University of Southern California: Olympic skateboarder pushes the boundaries for women and girls in her sport

The first skateboard that Amelia Brodka ever rode actually wasn’t hers. “My brother got one from my parents right after we moved to America from Poland when I was 8 years old — and he actually didn’t want me to use it,” said Brodka, who graduated in 2012 with a dual degree in communication from USC Annenberg and narrative studies from USC Dornsife. “He said that I didn’t do it right, because I just rode around on it on my knee. But I just remember falling in love with that feeling of air rushing in my face and being inches above the asphalt.”

That skateboard met its untimely demise when Brodka’s brother left it in the driveway and her parents backed over it with their car. “We were an immigrant family, so my parents said, ‘Well, you didn’t take care of it, so you don’t get another one,’” she recalled. She didn’t ride again until she saw her friend rolling down the street when she was 12, and then convinced her parents to buy her a board of her own.

Even though she faced scorn from male skateboarders — “I would get made fun of or bullied because I was always the only girl at the skate park,” she said — she quickly became fascinated with doing tricks and watching the best skaters in the world.

That same year, when she was living in New Jersey, she went to see the X Games in Philadelphia with her family and a friend. “We were waiting to watch the men’s competition for best trick and walking around the arena when we saw a vert ramp at the other end of the stadium,” Brodka recalled. “As we approached it, we realized it was women and girls our age, and they were doing phenomenal tricks and airs. In that moment, I knew that I wanted to be just like them.”

Brodka went on to realize that dream, not only becoming a competitive skateboarder, but also producing a documentary about girls and women in skateboarding. She also co-founded a nonprofit, Exposure Skate, that promotes access and inclusion for women and girls in skateboarding.

And now, Brodka is one of 66 Trojans —at least 13 of them USC Annenberg current students and alumni — competing in the Olympic Games this summer. Even though the games were delayed for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic and will be held without spectators because of ongoing concerns about the virus, for first-time Olympians like Brodka, the experience will be the culmination of years of dedication to their respective sports.

Skateboarding will be making its first appearance as an Olympic sport, and Brodka will compete for Poland in the women’s park event. As far as she has come as an individual competitor, Brodka notes that the sport itself has made tremendous progress in the past decade — especially in its treatment of women and girls.

During her time at USC, she was competing regularly, even being named an alternate for the X Games as a sophomore. Determined to be invited to compete the next year, she trained harder than ever — only to learn that the women’s vert event was canceled that year.

Brodka was mystified, because she knew that she was only one of many skilled women skaters. “I was seeing a growth in women’s skateboarding globally,” she recalled. “It was frustrating to see a lack of acknowledgment and support from the action sports industry.”

At the time, during her junior year, Brodka was taking a class with Alison Trope, clinical professor of communication, about gender and media, which helped her think critically about how skateboarding media rarely portrayed actual women skateboarders in magazines, videos and competitions. “The only women in the magazines were scantily clad models advertising products,” she said.

“It just felt like there were gatekeepers that were keeping the women from being seen and being supported,” she continued. “I wanted to find out why.”

This drove her to start working on a documentary about women in skateboarding, titled Underexposed. She continued working on the film during her senior year, completing it right after graduation. The film went on to win awards at several film festivals.

The positive response to the film convinced Brodka to do more to promote and empower women in the sport. She and co-founder Lesli Cohen put together their own women’s skateboarding event, which made history with a groundbreaking moment: the first McTwist 540 trick done by a female skateboarder in competition. “That showed us that there was a real need, and that if we provided the support, there would be more growth in terms of the level and the amount of participation of girls and women.”

That single event grew into the nonprofit Exposure Skate, which has put on events every year since its founding in 2012, while raising money to support survivors of domestic violence.

In the past five years, Brodka says, the sport overall has seen incredible growth in female participation — and Exposure has grown as well. “Our first event had about 40 participants and our most recent one had 230, with women competing from 23 different countries,” she said. “When I started skating, I could name all of the top five female skateboarders in the world, and now, there are great new skateboarders coming up every single day, skating at a higher and higher level. It’s just been incredible to see the growth across the globe — and there’s more and more coverage and support from the media in terms of portraying women as talented skateboarders.”

The Olympics have been a real catalyst for that change, Brodka said. “Once skateboarding was announced as an Olympic sport in 2016, event organizers of various skateboarding competitions all started adding more and more women’s divisions to their events, and they realized that they have to do prize-purse parity — offering the women the same prize money as the men,” she noted. “That certainly changed the game completely for female skateboarders.”

Brodka credits her studies at USC Annenberg for helping her both understand and play a part in that progress. “A lot of what I learned when getting my communication degree, I’ve been able to put into practice, and it has really helped me as an advocate for women and girls,” she said.

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