How Dare you Tell me that I can't?
How one professional skateboarder is giving young women what she never had
Kim Peterson sits on a skateboard amid a sea of faces, rosy and energized from a chilly recess. She's reading a book, her hands holding it open and away from her, so the first-grade class can see the pictures: illustrations of skateboarders flying across the page
As Petersen flips the pages, the story of a boy learning to skateboard in San Francisco unfolds. On one page, he meets all types of people at the skatepark. People of all colors, religions, genders.
Petersen looks to her class and asks them if they know any girls who skateboard.
Through a chorus of resounding “No’s!” a voice pipes up, “Wait, isn’t Kim a girl that skateboards?”
Yes, Kim Petersen skateboards.
Kim Petersen reads My First Skateboard by Karl Watson to her first-grade class during ELA class on Oct. 3, 2019
Her first-graders might not know it, but Petersen is a professional skateboarder who once competed (and won against) the biggest names in women’s skateboarding, like Cara-Beth Burnside, an X-games champion and olympian.
They don’t know that Petersen topped world rankings as a bowl skater in 2005, just before she began teaching in Missoula.
But they do know that Petersen loves skateboarding- and she loves teaching it. She fills her classroom with skateboards, and encourages her students to explore what they can do on a board in weekly “carpet boarding” sessions in the classroom. She drives eight hours across her home state, Montana, to teach kids living on reservations how to use their brand-new skatepark.
They might know that Petersen spent the past five years helping to create a fast-growing organization that provides an opportunity for young women and non-binary people to skate with each other and learn together in a sport traditionally dominated by cis men.
“I think it's important for young girls to follow their passions and interests,” says Petersen.“And if that is in any way skateboarding, that there should be no reason whatsoever that a young girl would tell themselves, I can't do that. That's not for me.”
Petersen wasn’t born with a board under her feet. Growing up in Ohio, she pushed her mom’s banana board around for a bit, before moving onto a different toy. When she was 16, in Pennsylvania, she hung out at the hand-built mini ramp in the neighborhood. “Skateboarding came into my life and these little dabbles- I kind of jumped in,” says Petersen, “but then something else pulled me out. The interest wasn't totally there.”
Instead, Petersen developed an interest in snowboarding. In 1995, she moved to Missoula with a friend to study at the University of Montana and snowboard. One day, having been snowboarding and already filled with confidence in her ability to stand sideways and go forward, Petersen took a challenge and bombed a hill on a friend’s longboard.
She made it all the way down. When she got to the bottom of the hill, she was hooked. She bought a shortboard and started to learn how to skate. At first, it was commuting to school and mini-ramps behind the YMCA.
In 1997, Petersen flipped open a punk magazine and saw an article about women’s vert skating. “I just didn't know girls could do that,” she says. “I didn't know you could fly through the air and blast these just big air like the guys are doing.”
Kim Petersen performs her signature trick- skating over her studens during a private lesson- at the Mobash Skatepark on Oct. 25, 2019
Petersen says that moment of realization pushed her to the next phase in skateboarding. She wanted to see if she could also blast big air, like the guys were doing.
So, she found a place where she could learn. Petersen spent summers working at Woodward Camp in Pennsylvania. She taught gymnastics and used the camp’s skate ramp in her spare time. By her return to Missoula for fall semester, she was dropping 12-foot tall vert ramps.
In order to understand Kim Petersen, there are a few things about Missoula that are worth knowing.
First, Missoula is a big city by Montana standards. But not by anywhere-else-standards. In the year 2000, when Petersen graduated from UM with a degree in elementary education, Missoula’s population was only just above 50,000 people. At the time, there was not a high percentage of that small population that skateboarded.
Second, Missoula had no skateparks. And it certainly didn’t have any 12-foot tall vert ramps. There was nowhere to learn to do the skating that she wanted to do in town.
Third, winters in Montana typically start in mid-October and end in early May. What skating there was in Montana was limited to the summer months only.
Kim Petersen introduces herself to girls at a Girls on Shred learn-to-skate clinic at the ramp behind Board of Missoula on Oct. 26, 2019.
In other words, Missoula was not ready for the kind of skating Kim Petersen wanted to be doing. So she left.
“I wanted to keep exploring where skateboarding is. If it wasn't here in Missoula, then I wanted to go find it,” she says. “I went away to keep skateboarding growing in my life.”
She went to Seattle first. There, she explored new parks and new terrain. She spent that time getting better and better. “Every single time I would go skateboarding, I would improve and I could feel it happening. So I never wanted to stop.”
She competed in the Northwest for a few years before making the move down to California. At the time, the state was the place to be for up-and-coming skateboarders.