The skateboarder movie genre, with classic titles like Thrashin’ (1986) and Gleaming the Cube (1989), has tended to dismiss female roles as “the love interest” or just a sidekick or non-existent. This changed in 1990 with the release of a little-known student-made movie called Grinding to Win. It is set in West Vancouver, written and directed by Samantha Reynolds, and the stunt double was local ripper Lisa Jak Wietzke. As far as I know, this is the first movie to revolve around a female skateboarding lead!
There had been one other depiction of female skateboarders in mainstream media before this—an afterschool CBS TV special released in 1980 called “A Different Kind of Winning,” featuring legends Cara-Beth Burnside and Edie Robertson. The story presents the two girls as the dominant competitors, ahead of the guys and how they build camaraderie.
This story makes sense post-1970s where the presence of female skateboarders had been slightly more inclusive, but by the 1980s we see a dramatic shift towards skateboarding being portrayed as a domain for guys to prove their masculinity.
Director Samantha Reynolds said the idea for Grinding to Win came from the fact that, “I had been an avid skateboarder since I was 10 so I wanted to write a story that best described some of my experiences as, many times, the only female/girl skater amongst many males/boys. I did not personally experience any teasing or bullying from the male skaters… but the film needed some sort of conflict so I added that in.”
While the acting from the teenagers was a tad forced, the premise is compelling. A new-girl named Chris shows up at West Vancouver Secondary School, cruising on her board, and she’s a kickass skateboarder rocking baggy clothes, Chuck Taylor high-tops, and a Montréal Expos baseball cap. Right away she spots a poster for a skateboard contest in the hallway.
All the other skaters in school are dudes who shun her saying that she probably sucks. Chris befriends a few girls who think she’s rad, and Chris introduces them to skateboarding. There was some accurate and timely details included, like when we enter Chris’s bedroom. The bedroom walls are plastered with skateboard stickers and posters including “Skateboarding is Not a Crime,” and the legendary Powell-Peralta ad featuring Anita Tessensohn and Leaf Treinan with the heading: “Some Girls Play With Dolls: Real Women Skate.”
The skate rats confront Chris asking, “What are you trying to prove? Girls don’t skate.” And try to convince her to quit. Instead, Chris sets up a ramp to practise on in the dark until she feels confident to launch off the kicker at school. Chris proves that she can rip, and when one guy on the team is injured, she fills the spot. The contest is held at Seylynn Bowl in North Vancouver and of course, Chris rules and they win the contest. But the icing on the cake is when Chris burns a guy who tries to hit on her, and instead, they ride off as friends.
If you watch through the end of the credits, you’ll see the name Lisa Wietzke in blurred font, and I had to know her story. Reynolds vaguely remembers being introduced to Wietzke while scouting for talent at local parks – it was some of the guys who introduced them, and it was apparent that all the skaters got along really well.
Lisa shared that, “I first got interested in skateboarding in 1986 / 1987. I was dating a guy and the guy had a skateboard. One day I wanted to go to the corner store but didn’t want to walk so I took his board and I was barefoot in a hippie skirt and instantly love how I felt to be free and to cruise along. I was hooked from that moment on.” For three months, she skated from point A to B until she bumped into a friend skating downtown. Lisa joined the crew and rode the parkades all day. “I had no idea that there was a culture or that people skated together.”
Lisa found inspiration in seeing footage of Cara-Beth Burnside, and “due to the nature of the sport I finally met Cara-Beth. We skated numerous times together in 1992. I did a skate demo with her at the Los Angeles County Fair. She made me sit with her signing posters for little girls at a booth. It was the coolest thing ever!”
Lisa’s progression was partly made possible due to the World Fair in Vancouver called “Expo 86” which included a Transworld skateboarding contest since the theme of the fair was transportation. While Lisa never got to see the competition, the contest ramp ended up being her “favorite ramp to skate when it was later taken to Kevin Harris’s place. ‘The Ranch’ in Richmond. It was huge! I learned to ‘really’ ride vert on it. Kevin was so supportive of me.”
In fact, Lisa fell in love with vert! “I love speed and the thrill of being weightless and floating… Funny thing is the boys that didn’t know me would think it was ‘cute’ that I was climbing the ladder up to the platform. They would let me go… Oh, no, after you… Chuckle, chuckle… Then I’d clean their clock and it was on. Girls can’t skate!! Right?!”
Lisa remembered being asked to skate in the film because everyone knew about her – she was an anomaly. “I loved the experience. I got to see the behind the scenes of movie ‘magic.’ I loved the script. I didn’t see it in the theatre.”
Samantha explained that the film had been screened at the University of British Columbia, and then it was screened at a festival where she won “Best Student Film in BC.” But, “Back then, I was not aware of other short film festivals and it wasn’t like it is now where a filmmaker can easily submit to a variety of festivals online.”
Samantha’s career continued as a production assistant, assistant to producers and production managers for films and TV shows, but she was more attracted to acting. She went to theatre school in New York, performed in Off-Broadway, became a page for David Letterman, and eventually moved to Los Angeles. Her documentary on taxidermy called Back to Life (2005) was award-winning. She has a children’s picture book, as well as a new feature film and short film coming out in the fall/winter 2022.
Lisa’s skateboarding story also continued. While the guys in the scene were supportive, and she was treated like a sister, “Over the years I realized that not all of them were stoked that I became better than them. But I never took it to heart. It would hurt until I realized why they stopped taking me to the ramps. I just started going on my own. I learned real fast that skateboarding is a man’s world and I was intruding on their playground but like anything that people are passionate about if someone respects it and can walk the talk then gender slides away, I guess.”
One of her favourite memories was the time a bunch of guys from California, including Pete Koff came up to Vancouver to skate. Lisa met them while skating Seylynn and when she asked “where they were staying, and they said their car. Well, that didn’t fly with me. I brought them all home to East Van, two blocks from China Creek skate park. We all had a good session and when I woke up, I stepped over the bodies and found Pete, gave him a shake and my house key. ‘Food’s in the fridge, towels in the cupboard. Drop my key off at the skate shop.’ I blew his American mind. He was stoked and said if I ever came down to S.F. to call him. I ended up going down to Tijuana and back.”
Lisa saved up for her trip by working two jobs, including the skate shop, and her trip to California was worth it. “When I was in San Francisco Pete introduced me to Tobin [Yelland] and I instantly fell in love with his perspective on life. I consider myself lucky to have met Pete and Tobin then. So much fun was had.” Tobin even took a photo of Lisa on Jeff Kendall’s ramp, included here.
Lisa often mentored other skateboarders, mainly young boys and even years later, they tell her how much they appreciated her lessons. “Strangely, though, I have had the opposite feedback from girls. They were scared of me. Intimidated? I was only a few years older and would actively seek them out, but they would give me the shoulder. Now as a grown woman we have connected, and they thought they weren’t good enough to skate with me? I felt isolated sometimes.”
In response to this post, a BC skater named Jesse Birch reached out and wrote: “My friend Leif Brooke and I met Lisa in the late 80s at Smooth Transitions, the shop on Granville street she worked at. We had ferried over from the Island and we’re definitely groms in the big city. We were talking about wanting to go to Seylynn bowl, and Lisa was just like, ‘I’ll take you!’ I guess someone else was working there too because we all just got on the bus to north van and had a great time skating the snake run. She ripped and was so cool to us. She was one of the few older skaters I met at that age who was just immediately welcoming and stoked on us being stoked. So inspiring and rad. I don’t think we ever met again but she left an indelible impression.”
Nowadays, Lisa lives on Vancouver Island and mostly skates concrete parks and bowls. “Fast, surfy lines. I miss the smell of Masonite and the speed. I’ll always love a bowl or halfpipe but anything under a story high is too quick if that makes sense.” Unfortunately, Lisa no longer has access to a vert ramp but she’s still got options and great memories.
Special thank you to @nbd_archive for the heads up.
- Personal interview with Lisa Jak Wietzke (March 30, 2022).
- Personal interview with Samantha Reynolds (March 28, 2022).
- Reynolds, Samantha (dir.). Grinding to Win (1990).