For thrill-deprived skateboarders around the world, Heidi Lemmon can make airborne dreams come true.
A Nepalese teenager, Ram Chandra Koirala, wants the Santa Monica mother of three to help get a skate park built near his Himalayan home. Lamonzo Coleman would settle for a few concrete ramps near 103rd Street in Watts.
Coleman, Koirala and hundreds of teenagers like them suffer the same I-get-no-respect dilemma from being branded outlaws on wheels. So they turn to Lemmon, a one-time perfumer who has become an unlikely advocate for a generation of skaters. Through sheer chutzpah and soccer mom-like devotion, Lemmon has helped spark the skate park building boom and bring order to the Wild West of youth sports.
Founder of a nonprofit organization called the Skate Park Assn. of the USA, the 53-year-old Lemmon channels skaters’ rebel energy into social activism. She preaches skater unity and, using street lingo, provides in-your-face tips for lobbying politicians to build skate parks. “Dog them,” exhorts Lemmon’s Web site for Skate Park USA, which has 3,500 members.
The tips on organizing, petition-gathering and getting media coverage have been behind dozens of campaigns to build skate parks, from Ireland to Hong Kong. Lemmon has become a major player in the $1.4-billion skateboard industry, able to get skateboard legend Tony Hawk to appear at events, and bold enough to lead a boycott of a Nike commercial that she thought demeaned skaters.
Lemmon’s advocacy goes beyond education and corporate lobbying. She leads protest rallies, talks police out of citing skaters, gets hundreds of poor children free skateboards, and shuttles impoverished black and Latino kids to distant skate parks.
“Hey Heidi. Hey Heidi,” comes the cry from skaters at competitions. Did you see my move? When does the contest start? What’s this about having to wear a helmet?
A short, cheerful woman who wears long-sleeve skater T-shirts and red Chinese slippers, Lemmon revels in her den mother role, rolling with the off-color jokes and exhibiting endless patience with the sport’s more raucous customs.
“You can go deaf at these things,” Lemmon said jokingly through the din of punk and rap music blaring at a recent East Los Angeles competition.
In a disorganized youth sport almost bereft of parental advocates and often associated with motley bands of baggy-dressed skaters careening down sidewalks, Lemmon’s constant presence and pleasant pestering often amount to a parental stamp of approval for wary cops and politicians.
“She’s basically the mom of the skateboarding industry,” said Mitch Brian, advertising director for Skate Park magazine. “She’s the one true ‘I care about the kids’ person in the industry.”
Lemmon’s rad trip through the skateboarding world surprises, and upsets, some of her friends and relatives in her upper-middle-class neighborhood, where skaters once slid down rails in the yard of her Victorian-style home.
But no one is more surprised than Lemmon herself. Coming from the art world, where she worked as a fashion photographer and maker of perfumes and women’s accessories, Lemmon’s days were once filled with fragrance and flowers. Now she hangs out with sweaty, wisecracking teenagers, gets caught in food-fight cross-fires, and hops chain-link fences to keep up with her skate team.
Though she finally learned how to ride a skateboard last year -- “I don’t do tricks,” she said. “It doesn’t really count as skateboarding.” -- Lemmon only goes along to watch.
The skaters’ tales about run-ins with cops and a lack of parks, Lemmon said, offended her sense of social justice. Why should only Little Leaguers and soccer players get playgrounds, questioned Lemon, who cut her teeth on the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s.
Besides, she said, the skaters, though a little rowdy, were too cute to turn down. “They just kept begging me to do more, and I couldn’t say no to them,” she said.
Lemmon, who was raised in Calgary, Canada, moved to Santa Monica in 1987 with her husband, a commercial real estate broker. Her three children played volleyball, baseball and football, and for years she played the happy role of a sports-shuttle mom.
But when her son Duncan started skateboarding regularly in the mid-1990s, things changed. Police would ticket his friends for skating on the street, yet the city provided nowhere for them to practice.
Demanding that a skate park be built, Lemmon led Duncan and other teenagers in protests at City Hall and spoke at council meetings. Funding for the skate park was approved in 2001, and it is scheduled to break ground next spring.
With word spreading about Lemmon’s tenacity during the seven-year-long campaign, she soon was besieged with pleas from frustrated teenagers looking for guidance. Her decision to carry the torch for skaters’ rights, however, was not popular in some quarters.
“When your kids play baseball, you go to all the games and everybody would think you are a good parent. But when your kid gets into skating, kids’ parents would cross to the other side of the street,” she said. “It was like I crossed over to the dark side.”
Though skateboarding continues to gain mainstream acceptance -- more than 800 parks have been built since 1998 -- Lemmon is still often the lone parent watching dozens of participants at skateboard competitions.
Resembling a human hatrack cloaked in her team’s temporarily discarded skate wear, she cheers gravity-defying moves, buys soda and disarms the most sullen of teenagers with big hugs.
But while Lemmon sees beauty in the chaos of hurling bodies, others see trouble. Lemmon still regularly fields inquiries from concerned parents and decision-makers. They ask her about skaters’ appearance, noise, costs and crime -- anything that could be used as an excuse to nix a skate park plan.
“A skate park is a hard thing to sell,” said Kathy Peterson, who took 18 months to get one approved in Prairie Village, Kan.
Peterson, like hundreds of others, tapped Lemmon’s expertise through e-mail and the organization’s Web site. Lemmon said she gets about 1,000 Web site hits and corresponds with up to 150 people daily.
Because of the disorganized nature of the sport, it is difficult to gauge how many skate parks have been built because of Lemmon’s organization. However, Skate Park USA probably has helped dozens, if not hundreds, of skate park development efforts since being founded in 1997, industry experts say.
Peterson said Lemmon’s advice was invaluable for convincing skeptical council members in Prairie Village. “Her Web site has a wealth of information. I had answers for everything,” she said.
Lemmon’s organization aspires to global status, but she spends most of her time helping local skaters. On weekend mornings, she drives from tree-lined Santa Monica to asphalt-cracked Watts, where she picks up Coleman and other black and Latino skaters who make up her 30-member Skate Park USA “street” team.
Lemmon said they are good enough to compete nationally, but do only local contests because her organization lacks travel funds.
Despite the tight budget, Lemmon soldiers on. She operates under the belief that skateboarding is a good way for teens to steer clear of drugs and gangs in troubled neighborhoods such as Watts, where team members have taught her that suburban behavior like honking a horn could prompt gunfire.
“I can see how hard it is on them,” said Lemmon, who once learned a tough lesson when team members “flipped out” after she honked at gang members beating up a girl. “I can’t put them in any danger,” she said.
Lemmon said she is amazed at the teens’ devotion to the sport in the face of such disturbing encounters. Some have had friends who were killed in gun battles. Some have had boards stolen by gang members. And skating hasn’t always been the answer. Some team members have joined gangs and ended up in prison. Lemmon said one drug-addicted skater from Santa Monica she tried to help robbed her office.
But the teenagers say most of the urban skaters jump clear of troubles by staying in school or getting jobs, often with Lemmon’s help. Her growing clout in the industry enables her to get them jobs and sponsorships.
Frank Alvarez, an 18-year-old from Watts, got hired to build ramps at the this summer’s X-Games at Staples Center. Coleman and several other skaters get free skateboards whenever their boards break.
Lemmon also keeps them out of trouble. When police once lined up eight team members against an apartment building in downtown Los Angeles, ready to cite them for skating on the sidewalks, she talked them out of it.
“Heidi showed up and saved the day,” said Eric Baker, a 19-year-old team member from South Los Angeles. “She is always down to help somebody.”
“If it wasn’t for her ... I wouldn’t be here. I’d probably be a gangster,” 21-year-old Andrew Caro said during a “Battle of the Board Shops” competition.
Lemmon has watched her team members grow from children to men, marveling at their growth in a dogeared scrapbook she keeps in her Venice Beach office. Their devotion against all odds, she said, inspires her tireless campaigning.
To her skaters, Lemmon’s efforts inspire the same admiration. “To me, she’s just a kid inside,” said John Escobar, 26. “She’s one of us.”