Jessie Van Roechoudt
Originally published in SF Bay Guardian
I'll admit I was terrified when I first started skating the hills of San Francisco. Just a week before moving to the Lower Haight, I'd gotten a cast sawed off my right arm – which I'd broken while bombing an embarrassingly low ollie – and I kept having uncontrollable visions of being flattened by one of those murder-bent SUVs that tear up my block of Oak Street every day. It was self-righteousness more than anything that got me back on the board – a little sick of the macho Z-Boy hype, listening to Avril Lavigne fawn over skaters with testicles, and watching their real-life counterparts roll through my hood on Mike Fraziers and Sector 9s. Not to completely dis on skater guys, but even some of them may have noticed a certain dearth of female representation out there in Sk8land.
Which brings me to Jessie Van Roechoudt, a pro skater who could leave Lavigne's cavalcade of boi crushes in the dust. Van Roechoudt started skating at age 14 and didn't buy her first commercial board until two years later, but from the way she executes an ollie kickflip, you'd think she was playin' ollies in utero.
Van Roechoudt's been down with the S.F. scene since long before Union Square got retrofitted into a pristine, overly policed slab of concrete. With a mom who worked for an airline, she would hitch free flights from her hometown in British Columbia to San Francisco, where she'd meet other kids and crash at their houses. "Back then skating wasn't considered a sport so much as a community," she says, speaking to me by phone from her folks' home in Canada. "If I did it the same way today, I'd probably end up sleeping in Golden Gate Park, but skate culture was different in the early '90s."
For years Van Roechoudt skated for the adrenaline rush, with no aspirations of turning pro. But in 1996, when a skate team from San Francisco came through her town, the team manager saw her practicing shifty ollies at a local skate park and handed her a business card. The next time she came to San Francisco, she called him; soon after, she landed her first "flow" job, endorsing products for local shops. After a brief camp counselor stint at a YMCA skate camp in Visalia, she flew down to San Diego for a trade show, where she met the owner of Rookie Boards, her first sponsor. "Once the ball's rolling, it all works together," Van Roechoudt says. "It's easy to find companies that are willing to work with you." Now she's sponsored by several, including Billabong Clothing, FTC Boards, and Genetic Shoes.
One of the perks of her career is the excitement of shuttling around the globe for competitions, Van Roechoudt says – though it put some strain on her course work back when she was studying at San Francisco State University. ("I'd have to rush home and cram my anthro reading after a weekend competition in Brazil.") Pro skating also exposed Van Roechoudt to "artistic communities that overlap with the skating community." After years of posing for magazines, she cultivated a love for photography and has showcased some of her work at SFSU.
For all the glamour of international competitions, photo shoots, and free flights to Brazil, though, Van Roechoudt says the best part of skating is that electrifying moment when she's taking a hill on a San Francisco street at breakneck speed; it's the middle of the night, Muni buses are sparse, and Market Street is pretty much deserted. "At four in the morning the city becomes your playground," she says wistfully. "You're cruising the streets with the mist in your face, going over driveways and bumps. My friends and I bring out lights and a generator and rig it up." Most skaters can identify with that sense of late-night abandon – missioning to those pockets of the city you wouldn't explore in the daylight hours, creeping into empty buildings and scaling the walls, rolling from the Fillmore to Chinatown just to stop and eat at an all-night noodle house.
I didn't pick up a skateboard until fairly late in the game, and in high school I looked at girl skaters with awe and a tinge of envy. Van Roechoudt is accustomed to this kind of adulation from female peers, and when I bring up experiences with skater-cult misogyny, she says she often feels burdened with being a kind of torchbearer for girl power. "Yeah, I always get asked to speak at these motivational seminars for girls," she says. "But learning to skate, I never felt that I was being pigeonholed as a 'female skater,' because that category didn't really exist. I didn't think I was treated differently from any other skaters." Girl power or no girl power, Van Roechoudt would surely grind anyone to powder who tried to hold her back. (Rachel Swan)