Skateboarding will make its Olympic debut in 2020, and Christchurch skater Krysta Ashwell is aiming to get there – with the help of a generous and history-making benefactor. Suzanne McFadden reports.

Krysta Ashwell has become accustomed to receiving an oversized men’s t-shirt or a pair of sunglasses as her prize at skateboard competitions.

“I’ve entered comps where guys get money, [skateboard] decks, clothing – a big bag of stuff. And the girls get the leftovers. I’m what you would call a petite woman, so these men’s t-shirts I get look like dresses on me,” says New Zealand’s park skateboarding champion.

And then something happened at a competition in Wellington last month that could have knocked Ashwell off her board with a feather. Not only did she get to take home a prize cheque for winning – but it was equal to the men’s first prize.  

Out of the blue, a couple of spectators wrapped up against the chill at Bowlzilla Wellington – the biggest competition of the year – had approached the organisers while the skaters warmed up and offered to ramp-up the women’s prize purse to equal the men’s.

“It was completely insane,” Ashwell says. “Someone just rocked up and gave $5400 towards the girls’ prize pool. I told a couple of girls, but I had to repeat myself four times because they wouldn’t believe me.”

The organisers of Bowlzilla – which doubled as the national park and bowl skateboarding championships – described the altruistic gesture as “the proudest day in New Zealand skateboarding history… not only the first, but a very large ‘equality in skateboarding’ moment in New Zealand.”

The significance of the deed wasn’t lost on the donors, Christchurch couple Lydia and Adam Clark. Lydia – also known as DaRoll from her days playing competitive roller derby – says their donation was for more than just a feel-good factor.

“When you look at the flow-on effect, and how many people felt really good about that one thing we did, it was easy,” she says.

Ashwell, who won the national title in a close contest with eight other female skaters, explains how the prizemoney had an immediate effect on the skateboarding community.

“So many girls have approached me and said ‘Wow, I’m going to enter competitions now’. One father and daughter said straight away ‘We’re going to start training now’. Girls who know there’s nothing to win think there’s no point in entering,” she says.

“But I’ve never been too bothered by the prizes at the end. I’ve always had the attitude of wanting to get amongst it, to be part of it.”

Since skateboarding first began in California around the early 1950s, women have been skating alongside men, but have been left behind in terms of equal pay, sponsorship deals and exposure. A worldwide movement for equality in skateboarding is now gathering pace.

“There are probably five or six girls right now who can make a living [as professional skateboarders]; 10 or 15 years ago, there were probably one or two. The big difference between then and now is that the participation numbers in women’s skateboarding are way up,” former American professional skateboarder Mimi Knoop told Vogue magazine last month.

“People ask if I skate to be better than everyone. I actually don’t. I skate to be better than myself, and that’s how I’ve always been.”

– Krysta Ashwell

In 2005, Knoop co-founded The Alliance, an international non-profit organisation giving a voice to women in action sports. The Alliance successfully convinced ESPN to give female skateboarders in the X Games improved media exposure and an equal prize purse to the male competitors.

Other skateboarding competitions around the world have started to follow suit. The Clarks’ generous act in Wellington was sparked when they heard someone mention the Bowlzilla event in Australia was offering equal prizemoney for the first time this year.

The Clarks’ goodwill doesn’t end there. The couple have recently started up a charitable organisation they’ve called Yeah Gnar, dedicated to taking New Zealand skateboarders to the world.  

“When they decided skateboarding was going to be at the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, I thought, ‘This is the time’,” says Lydia Clark, who’s worked or volunteered for non-profit organisations for much of her career. “We’ve got so many great skaters here in New Zealand, but we don’t get to see many of them. These people need help to get to the Olympics so they can represent.”

The philosophy is to help fund some of the country’s top shredders so they can travel to overseas competitions.

For now, Yeah Gnar is bankrolled by the Clarks, who helped set up New Zealand cryptocurrency exchange Cryptopia. “We spent the last year working really hard and the business turned a great profit. We’re still shareholders, but we’ve been able to leave the business to concentrate on other projects,” Clark says.

Krysta Ashwell is the first skateboarder they are sponsoring, and they will look to next support a young under-16 female skater.

Clark was impressed by Ashwell’s talent, but more so by the 24-year-old’s drive. “She might spend four hours at the skatepark just trying to perfect one trick, doing it over and over until she nails it. It’s refreshing to have someone as talented as she is who is really humble too.”

By day, Ashwell works as a computer technician in Christchurch. After work she takes her daughter, eight-year-old Naomi, to their local skate bowl in Washington Way Reserve and they skate together for an hour or so.

Naomi is the reason Ashwell returned to skateboarding two years ago. She’d learned to skate at 13, “but my parents absolutely hated the idea of a girl skateboarding,” Ashwell explains.

She had Naomi when she was 15, and put away her board. “It wasn’t until my daughter jumped on a board that I started skating again,” she says. “Between being a mother, a skater, and working full-time, it’s a bit of a struggle. So I only skate when my daughter wants to skate.”

Ashwell had never competed outside of Christchurch “until DaRoll came along”. Clark flew her to Melbourne in February for the Daughters of Doom contest, Australia’s only annual professional skateboarding event expressly for women skaters.

She finished seventh overall, but won the “best trick” competition with a move she’d never been able to pull off before: a kick-flip to fakie over a hip.

“Everyone had to do a trick on a ramp. I tried to do this one trick in my run but I kept failing it.” She nailed it on her second attempt. “The whole crowd went crazy. How amazing in a city I’ve never been to, in my first all-women’s competition, and they gave me that.

“I like the pressure of skating in front of a crowd. I get so shaky before comps, I feel sick. But I end up pushing myself to do something I’ve never done before, because I feel like I have to perform.” Last month she competed in front of her biggest audience yet, at Bowlzilla Gold Coast, and made the final eight.

And then there’s the Tokyo Olympics. Skateboarding was – somewhat controversially – included as one of five new sports in the games for 2020. Men and women will have two medal events each – in park (in a skate-park) and street (based around urban obstacles like handrails and park benches). One athlete from each continent will be guaranteed a spot, and qualification will be based on world skateboarding rankings.  

Ashwell, whose strength is park, will need to compete in World Skate sanctioned events between next January and June 2020 to get a ranking.

“I think right now, people are thinking skating at the Olympics can’t be real. It’s skateboarding! It’s never been a really competitive sport until random bowl jams, and suddenly it’s an Olympic sport? The Olympics are next level. People train their whole life for them,” she says.

“People ask if I skate to be better than everyone. I actually don’t. I skate to be better than myself, and that’s how I’ve always been. I can always do an ollie higher – maybe not higher than the next person, but I will do it higher than I did yesterday.

“There’s two years to go [until Tokyo]. Let’s see how far I can get in two years.”

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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