to land the attempt. The first Olympic medals would not belong to the past era of street skateboarding.
She picked up her board, walked to the U.S. Coach Mimi Knoop, a contemporary from the old days. They hugged. She had done all she could. It was now the teenagers’ time.
Outside the skateboarding stadium, Nishya and Leal walked through a forest of adults, their country’s flags wrapped around their shoulders. All around them, grown-ups pushed, clutching microphones and cameras, asking questions, snapping photos.
The champions looked a little happy, a little scared and a little confused. Everything was moving fast now, their spheres getting larger, Leal’s wish of going back to being “the little girl” fading with each moment.
Skateboarding was changing fast, the old way of the young bros with their own special entitlement had disappeared. The Olympics had solidified skateboarding as a women’s world too. And they were going to be the ones to lead it.