Desiree Von Essen

Desiree Von Essen-Harrington of Ventura, CA began skateboarding in 1968 at age 10 and became a regular at skateboard contests – she was also a whistleblower when it came to gender inequity. Brian Gillogly featured Desiree in a “Who’s Hot” profile for the June 1976 issue of Skateboarder where it was noted that in the fall of 1974 she showed up at a local contest and came 3rd in a field of 30 skaters as the lone female skater. “Over a year and a half of many winning performances later, the male skaters of Ventura seem to be taking Desiree’s success well.”

An article by Amy Pumpian for The Atlanta Journal (June 27, 1976) dubbed Desiree, “The Wheelie Girl” and included some thoughtful coverage. Desiree wasn’t a big fan of competition because, “I think it hurts friendship with the other people involved. I like to skateboard with other people for the fun and enjoyment of it.” She also received props from her teammate Gary Kocot who said, “I think it’s great girls are in [skateboarding]. They have a lot of style. Desiree can do a double-stacked nose wheelie, and I can’t.”

Desiree started receiving significant media attention, and became sponsored by Sims first before joining R.A.C.O. (paying her $250/month). Eventually, she moved on to California Free Former skateboards. She was often associated with freestyle skating, but it was shared that “She’d rather be enjoying the rush of riding a pool or cruising the long banks of the Spillway, her once-favorite spot” (Gillogly).

After her win in the Senior Women’s (18 and over) freestyle event at the 2nd Annual Ventura Skateboard contest in February 1976 she was interviewed and stated that, “Skateboarding is the best. I live on mine… It’s just my life right now. I live on skateboarding.”

In her 1976 bio for the NY World Masters program guide, it explained that as a 17 year-old she “currently holds the Jr. Women’s World Champion title in Freestyle and Slalom, and the Pro Women’s Arizona State Champion title for Freestyle.” Desiree was versatile as the newspaper clippings below display:

In the April 1977 issue of Skateboarder Magazine, an article called “Freestyle Symposium” polled 22 skateboarders, including the opinions of Von Essen and 4 other women. The questions seemed benign, related to safety gear, favourite obstacles, bowl skating, etc. Desiree’s favourite moves were “endovers,” “walk-the-dog,” and “360s because they’re more difficult,” and she liked choreographing her routines to Fleetwood Mac (yes!).

Photos: George Bellinger; Jeff Ruiz

In response to, “What aspect of competition would you change?” most of the skaters talked about rules for judging. In contrast, Von Essen bluntly stated: “More recognition for the women skateboarders.” 

Von Essen could see that an imbalance in how women were treated was already happening. She spoke about these double standards in her “Who’s Hot” interview for Skateboarder in June 1976. After giving props to her friend, Andra Malczewski for being one of the first competitors for mastering the nose wheelie, she states, “It’s ridiculous the difference in the prizes between the men’s and the women’s divisions… and at every contest our events get stuck at the end.”

For example, when Desiree won the Slalom event at the Long Beach Arena in September 1976 her prize money was $600, followed by $300 for Terry Brown in 2nd and $100 for Robin Logan in 3rd. The men’s breakdown was $1000, $500, $300. The Freestyle event was even more imbalanced. The Top 5 Men went $2000 / $1000 / $750 / $500 / $250, while the only the Top 3 Women received cash. Ellen Berryman ($600), Laura Thornhill ($300) and Ellen Oneal ($100). Sometimes the women received nothing at all.

Within an article by Cindy Berryman, Von Essen also noted that the women end up competing “usually the last event of the day, or they schedule us for free-style while the men do slalom, so we’re never noticed” (August 1976). Desiree shared that her hope was that something comparable to the Women’s Surfing Association for skateboarders would help, “because we just don’t get proper recognition!” (Gillogly).

Von Essen could have just looked out for herself – she was in the limelight, being included on the Perry Como TV show (the 1975 Lake Tahoe holiday special) along with Robin Alaway and Tina Trefethen, and had a role in the film, Freewheelin’ (1976), but she chose otherwise. Desiree was highly respected, and Ellen Oneal admired her most because “she introduced skateboarding to girl competitors.”

Desiree was given a “Pro File” interview in the September 1977 issue of Skateboard World, acknowledging her early influence in contests, and decision to stop competing, as she lost interest in practising her routine alone and would rather just skate with her friends.

In 2019, Desiree Von Essen-Harrington was inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame. @desireevonharrington

Desiree in 2015, showcasing her “Who’s Hot” feature

Contest results:

  • 1st place in Women’s Hotdog, February 1975 at the 1st Annual Buena Ventura Skateboard Contest, Ventura, CA.
  • 1st place in Women’s Freestyle and 2nd place in Women’s Slalom, July 3, 1975 at the Long Beach Arena City Championships.
  • 3rd place in Women’s Freestyle, summer 1975 at the Southern California State Championships.
  • 1st place in Senior Women’s Freestyle, February 1976 at the 2nd Annual Ventura Championships.
  • 1st place in Women’s Slalom, September 1976 at the California Free Former World Championships at the Long Beach Arena. 4th in Freestyle.
  • 2nd place in Pro Women’s Freestyle, September 1976 at the 2nd Annual Hang Ten World Pro-Am Championships, LA Sports Arena.
  • 3rd place in Women’s Slalom, September 1977 at the California Free Former World Championships.

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