Judi Oyama’s history as both a pioneer for women skateboarders in the 1970s and for her current accomplishments in her sixties, as she continues to compete in slalom and downhill to this day, demands respect!
You can listen to her story here on YouTube, launched on International Women’s Day 2023 for Santa Cruz:
It all began at age 13 just “messing around in the driveway on a loaner board” in Santa Cruz, CA where Judi is from. She quickly fell in love with skateboarding and wasn’t deterred by the minimal presence of fellow female skaters but was in fact motivated by it.
Photos: Richard Oyama
At age 15, in 1975 Judi entered her first race at Capitola, which was documented by her dad, a professional photographer. Judi pointed out that the bandage on her arm was due to a crash resulting in road rash, which didn’t seem to phase her. She also noted how fortunate she was to have her dad present since “most photographers only photographed the dudes.” The fellow competitor was Lisa Harner.
The following year, at age 16 Judi became a sponsored amateur for Santa Cruz boards and Independent trucks. Judi also rode for OJ Wheels, Park Riders and Cellblock which were NHS brands owned by Rich Novak and Jay Shuirman. There’s a fantastic 1976 photo shoot of Judi with the Santa Cruz team at Sierra Wave by Bill Golding, including the classic portrait of Judi, which was included in the book Game Changers: the unsung heroines of sports history (2016) by Molly Shiot.
Photos: Bill Golding
Judi was soon skating with World Champion, John Hutson and in her bio for Shredders: Girls who skate (2020) by Sierra Prescott, it was shared that “Judi would snake runs and pull off epic lines with a rebel energy that made her notorious among the locals.”
The National Skateboard Review (NSR) noted in the November 1976 issue that Judi placed 2nd in Girls Slalom at the Capitola Classic, and then the following year, in 1977 she was the only female competitor and finished eighth overall!
In an interview for Skateboard Safety News in May 1978, along with Terry Brown who also rode for Santa Cruz, Judi shared that, “Here in Santa Cruz skateboarding is pretty popular with girls—especially at the parks where we skate most.” In regard to injury the article stated that, “she hardly ever hurts herself at all because she has been riding horses for ten years, has competed in jumping competitions and has won quite a few events… It was horseback riding that taught her how to fall properly with the minimum amount of hurt.”
Photos: John Krisik, Mike Goldman, Gary Medeiros
In the June 1978 issue of the NSR there was a five-page feature called “Special Women’s Section” and Judi was acknowledged with a photo. The caption explains, “Skateboarding competitively for less than two years Judi Oyama has already become one of the top women slalom racers in the United States. In 1978 Judi has scored amateur competition victories in the Women’s Slalom and Giant Slalom at Upland, CA and the Women’s Slalom at SKATOPIA in Buena Park, CA. Judi looks forward to the professional races this year.”
Judi began appearing in ads for Santa Cruz and at age 18 they turned her pro – how could they not considering that her 2018 Skateboarding Hall of Fame bio shared that she was beating the likes of Duane Peters and Tony Alva!
In a newspaper clipping from the Santa Cruz Sentinel the report says, “Oyama, who rides professionally for the Santa Cruz Skateboards team, is relatively new to downhill. She prefers skateboarding in empty pools, on slaloms or at skateboard parks. She started downhill racing ‘just for fun.’”
Photos: John Krisik, Gunn
And based on Judi’s blog, there was some really fun times and friendships made including a great story about skating with Tony Alva, down-hilling Rodeo Gulch in 1980. “It was the Friday night before the weekend of the Capitola Classic and Tony came by NHS and was hanging out. He asked where could shoot a hill around Santa Cruz, I told him [John] Hutson and I had been practicing on a road close by. We jumped in my red 1963 bug and headed out a few miles away…”
“After getting out of the car and a few pushes later we were hauling down the road. I was on a Jim Gordon cutaway downhill board and he was on a pool park board. I remember the cool spots in the shade as were going down. I wasn’t too far behind and when we got to the bottom he looked back and smiled as I was on his tail… We went back to NHS and he forgot his board in my trunk. I still have the board and I told him for a few years after that when we ran into each other… He told me to keep it.”
The grinning nod of approval from Tony Alva was a special moment that Judi says kept her racing to this day, and the two legends are still friends today.
Photos: Reg Caselli
In an interview for Malakye website, Judi recalled how Rich Novak at NHS supported her skating and her art since the beginning. “I worked at NHS stuffing bearings in Road Rider 2’s, shipping skateboard products, silk screening skateboards (checkered Steve Olson and striped Duane Peters) and did a bit of skate art. Then I worked for Santa Cruz Surf Shop which was originally founded by NHS doing everything from airbrushing surfboards, window displays, doing the clothing and skate buying… the graphics, ads, T shirts while going to school [San Jose State University studying illustration and design].”
Prescott noted that, “Other business owners including Bob Hurley caught wind of her talents, and before long she was designing ads in Thrasher and other magazines. In 1987, Judi launched her own design company, Maximum Impact, which is known for its clean and bold aesthetic.”
In the 1970s and 80s, Judi shared with Malakye that, “You had to skate aggressive so you could get a run in at a park or a backyard pool. Respect from fellow riders had to be earned to find out where the secret spots were so you could skate them. Most of the time the guys you skated next to would barely speak to you… There were few companies that truly supported women skaters.”
Photos: John Krisik
There were still moments of frustration. After the 1980 Capitola Classic, Terry Brown was acknowledged in the January 1981 issue of Thrasher (Issue #1) for placing first. Judi reflected on the experience and that “not being the top women’s team rider changed me and probably helped me in the long run.”
Judi had been leading the competition until she crashed, but “I ended up with more photos and press because I raced my heart out… In the long run it made me fight harder and continue to skate decades later.” Judi also shared that Terry confided in her years later that she never considered herself the winner, especially as she had received some special Park Rider wheels. Ultimately, Judi was “honored and proud to be sponsored by Santa Cruz Skateboards and Independent Trucks.”
Speaking of Independent Trucks, the black & white photo below by Reg Caselli of Judi competing against Michelle Baker was included in the commemorative book, Built to Grind: 25 years of hardcoare skateboarding (2004).
While it was great to win, Judi alluded to the fact that prize money at that time was minimal or non-existent, and the main reason she only entered timed events was due to suspect judging in transition events, specifically the judges at the Winchester contests where she competed in 1978 and 1979. Despite these negative experiences, it’s obvious that Judi had mastered pool and bowl based on the photographs of her ripping.
There is even a fantastic 1979 photo shoot of Judi with Mike Smiley Goldman, and Judi said she felt old at age 19 because Steve Caballero was there at only age 14. It had been a great Saturday morning session after being away in Hawaii for five weeks.
Judi had been in Hawaii at the end of 1978, after being part of the Skateboard Mania tour for six weeks. She ended up running into Kerrie Cooper (also from Skateboard Mania) on the North Shore and cruising around with her. Dan Devine took photos of them skating some smooth pavement while sitting on the hood of an old beat-up car and at an old ramp located on Oyama Street! Judi said it was a fun girl session. Unfortunately, the Skateboard Mania tour was sabotaged and they were never called back, but they still enjoyed themselves.
Judi was inducted into the Skateboarding Hall of Fame in 2018 and was acknowledged for her on-going dominance in slalom and giant slalom in her fifties and now her sixties! In her acceptance speech she shared that, “I’ve never been the best skater. Initially, I didn’t skate for contest titles. I just skated for the fun of it—the mastery of shooting down a hill or reaching for a frontside grind in a 10-foot pool. It was always just me and my board.”
Judi gave special thanks to her Dad, “for taking me to skateparks up and down the California coast when I was 14. Luckily for me, he was a professional photographer—capturing decades of photos of my skating. He never told me I couldn’t do something, and to this day is supportive (and unfazed) that I’m still skating. Thx, Dad.”
In her blog, Judi acknowledges her Japanese heritage, and the fact that most Japanese Americans have family who endured the Japanese Internment Camps during WWII, although it is rarely spoken of. Judi wrote, “I’m a product of Poston 1 and 2” which were internment camps located in Poston, Arizona. Judi’s mom spent 3.5 years in a camp.
The exile of Japanese American citizens from their west coast homes is a stain on U.S. history. Meanwhile, individuals like Judi’s Uncle, Yukio Sumida bravely fought as a member of the 442nd Infantry Regiment which became the most decorated in U.S. military history. His story, as a Purple Heart recipient, is shared in the documentary, Beyond Barbed Wire.
Judi would often give back to the skateboard community, for example her former role as Vice-President of Board Rescue, providing skateboard equipment to underprivileged and at-risk kids. And, Judi donated her favourite Black Flyaway helmet worn in the 1980 Capitola race and Winchester photos to the Smithsonian, as well as a trophy from a race in Berkeley. She was included in an exhibition called “Girlhood (it’s complicated)” and featured in a virtual opening video on October 8, 2020 along with Cindy Whitehead of GirlisNOTa4letterword:
Judi also looks out for other skateboarders, for example, Stephanie Person who was the first Black American female pro skateboarder in the 1980s. Stephanie, in her interview with Chris Pastras for Thrasher (September 2020) shared how she became sponsored by Santa Cruz. After rejecting an offer from a different company, “I was skating at Derby and this girl came up to me. Her name is Judi Oyama. She’s still around. And she was like, ‘You should be sponsored by Santa Cruz.’ I was like, ‘You think?” And she was like, ‘Yeah,’ and she put in a word to Bob Denike. Bob lived down the street from, so I knew him and then Judi put in a good word for me and Bob was like, ‘Yeah, she rips. I validate that she’s really good.’”
Check out Judi’s blog and Instagram account, which are great sources for skateboard history, and to keep track of her current slalom results including the Slalom World Championships in Argentina, and growing list of skateboard sponsors in 2022 and beyond! Judi’s advice, as shared in the Smithsonian video was: “Never stop, enjoy it, make friends, share stories, and encourage each other. Keep skating.”
- Di Dootson. “Judi Oyama.” National Skateboard Review. June 1978, p. 13.
- Prescott, Sierra. “Judi Oyama.” Shredders: girls who skate. Ten Speed Press, 2020.
- Malakye. “Interview with Judi Oyama.” Malakye.com. June 1, 2006.
- Oyama, Judi. “Alva skate memory in Santa Cruz back in the day.” Judi Oyama Blogspot. November 24, 2009.
- Oyama, Judi. “My Skateboard Hall of Fame Induction 2018 Speech.” Judi Oyama Blogspot. May 6, 2018.
- Oyama, Judi. “Skateboarding Longevity and Determination: Flashback Issue 1 of Thrasher Magazine.” Judi Oyama Blogspot. February 18, 2022.
- SHOF. “Judy Oyama.” Skateboarding Hall of Fame, 2018.
- Wolfstein, Leslie. “Teri Brown and Judi Oyama: call to Santa Cruz.” Skateboard Safety News. May 1978.