“Crack on Wheels”: Barbara Odanaka – ‘Skateboard Moms & Sisters of Shred’
I’ve always been fascinated with California; it’s a place that seems to be at the centre of so much cultural history that I’ve found myself drawn to, and it’s an important part of skateboarding’s history and development. In December I found myself preparing for a solo trip to LA over Christmas and I thought it would be nice to make some connections with other female skaters in the area. My good friend and Manchester-based UK shredder, Laura Powell, suggested I get in touch with Barbara Odanaka, a woman who Laura met more than a decade ago whilst on holiday in California. Barbara began skateboarding in the 1970s and has seen a lot of developments, alongside her career as a professional writer and editor. During the 1980s and 90s Barbara was a reporter and columnist for Los Angeles Times. Between 2012 and 2013 she was editor of The Skateboarder’s Journal and since 2000 she has been developing a career as a children’s book author. Barbara is also the the founder of ‘Skateboard Moms & Sisters of Shred’ a grass-roots organisation that encourages and supports women in skating, but particularly those who are older-aged newcomers and returners to skateboarding.
I met Barbara at The Cove skatepark in Santa Monica. Unfortunately she was unable to skate due to impeding surgery on her wrist (a recent skateboarding accident), but she very kindly sat down for a chat with me in the chilly afternoon of an LA winter (obviously very clement for a Brit like me). Read on for Barbara’s insights on what it was like skating as a girl during the 1970s and the Dogtown era, skateboarding’s sensuality, Barbara’s alter-ego ‘skateboard cow’, and to learn more about how ‘Skateboard Moms & Sisters of Shred’ is supporting female skateboarding in the US and beyond.
I see that you began skateboarding when you were just 10-years-old, but then your track coach discouraged you from continuing with it. It wasn’t until you were in your mid thirties and had just become a mother that you started again. How did this lead you back into skateboarding?
I was having a bit of a tough time as a new mom and went to a therapist. She said my homework would be to think of something I absolutely loved to do before I became a mom and to do that every day for ten minutes. It took me less than a second. I just said, ‘skateboarding!’ The next week it was my 35th birthday and my husband bought me a long board and that’s how I started again.
What happened in the weeks that followed?
Instantly, the moment I put my foot on the skateboard, it was like going back in time and I felt that same sensation, that joy. Really, just literally putting my foot on the board and taking the first push. It was so liberating, and my spirits were lifted, and all those other clichés came true. It was like being 10-years-old all over again. I started zooming down the street, making low turns, and simple things. But it was like, ‘wow! Why did I ever leave this?’
How did the ‘Skate Moms & Sisters of Shred’ group come about?
It came from me just trying to promote my book, Skateboard Mom. I was looking for an interesting way to launch the book. Most authors have little parties at bookstores or coffee shops and I thought maybe I could find a few other moms who want to skateboard and we could have a little thing at the skateboard park. Really, I didn’t expect more than three or four maybe five people to show up. I had it on mother’s day. What do you know? 19 women showed up. That’s how the group got started. I really didn’t intend to start a club. But that’s how it started.
Your book launch event – the wonderfully titled ‘Mighty Mama Skate-O-Rama’ – did that take place here at the Cove?
No, at Laguna Niguel skateboard park in Orange County, and that’s were we’ve had the Mighty Mama Skate-O-Rama for nine of its 12 years.
Why do you think so many mothers and older women are attracted to skateboarding?
There are two camps really. There’s the ones like myself who started skating as kids and who came back to it, because we realized hey! You know? Where’s it written that we cant have fun as moms, or as older women – moms or not? We remember how much pleasure it gave us and seeing other moms doing it makes you think, maybe I could do that again? That’s one part. The other camp – and they’re the ones who really amaze me – are the ones who have never been on a skateboard and decide to try it out. Those are the people that kind of blow me away, because it is dangerous. No matter what we say about how much safety gear you wear. I certainly know myself, having just broken my wrist really badly, that anything can go wrong. For the women that start skating mid way through life, I think it’s extremely liberating in a different way. They’re trying something that’s absolutely terrifying – for most people anyway – and once you overcome that fear and you start having little tiny successes one after another it just becomes completely addictive. It is like crack on wheels I guess! Ha ha. Not that I’ve ever done crack! It’s a very addictive and exhilarating thing. It’s something you can call all your own.
What different approaches to skateboarding do you see within the group?
I’m not really one that’s learning a lot of new tricks. What I’m seeing is that the younger women in our group – and by younger I mean under 40 or so – they seem to be a lot more trick oriented. I think that goes along with today’s generation of skaters. People do a lot more tricks on the coping and things like that. Whereas the older skaters, the ones who are 45 and definitely over 50, we tend to be interested in carving and gliding, especially if we’re going back to our surf roots, as some of us are. Feeling the wind in your face, carving and experiencing a little bit of anti-gravity, things like that. Different generations have different motivations I guess.
What year was it when you started skateboarding and what was your first set-up like?
It was 1971. My girlfriends and I put skateboards on our wish lists for Santa Claus. I’d just turned 10-years-old a couple of weeks before Christmas. I got the Hobie Super Surfer, which was pretty much the hot skateboard of the day. I actually recently found – believe it or not – the receipt that my mother had saved. ‘Santa’ got it at ‘Big 5 Sporting Goods’, which is a chain here, for $7.99. That was with clay wheels, of course. Then after that the Cadillac wheel came out, which everyone has heard about. I didn’t have Cadillac wheels, I had Metaflex – not many people know about those. They came out before Cadillac’s urethane wheel. From there it got into precision bearings that we all ride now, the sealed bearings, and that was a big difference because you didn’t hear anything and it was all ‘sssssss’ – it was kind of – I think – for a lot of young people their first experience of something very sensual. Not in a sexual way, but just in an ‘ooooh’ – the feeling of silk, like you’re riding on silk.
Nice. It is sensual! Before that, I guess, it had been quite noisy and rough?
Yeah, definitely the ball bearings were noisier. It didn’t have that same sound. Nowadays people are riding quite hard wheels so you can hear them, but back then it was the first time that skateboarding had a sensual feel. I think that’s part of the addiction too. When I first got back on a board I had big soft wheels and experienced that feeling of zooming down the street. There’s something very exciting about it. Like a good meal. Haha – I can’t believe I just said that.
We’re here at the Cove Skatepark in Santa Monica, which is named after the surfing area that the Zephyr team is known for. How aware were you of Zephyr during that era?
I was very aware. I’m an LA native and I grew up in Orange County. I was born in the San Fernando Valley and I had a brother who was 13 years older, and a surfer. So I was already involved with surfing culture. He mostly surfed Santa Monica and Malibu. But as a young kid I was taken to the beach and I would watch my brother and I instantly recognized that as being very cool. As I grew up I was always fascinated by surfing. I did surf a little bit, but I was a big chicken. Any waves over two feet and I was scared. But I was always enthralled with surfing and its culture. To me that meant Hawaii and Pipeline and Gerry Lopez, who was the style king of those days. By the time I started skateboarding I was living in Orange County and we had our own little scene, and of course we all read SkateBoarder magazine. It taught us all about what has going on, and the Dogtown scene started coming out around that time. I was one of the ones behind the hay bales, watching as a spectator when they supposedly made their big debut at the Del Mar 1975 contest. I watched very up close and saw them. I personally don’t remember it quite like it’s told.
Yes, I think a lot of people have seen Dogtown and Z-Boys and its memorialising of that time. It’s a very well-known and widely accepted story about the development of skateboarding.
I remember them having an interesting style, sliding around. They did the tricks as well – some of those freestyle tricks they make fun of in later interviews. It was very exciting, and I remember being happy to see there was a girl on the team, Peggy Oki. But I don’t remember being part of a crowd that thought it was weird or that we didn’t get it. I don’t think that at all. Stacy Peralta, who made the film, is an amazing guy. He’s awesome and I’m sure he knows it way better than I do, but my personal memory of it was thinking is was cool, but I certainly didn’t think it was ground-breaking. I remember Jay Adams sliding up to two older girls next to me and making some comment that I didn’t quite understand – I was too naive! I told that to him years later, and he said ‘I’m not like that anymore’, Ha ha. But, I was in awe of all the skaters, and I was just a little grom, just watching and wishing I could do that stuff. The next year the Hobie team had a try out for the amateur team and I was lucky enough to get one of the spots. I was only in one contest and then my track coach made me quit skateboarding, which stupidly I agreed to.
It’s really fascinating to hear your perspective on that era. What was the landscape of skateboarding like at that time?
There were a lot of different scenes happening at a similar time and – again not to take anything away from the Z-Boys – but there were other scenes in San Diego and in the Valley particularly, with Jay Smith and others. In Orange County we had our own scene, so a lot of things were happening in a lot of places. Dogtown is certainly worthy of all the coverage it got, but one of the reasons people know about it so much is that they did have good photographers there often and of course Stacey has made the movies – the documentary, Dogtown and Z-Boys and then the Hollywood version, Lords of Dogtown, that he wrote the screenplay for – so it certainly gets a lot of press. Being a reporter myself I kind of chuckle, because it’s often one story that snowballs. Like the skateboard moms. Some people will probably just laugh at us, like why do we get all this publicity? A bunch of old ladies on skateboards? But, you know, the reality is that that’s how it works in the media. One story gets told again and again, and it snowballs. Of course, the bottom line is I’m a fan like everyone else. After the Del Mar contest, I actually started bribing my older sister to drive me up to Santa Monica to see if I could catch a glimpse of the Z-boys. I guess for a little grom like myself, their mystique was pretty powerful, haha! Of course, I never actually found them, but it was a fun adventure nonetheless
Skateboard Mom, the book you wrote, is that aimed at children?
Yes. I had always wanted to write children’s books. I’d been a reporter for almost ten years and I decided to try it. That was the first book that came to me. It’s about a mom who takes off with her son’s skateboard that he gets for his 8th birthday. And actually the story came about from something that happened. My own son went off with my skateboard, not because he wanted to ride it, but because I didn’t have all my safety gear on. I was standing outside talking to a neighbour and he snuck up and took my boards away and hid them in the bushes because he didn’t like that mom didn’t have her elbow pads on. I remember thinking that that would be a funny story, but no ones really gonna buy that one, so I changed it around to the mom running off with her son’s skateboard instead.
What was the idea behind ‘Skateboard Cow’?
That was another book. The book is actually called A Crazy Day at the Critter Café. The Skateboard Cow is the main character in the book and she takes over the crazy café and ends up running the show in the end. So Skateboard Cow went from being a character in the book to me starting to wear the costume. I do assemblies at schools around the country, teaching about reading and writing and I always add a bit of skateboarding into it. So I started wearing the cow costume at times. I’ve worn it here at the Cove too. Of course the kids get a kick out of it. When you’re wearing the cow costume you can’t do very much, the costume’s head keeps falling over my eyes. So it gives you a good excuse to just cruise around and not worry about doing tricks. One of the Sisters of Shred, Patricia Kavanaugh, did a little film project for me and we filmed Skate Cow, down in Venice, cruising along the board walk and at the park, and also here, so we had fun with it.
How do the younger generation of female skaters in your scene relate to your group?
I would like to think that we’re role models in some way, even though the younger generation is totally ripping. I mean it’s amazing the level of skating that we’re seeing now. If we see a young girl on her own at the skatepark, most of us will give her a bit more encouragement, possibly, than she would have gotten from a guy at the park. I think that’s really important. We just want to let them know you have every right to be out here, as much as the boys. And for me personally, when I was skateboarding as a kid there were just as many girls skateboarding as boys. That will surprise a lot of people, but at least where I grew up there was no way that we would ever have thought that we shouldn’t be out there. It would be like saying we shouldn’t be flying a kite! Maybe ’cause I grew up in a surfing community it’s a little easier, but you know when skateboarding changed it became more male dominated. There were still some girls out there that kept at it, but it became much more male dominated, and so when I came back to skateboarding and I went to a skatepark I was shocked, thinking, ‘where are the girls?’ I couldn’t believe it. It was 2004, and since then we’ve seen more and more girls starting again. There’s probably still some sexism and bias out there, but it’s been so great to see more girls skating.
Why do you think that there was that shift from your experience in the 70s to something, perhaps, that women found less easy to be part of?
There are different theories. It’s a combination of a variety of things. For one thing, skateboarding in the early 70s was a much more surfy, flowy, ‘let’s all get along’, type of vibe. We’re all in it for the fun. And then as it evolved in the late 70s, it started to become affiliated with the punk rock scene. And with that came a more aggressive style of skateboarding. I hate to say anything sexist myself but a lot of girls didn’t really want to keep going with that. It became much more aggressive. It became really harsh, and so a lot of the girls dropped out. I think that the support, whether it’s obvious or subtle, wasn’t there. There are definitely some girls that stuck with it. Cara Beth Burnside is an example of somebody who just stuck it out and I respect her very much for that. It just wasn’t a comfy place for a lot of women to be. A lot of guys will deny that, they’ll say they’ve never had a problem with girls skating, but it’s very subtle and the people who are the majority often don’t realize the vibe they’re giving out. It’s a tricky one to talk about.
There may be some prospective skater mums/older women reading this, who are thinking about trying it out. What advice would you give anyone keen to get into it?
Don’t worry about what other people think. Everyone should just be themselves and not try to measure up to other people’s standards or what you imagine other’s standards to be. I think that’s something I tell all women, or hope that we can do. When we started out a lot of girls were really dressing like the boys and acting kind of like if you fall down you can’t say ‘ow’, which cracked me up, because it’s like we all know it hurts, let’s not try to pretend. Or just adopting the whole ‘too cool’ attitude. There’s really nothing wrong with making skateboarding your own and doing whatever to individualize. Whether that means you want to dress a certain way, or decorate your helmet, or be silly, or laugh and have fun. That’s something that seemed to be missing when I first started skating again as an adult. Another thing I would simply say is, if you’re older, find a skate mate. Even if you have to recruit someone! I’m big on safety, ‘cause it’s not fun to get seriously hurt. I’m a big believer in the gear and learning to fall properly.
Anything else you’d like to add?
For 13 years, our mission has been ’empower women through skateboarding’. Any women, regardless of age, stage or experience level. We also have a side project called Rolling for Reading where we provide new and gently-used children’s books to kids in need. We deliver the books on skateboards! But our big event every year is definitely the Mighty Mama Skate-O-Rama, which is the biggest stoke-fest you’ll ever see. Seriously, my jaw hurts at the end of the day from smiling! It’s not a competition—it’s all about fun and empowerment and giving back to the community. We have a huge raffle and the proceeds go to charities supporting at-risk kids. We also honor a special woman each year who has contributed greatly to skateboarding, from Patti McGee to Laura Thornhill, Robin Logan, Cara-Beth, and many others. For me, it’s the best day of the year, by far. I smile just thinking about it.
If you’d like to find out more about Barbara’s books, you can visit her website, here!
A huge thank you to Barbara and fellow Sister of Shred, Alumenda Soria Sancho, for welcoming me in LA, along with Anja Kuemmel from Berlin, also visiting California. Thanks Anja for letting me picture you skating the bowl!
Thank you also to Chuck Hults, Dan Hughes, Dean Bradley, Glenn Koenig and Ken Hada for giving me permission to use your fab photos!
Interview was recorded on 27th December 2015 and transcribed by Dani Abulhawa.