Hermosa Beach’s Cindy Whitehead skateboards into history at the Smithsonian
When skateboarding legend Cindy Whitehead looked out the window of her Hermosa Beach home three weeks ago, she saw herself zipping down the hill on a skateboard.
“There was a little girl standing in the alley near the house I grew up in,” Whitehead said. “She was about 13 years old, and it was the last day of school. She was all by herself, no guy or girlfriends with her. She would stand at the top of alley, slam her board down, crouch, get her balance, and go. I asked her how long she’s been skateboarding and she said two weeks. I said, ‘You’re out there by yourself?’ she said, ‘Yep, I love the wind in my hair.’ And I thought, ‘Oh my God she’s totally me at her age, except I didn’t wear a helmet.’ It’s insane how full circle it was.”
But there was one key difference. When Whitehead began skateboarding in 1976, not many girls were taking to the street on a board. With her wild mane of blonde hair and petite stature, she cut a noticeable swath as she flew down South Bay streets.
“Now I see girls all over Hermosa Beach on skateboards,” she said. “I don’t care if they’re using it to get from school to home or to their job or friends house, they’re skating. It’s finally mainstream. I love that wherever I turn there’s a girl on a skateboard.”
Whitehead is known nationally for her fearless attitude and trail-blazing personality. The Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., last month honored her for the key role she played as a woman in her sport. She was asked to donate some of her memorabilia to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History’s sports collection. She was also asked to speak, and skate, at a public festival called “Innoskate” that was organized by the Smithsonian to celebrate the innovation and creativity that emanated from skate culture. Skateboarding legends Tony Hawk and Rodney Mullen were among the other honorees at the event, which took place June 22.
“It’s rad. This is a history making event,” Whitehead said. “They want to teach kids it’s not just about Edison and the light bulb – maybe they can’t relate to that, but hey, did you know this person invented a skateboard truck that makes it easier for you to cruise down the boardwalk on your longboard? Because that truck wasn’t invented until this person said, ‘Hey this one we use for pool riding doesn’t work for this.’”
“You can invent anything. You just have an open mind. You can even be 12 years old and be an inventor.”
More than 15,000 people attended the event.
“I was pretty much speechless,” Whitehead said. “Seeing my skate items next to Prince’s guitar, Howdy Doody, and most importantly to me, Althea Gibson’s tennis outfit, as she was a trail blazer and a woman I really admire in sports. I’m still in shock and awe to be included in the same room of the Smithsonian with all the other sports legends. Crazy!”
Whitehead, a lifelong Hermosa Beach resident, retired from professional skateboarding at 22 and now works as a sports fashion stylist for companies like Nike and Gatorade. Growing up she was one of the only professional women skateboarders on the mostly male-dominated skateboarding circuit. When she began at 15, she was originally sponsored by local surf shop ET Surf as well as Puma, Tracker Trucks and SIMS. To stand out from the crowd of long-haired boys, her competition shirts were often accentuated with pink lettering. By 16, she was one of the top vertical and pool skateboarders.
“I grew up here skateboarding at the pier hanging out like a little pier rat every day,” Whitehead said. “I met a guy who was making a skateboard movie and he offered to hire someone to teach me how to skateboard vertical, and within a year I had a centerfold in skateboarding magazine. To this day, there’s still less than two or three of us [women skateboarders] who have ever had a centerfold, which is kind of sad. It’s 30 years later and we’re still not as far as we hoped to be.”
Gerard Ravel, a local realtor, skateboarding historian, and host of local cable talk show “Word of Mouth”, met Whitehead when she was a teenage phenom. He described her as “a total tomboy.”
“She didn’t take anything from anyone. She just wanted to skate,” said Ravel. “There were no girls skating at that time so basically she just hung out with the guys as one of the skaters.”
When she was 15, Ravel invited the skateboarding prodigy to join him on his show.
“Basically it was her and I on camera and I said, ‘So what do you see yourself doing in the future?’ and she said, ‘Taking over your show.’ That explains Cindy in a nutshell,” Ravel said. “She was just real sure of herself. She did what she wanted to do.”
True to her local roots, when the Smithsonian asked for certain skating gear, she kindly refused. Whitehead decided she needed to save a few items for her local museum.
“I’m saving some things for Hermosa Beach Historical Society,” said Whitehead. “They [the Smithsonian] understand and are respectful. I still live in the town I grew up in, and my family has so much history here.”
She was also asked to donate a prototype of her recently launched women’s collaboration [collab] board, a 28.5 inch-long personally designed skateboard for women. The board, made in conjunction with Longboarding for Peace and El Segundo-based Dusters, California/ Dwindle Inc., is emblazoned with bright pink lettering on the bottom, “GIRL is NOT a 4 letter word.” Smaller, on the tail, the board also bears Whitehead’s personal motto: “live life balls to the wall, do epic shit, take every dare that comes your way, you can sleep when you’re dead.” A portion of proceeds from the board’s sales also go to GRO, or Girl Riders Organization, a non-profit that teaches girls of all ages how to surf, skate and snowboard.
“It gives back to a sport that did so much for me,” said Whitehead. “I’ve been hearing from girls all over the country that they’re holding garage sales, car washes and bake sales to raise money to buy their boards, or their parents are matching them 50/50. One emailed me through her dad and he keeps emailing me telling me the progress. I’ve been getting a lot of positive response. Girls think it’s edgy and cool and parents like the positive message.”
The Hermosa Beach Historical Society is also considering designing a “Skateboarders Hall of Fame.”
“It’s still in the planning stages,” said Rick Koenig, the president of the Historical Society. “This is one of the places where it started, just like surfing, lifeguarding and beach volleyball. This is the apex, and where it all began.”
Michelle Kolar-Scott, a 1980s freestyle pro skateboarder, often joined Whitehead on the streets of Hermosa Beach.
“We were the only girls then. Women didn’t skate,” Kolar-Scott said. “You had to prove yourself. If you proved yourself to the guys they were really cool about it. We didn’t really get hassled from them as long as we did well and practiced hard and were serious about it.”
At the top of her game, with her local sponsors and skating friends close at hand, in the mid-‘70s Whitehead began competing and dominating the competition all over the country.
“Skateboarding means everything to me. Actually, for me, it means freedom,” she said. “You’re pushing down a street and the wind’s in your hair and it’s total freedom from everything that might be bothering you. It’s an escape for a lot of kids and something that I fully embrace, even at my age of life. It also means family…I can go to any city or country in the world and I will have five people hit me up and say, ‘Lets meet up for dinner,’ or, ‘You can stay here!’ You might not even know their names, but because you’re a skater, they’ll reach out to you.”
As a woman skater in a male-dominated sport, Whitehead didn’t feel particularly self-conscious around her guy friends.
“I knew I was a girl obviously, but I didn’t feel like I was any different than them,” Whitehead said. “When I did encounter gender prejudice from outside people I didn’t understand what it was about. These guys accepted me. If you held your own and you charged hard and gave respect and demanded respect you didn’t feel like an outsider. They treated me just like they treated each other. They made me sleep on the floor of hotel rooms, dumped water on my head, locked me in a bathroom – but that’s just how they treated each other.”“There weren’t that many girls that skateboarded, but when there were we’d think it was rad, and thought it’d be cool if more girls skateboarded,” said Mike Folmer, a pro skateboarder and Whitehead’s teammate for SIMS skateboards. “She was a pretty aggressive skater. She wasn’t afraid to try different things,” he said.
“There were some gentlemen skateboarders that would make some room for her to drop in,” said Mike Smith, a local pro skateboarder and friend of Whitehead’s.
She was accepted as one of the guys, but in some ways that also made being a girl more difficult for Whitehead.
“I’m finding out now from guys that knew me from back then that they’re now saying, ‘I wanted to talk to you and hang out with you but I couldn’t get near you. You had that guy posse around you and they wouldn’t let anyone else near you.’” I said, ‘Naw, they did not,’ and he was like, “No, they kinda closed ranks. You were at the mouth of the pool waiting to drop in and they kinda circled you and they didn’t let people in.’ I didn’t know this, but they were very protective. They wouldn’t have told me, though, they would have been like hell no, we don’t care who talks to you. I was treated like the little sister, and maybe that explains why I wasn’t getting asked out when other girls were. I thought it was because I was into skateboarding and guys weren’t into that.”
In Hermosa Beach, skateboarders would hang out at the pier learning different tricks from each other. When skate parks were closed down in the ‘80s, they’d make due by draining pools and skateboarding in their friend’s back yards.
“Growing up in Hermosa Beach you’d go surfing. But when the waves were flat you’d wanna go skate,” said Kolar-Scott. “You’d go skate in the pier and the alleys and at old Pier Avenue School. Being the only girls, we just kind of latched on to each other and supported each other in that way.”
Since the ‘70s, skating has evolved, especially for women, she said.
“I think skateboarding is accepted more,” said Kolar-Scott. “It’s better for girls, too – there’s more money and more sponsors. It used to be so hard to get sponsors to get you to a contest. It was such a struggle. Now there’s a bunch of companies.”
Ravel thinks skateboarding has become more mainstream, and believes that women are a now a big part of the culture.
“It’s evolved from being mainly anti-establishment people skaters,” he said. “I’m sure there’s still some, but now everybody does it. I see a lot of yuppies that were skaters in the ‘80s that have their kids skating. It’s really funny to see. It’s a sport that’s been handed down through generations.”
Whitehead still cuts a noticeable swath as a skateboarder. Last year, when the 405 Freeway was closed down for repairs, she realized a skateboarder’s dream – finally conquering the most infamous of roadways on her board. Last month in D.C., she was told that if she wanted to skate by the national monuments and not get in trouble, she’d have to skate at night. So she took the once-in-a-lifetime chance and laced up her shoes with some skating friends for a 1 a.m. adventure.
“It was so cool, the feeling I felt late at night, skating by all these amazing places with Lincoln looking down on us,” said Whitehouse. “It was an unreel feeling to be in that environment, it was total freedom seeing all these national treasures and skating by them. It was so different than the 405 or the Strand or a skate park. It gave me chills.”
Whitehead’s new collaboration board is available at ET Surf, 904 Aviation Blvd., Hermosa Beach. B