skate exchange lacey baker interview Nike
Nanaka Fujisawa in Tokyo
Highsnobiety / Hannah Bailey

Skateboarding has come a long way since bleached blond surfers started carving abandoned pools in California, but it still remains a male-dominated sport. In its formative years, there were few exceptions — Patty McGee graced the cover of Life magazine in 1965, Cara-Beth Burnside was the first women to have her own signature skate shoe, and Elissa Steamer was the first official professional female skateboarder and the first to feature on Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video game. Overall,  however, women have been significantly underrepresented and subject to fewer sponsorship deals, less media coverage, and smaller prize purses.

Things, thankfully, are changing. For a start, major brands are starting to build more inclusive team rosters. Nike SB signed Leticia Bufoni and Leo Baker, Nora Vasconcellos joined adidas, and Converse Cons brought on Alexis Sablone earlier this year. Since 2009, the X Games has awarded equal prize money to men and women, and Van’s Park Series — one of skateboarding’s most respected competitions — equalized men’s and women’s prize purses three years ago. The media is also finally giving airtime to works that portray women as serious skateboarders. Crystal Moselle’s film, Skate Kitchen, which captures the coming-of-age angst through a group of women skaters, won awards globally and its success is rumored to have inspired a forthcoming Netflix series centered around women skateboarders.

As competition increases and more is at stake, there is a desire to keep the sense of community and support among those that have been marginalized within the sport. “The spirit of any sport can change when you throw more money at it,” explains ex-pro and founder of the Action Sports Alliance Mimi Knoop. “But, there will always be a part of the skateboarding community that keeps skateboarding sacred and pure — increased financial opportunities or not.”

Knoop recently organized the Skate Exchange, a four-day-long event that brought some of the biggest names in skateboarding together in Tokyo, the location where they’ll all meet again in 2020 for the Olympics. She tells us: “Through creating and hosting events like the Skate Exchange, we hope to set a positive example and show the world that skateboarding can be about increasing professional opportunities, as well as palpable camaraderie, fun, and friendship.”

Among the pro skaters attending the event was X-Games gold medalist Leo Baker. We caught up with them after the event to talk about the state of skateboarding, what it was like signing to Nike, and why they took part in the Skate Exchange.

What was it about skateboarding that resonated with you?

The thing about skateboarding that I will love forever is the freedom to be an individual, the ability to go anywhere that’s concrete and skate around, and doing it however you want to. There are no rules.

What were the biggest challenges you faced growing up as a skater?

Injuries are tough to work through, especially as you get older. Overcoming frustration and fear and learning to be patient with myself and be kind to myself are some of my biggest expansions through skateboarding.

Highsnobiety / Hannah Bailey / Pictured: Leo Baker
Highsnobiety / Hannah Bailey / Picture L-R: Leo Baker, Mimi Knoop

Do you feel that there’s still a strong sense of community in skateboarding? 

I didn’t feel a sense of community at all until I met other women and queer skateboarders. I had guy friends that I skated with which was fine but I didn’t feel a sense of safety and love in most of those relationships. In my experience, I feel a sense of community not just from skating with people, but being able to relate to them through life experiences and challenges. I don’t relate to men. I relate to women who skate, and I wasn’t aware of that disconnect until I had the opportunity to experience being surrounded by other women.

What do you think has prevented skateboarding from becoming more inclusive?

The patriarchy.

You recently signed for Nike. Did that change your perception of the industry at all? Or of yourself as a skater?

Signing with Nike gave me the opportunity to focus on skateboarding and only skateboarding for the first time in my whole life. I am very grateful and humbled by this; it’s given me a new drive to progress and be present for members of my community. It’s given me the platform to take a stand for the people and things I care about.

Highsnobiety / Hannah Bailey / Takeshita Street, Harajuku
Highsnobiety / Hannah Bailey / Pictured: Suzuna Kanemoto

You meet a lot of these skaters on the Skate Exchange on the comp circuit — how does the atmosphere differ when you’re not having to compete?

The atmosphere is mostly the same; the biggest reason I look forward to contests is because I get to spend time with people other than men who skate. It feels good to be in that space with people like me, and those opportunities have been few and far between until recently.

How do you feel about skateboarding being a part of the Olympics? Do you think it will affect men’s and women’s skateboarding in the same way?

The Olympics is giving a global platform to women and queer skateboarders. That level of visibility is crucial and necessary to the growth of equality and inclusivity in skateboarding and the world.

Why did you take part in the Skate Exchange?

Community, inclusivity, empowerment, friendship, love.