The expression "If you can see it, you can be it" would have gotten a lot of LOLs from my eight-year-old self in 1988. I grew up with zero female role models; instead, my heroes were Tom Cruise in Top Gun, Rob Lowe in Youngblood, and Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa. I was the only girl in a skateboard club called Skate Nash. I had swagger but didn't know how to reconcile what it meant to be the odd girl out. Twenty-eight years later, I came across a photograph from 1976 of the pro skater Laura Thornhill, doing a 360 spin in green Vans with knee-high socks, her hair fanned out almost perfectly. I couldn't help wondering how my life would have been different if I had seen this image in 1988, if I'd known that girls can do it, too.
Laura was one of the first women to receive recognition in the sport. She was there in the 1970s, skating alongside the "Dogtown" crew. In 1977, she was the first female centerfold in Skateboard Magazine's history (not the nude kind, but the riding-a-22-foot-pipe-in-the-Arizona-desert kind). When that same magazine ran a poll for "Most Popular Female Skater," she won, with 1,638 more votes than Tony Alva, who won for "Most Popular Male Skater." Her vintage signature model skateboard is on display at the Smithsonian. It would be amazing if we lived in a world where people knew Laura's name, (or Patti McGee or Peggy Oki's names), like they do Tony Hawk's, and hopefully this interview helps, even just a little.
I talked to Laura about growing up as a skateboarder, and where she sees the future of the sport going.
Molly Schiot: What was the eight-year-old you doing?
Laura Thornhill: I was such a friggin' tomboy. I was a die-hard rollerskater. Every Friday, Saturday, and any holiday, I was at the roller rink. I'll never forget the first time I saw urethane wheels, and it was revolutionizing the way that the guys that worked at the rink could skate around. It was the cool new thing. I hadn't even seen them on skateboards yet. But I grew up in Dallas, Texas, and there were some boys that lived next door, these six little boys, and they had a beater skateboard, and they would leave it on their front porch and I would always steal it. I'd keep it for a day or two, and I learned how to kick turn and go up and down my driveway. I'd go up the driveway and up the sidewalk to the house and back, and I loved to skateboard.
It was called a Black Knight. It was a small wooden one with really archaic ball-bearing wheels and clay wheels. If you hit any little tiny pebble, you were flying. You were going to eat shit. I just started riding because it was another athletic thing to endeavor into. For me, it wasn't like I was seeing other girls do it. It was just something I wanted to do. The area I moved to, it was all hills, and it was great to just ride. Then that first issue of Skateboarder Magazine came out, and there were a few pictures of girls in it. I saw that and I went, I want to be in this magazine. I'm going to try to be the best.
MS: Historically, women have faced a lot of backlash when they try to join male-dominated sports, but it seems that your experience in the world of skateboarding was different. Why do you think that was?
LT: I don't know, maybe it was just the newness of it, it was just seen as something cool and fun. I know that over the course of the past several decades, girls have fought to have their space, to be recognized, and to have equal prizes and pay. It's so unfortunate because my past and history with the sport was so drastically different. I don't know if it's just the way the culture shifted, and skateboarding became more of a boys' club. I think there's a lot of companies that are paying guys a lot of money to represent their product and there's a lot of companies that are only favoring a very minute sector of the girls that are out there skating. Is it the way they dress? Is it the way they look? Is it the style in which they skate that [makes the companies] choose who they want to support and pay to represent their product? There are so many girls out there that are blowing the guys away on any given day at any skate park across the nation.
MS: What advice, based on everything that you've learned, would you give your seventeen-year-old self?
LT: Be true to yourself and try to honor who you are, and be authentic in pursuing the things that you feel passionate about. Looking back over the course of my life, sure, there's many things I would change if I could, but overall I've had an amazing life. I have amazing friends and family, and I've experienced unbelievable things. I always followed my intuition, and it led me to amazing places.
MS: You don't skate as much anymore because of an injury. Back in your skateboard days, what did it feel like to be on a skateboard?
LT: After I dislocated my elbow, I just really lost my edge. It was 1978, and I was skateboarding at the opening of a skate park in Montebello, and I borrowed Stacy Peralta's skateboard and went and did a run, came back and did a kick turn to stop and hand it back to him, and when I did that, the board slid out and I fell back, caught myself, and fully popped my elbow out. It stuck out straight. It was bad, and I was never the same after that. Even after it healed, I dislocated it three more times after that and just locked it back into place. It changed everything for me.
But what did it feel like? Oh my God, it was just the best. It was total self-expression and freedom. You're controlling that board. It was pretty unlike anything I had ever experienced. The only thing I could compare it to at that time when I first started skateboarding was riding a bike. I'll never forget when I first started riding on dirt as a kid. We had these trails in Texas that we would ride on that are essentially just some wheel-track trails, and that was pretty fantastic and free. Something about it is just complete freedom, and the opportunity to express yourself in that freedom of movement and flow and flying down the street, flying down the sidewalk, flying over banks of the different skate spots, whether it be a reservoir, a pipe, a pool, or just a big perfectly black-topped-asphalt vacant neighborhood that hasn't been built on yet, which was La Costa in San Diego. I would sum it up by saying complete freedom.
Now I continue to stay active. I am an avid snowboarder. I'm heavily into cycling. I mountain bike, I hike, I trail run, I do yoga.
MS: That's a beauty of an answer. If there are people reading this that are on the fence about getting a young girl a skateboard for their birthday or a holiday, what would you say to them?
LT: Absolutely. Just do it. If that's what they're into, give them every opportunity to migrate to whatever it is that is going to help them express themselves. Follow the path of something that's an individualistic outlet like skateboarding is.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Molly Schiot is a director in Los Angeles and just had her book come out celebrating women pioneers under the sport umbrella.