When Leticia Bufoni’s father learned skateboarding was taking a firm hold of his young daughter, he sawed her first deck in half with a power saw.
As symbolic gestures go, this is a loaded one.
“My dad didn’t like skateboarding at all when I started,” Bufoni, who is now a women’s sports icon and one of the most recognisable female skaters in the world, told Olympics.com in a recent exclusive interview. “He thought it was just for guys and not girls.”
Bufoni’s father, Jaime José da Silva, a fervent football fan from São Paulo, wasn’t the only one blocking the door for young girls trying to express themselves on a skateboard. There were forces at work, both inside and outside the sport, making entry complicated and requiring bold determination to break down.
“When I started out, about 20 years ago, people used to look at me like: ‘skating? That’s not for girls.’” added Bufoni, now 28, ranked number-four globally (four the world's top-five in the women's street skateboarding discipline heading into the Tokyo Games are from Brazil). “But it’s insane how the women’s level has grown so far so fast.”
A hard grind for respect
From its humble origins on the streets of southern California in the middle of the last century, skateboarding quickly became known as a subversive activity – one hostile to accepted notions. Gravity, public nuisance laws and municipal noise ordinances were merely restraints to be shaken off by skate crews.
A kind of us-against-them ethos has been on powerful display from the the outset among skaters. But until fairly recently skateboarding remained, in many ways, a boys’ club.
In the earliest days, in 1964, Patti McGee gained fame as the first female professional skateboarder and the USA’s first women’s skateboard champion. But quite a gap opened up between those days and the 1990s, when numerous female skaters like Jaime Reyes, Vanessa Torres and Maria del Santos, began to turn heads.
In 1996, Elissa Steamer became the first woman to have her own part in a skate video – that year’s Welcome to Hell, produced by famed skateboard company Toy Machine and directed by skate legend Jamie Thomas, who also features in the film alongside the likes of Ed Templeton and Brian Anderson. While this might not sound like a big deal, street skating lived and breathed in video parts in the 1990s. With the internet still teething and streaming technology having not yet made the worldwide web a hotbed of clips, VHS/DVD hard copies were how you saw the best skating of the day.
In 1999, Steamer joined the featured skaters in the influential video game Tony Hawk Pro Skater (Bufoni is currently featured in the most recent version of the same game)
Collective action = change
After female skaters, led by Cara-Beth Burnside and Mimi Knoop, boycotted the 2005 X Games over unequal pay (winning their fight in 2008), real change was afoot. And with the emergence of skaters like Mariah Duran, 24, who still remembers being the “only girl at the skatepark – with a lot of eyes on her” as recently as 2010, the scene continues to change today.
In the last decade, we’ve seen the rise of the likes of Alexis Sablone, Samarriah Brevard and Bufoni’s young Brazilian teammate Rayssa Leal, currently second in the world in street skating. And with more visibility for these women’s pros and female skating role models for a new generation to look up to, skateparks are becoming more inviting places for all who want in.
With skateboarding making its debut at the Olympics in a matter of hours, the sport will be in need of heroes for a new and expanded stage – ambassadors to show the glories, elegance and camaraderie of the sport to an uninitiated audience.
Bufoni, competing under the flag of her native Brazil, will be among the current generation of female street skaters with a chance to rise to that challenge. She’s got it all. Attitude. Star power. The smoothest street style and cleanest lines. She also has a zillion followers on social media and a willingness to step up and show what she can do when it’s all on the line.
She’s old enough, too, to remember when those chances to compete came at a cost.
Bufoni, with her talent and relentless will, ended up winning her resistant father over in time. He became her biggest fan, in fact. He travelled with her for years in support of her career in Brazil and he was in the stands in 2007 in Los Angeles, when, as a 14-year-old, Bufoni took part in her first X Games.
“It took me a little bit to convince him,” she said with a chuckle. “But after he came to my first contest, he fell in love with skateboarding. He loves that skateboarding is going to be in the Olympics. I think he’s more excited than I am.”
Rocket ship Bufoni
Since her X Games debut, Bufoni has gone on to hit the heights with her signature style. Living now in Los Angeles – skateboarding’s ancestral home and still among its epicenters – she’s a five-time X Games gold medallist (and three times each a silver and bronze winner over the course of 19 installments). She won gold at the 2015 World Skateboarding Championships (and silvers at the event in the next three years).
While the decision to include skateboarding in the official Olympic programme may seem overdue to many in the skate game, its arrival on the world stage is justification of its status as a global phenomenon with an even wider audience just waiting to be tapped.
From rough-and-tumble roots on the streets of California, the sport has made its way to the top of the traditional sporting pyramid – if a little bit late. “It’s surprising it’s even taken this long for skateboarding to get into the Olympics,” said Nyjah Huston – among the global elite of men’s street skating and a crossover sensation like Bufoni. “Skateboarding is such a worldwide sport and so accessible… all you need is yourself and some motivation.”
On the women’s side of things at this summer’s Olympic Games there’s plenty of motivation to feed on. The same year (2016) that skateboarding got the official Olympic OK, Lizzie Armanto (who will also be in Tokyo, representing Finland) became the first woman to book the cover of influential magazine Transworld Skateboarding.
The year before that, Bufoni became the first female to sign with Nike SB.
These are but a few of the signs of change in the culture of skateboarding which remains, like so many other arenas in sport, a work in progress. But they are developments leading in the right direction.
“The new generation [of female skaters] is getting crazy good,” said Bufoni, among the list of potential inaugural medallists in a sport long dismissed as reckless or an outsider fad. “The future is bright. And I’m really excited to see women’s skateboarding, how it’s going to the in five years [from now]… because I think it’s just going to be insane.
If the last decade is anything to go by, you'd be a fool to doubt Bufoni’s predictions.