Skills to pay the bills
Cops and concrete: The two realities in street skating don't distinguish between male and female. Skateboarders go to spots knowing they run the risk of being harassed by authorities and brutalized by the terrain if they don't stick their landings. But for the most part, that's where the parity ends. Thousands of kids dream of getting sponsored and receiving that coveted box of product in the mail, but chances are slim that they'll have the talent or the footage to get noticed. Chances are even slimmer if you're a girl.
It would be noteworthy if a guy skating at a high enough level to compete the X Games needed the prize money that comes with a medal to live on for the rest of the year. Yet on the women's side, it's a shocker if a skateboarder isn't gunning for a win for financial reasons. Unlike their male counterparts -- some of whom bring in over six figures annually just in contest winnings alone -- the ladies of X Games Street make little-to-no money off of skateboarding outside of this competition.
Four-time X Games gold medalist Elissa Steamer is, of course, the notable exception to this rule, having risen above the limitations imposed on so many of her female peers and achieved the dream of every skate rat.
"I've been fortunate enough to make a living, travel the world and make a lot of friends -- basically live a super rad life," says Steamer, who, at 36, is still one of the most famous and universally respected women in skateboarding.
While Steamer's influence on women's skateboarding cannot be understated, the next generation of skaters who followed the road she paved have not been able to make the same living off of their passion as she has. Take, for example, Marisa Dal Santo, to whom Steamer has been a kind of de facto mentor for, and who is most like Steamer in style and raw passion for skateboarding.
"Marisa embodies the skate rat," says Steamer who christened a "ladies bench" with Dal Santo in their team van when they were both skating for the same sponsor. "Her dream is to be a pro skater, and she's gifted and talented enough that it's happening for her."
Dal Santo, who took gold in last year's Women's Skateboard Street, has medaled in five out of her six X Games appearances. Yet in 2010, "I got third place and I didn't have enough money," says Dal Santo, "so I started working in [my sponsor's] warehouse."
Since then, she has moved back home to Lagrange, Ill. "Moving home was the best decision I ever made. I skate with my friends I grew up with. It's awesome."
Still, while living at home has some financial benefits, she admits that the X Games prize money will factor huge into her future. "This is gonna determine my year," she says. "If I don't do that hot, I'm gonna have to get a job. I'm kind of nervous"
Three-time medalist Amy Caron has skated in every X Games since 2003. Her laid-back style has long kept her high in the ranks of the top women in skateboarding, while her ostentatious personality made her the life of many parties -- all of which made her choice to go back to school and get a non-skateboard-focused career a shocker. She now works as a certified X-ray technician.
"I'm doing it because I have to," explains Caron. "It'd be great if skating paid, but it's just not there yet. I kind of realized that ... I like working and I like my job, but if I could work one day a week instead of five, that'd be rad."
Caron skates contests now, in between working a full-time job. Still, she contends that she's actually "able to skate more because I've got some money ... It's kind of perfect for me and not perfect for everyone else because there's one contest a year that they maybe can win. $40,000 [payout for first place] is a lot of money, but you've got to work really hard to get that, and you only get one chance."
Young rippers like Leticia Bufoni and Lacey Baker are enjoying significant support from the industry, stemming from the talent they displayed when they arrived on the contest scene as preteens and have continued to evolve and push every year since.
Baker has been sponsored since she was 11 years old. Now 20, she is a full time-student at the Art Institute, where she's got a 4.0 GPA.
"Billabong has been my main support," she says. "They're amazing and they'll do anything to help me get where I need to be. [But] I don't know how long it's going to last. So I'm just going to try to do really good in the contest this year and bring in as much money as I can."
One woman who has been able to make a modest living in skateboarding off of X Games winnings alone is Alexis Sablone, who has medaled in all three events she's entered. Sablone is a bit of an anomaly in skateboarding. After blowing minds in Coliseum's "PJ Ladd's Wonderful Horrible Life" in 2002 and garnering an enviable list of sponsors in the following years, the Connecticut native disappeared from skateboarding as mysteriously as she'd arrived.
When she returned in 2009, seemingly out of nowhere, and solidly claimed X Games silver, rumors about where she'd been abounded. It turns out out she'd been busy earning a degree in architecture from Columbia University.
"I didn't see it as a necessity because I'm a female and I didn't think I'd be able to make a living off skateboarding," explains Sablone. "It was a personal choice. I skated the entire time ... Some of my friends, all they want to do is skate, [but] putting all your eggs in one basket, hoping they can make something of it? In a way, it's like, 'go for it,' but it's kind of scary. I'd rather be more stable."
In between winning Women's Street gold in 2010 and silver in 2011, Sablone has been able to handle an Ivy League course load.
"I pretty much have been living off of X Games solely. It's allowed me to have time to keep learning on my own and working on creative projects, but it's not exactly stable. It's kind of hit or miss and I've just been hoping that I would win enough money at contests during the summer to save it and figure it out as I go."
It doesn't seem like Sablone has much to figure out, though. She's headed to Boston this fall to earn a Master's degree at MIT.
While there is a clear, linear path for men in professional skateboarding to follow, the exit out is far less certain. At the end of their career, most guys hope to be absorbed by the industry, and if that doesn't work out, they're forced to start down an entirely new path. Alternatively, although women would love to have the full financial backing of the skateboard industry, it's apparent that the hard road is giving them something many of their male counterparts don't have: the skills to compete in life after skateboarding.