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Wheels Up

The fast, bruising life of Lizzie Armanto

The way Lizzie Armanto sees it, being the country’s best female skateboarder is only half about the skateboarding itself. The other half, the important one, is about pain. Scorching, dagger-in-eyeball-type pain. Torn ligaments. Purple fingers. Bruised shins. It’s about slamming into concrete, then texting her physical therapist before trying to stand up. It’s about tolerating “swellbows,” the alarming, shiny protuberances that form right after a hard fall on the arm. Pain, she explains one sunny May afternoon at a skate park near her home in Santa Monica, is what separates the women from the girls.

That and credentials. At 22, Armanto is among the most decorated female skaters in a small but growing field of them. Alongside just one or two others, she says, she makes her living exclusively from competitions and sponsorships. In 2013, she won gold (and $30,000) at X Games Barcelona. Later that year, she took first place at San Diego’s Exposure contest, then went on to win the Van Doren Invitational in Huntington Beach. She likely would have continued this charge, were it not for a painful interruption.

“I’ve taken some of the worst slams in this bowl,” she says from a bench overlooking a deep concrete pool where a handful of boys — some approaching adolescence, some decades past it  — zip in figure eights. She fell hard here in December of 2013, tearing the posterior cruciate ligament in her knee. “It’s a really weird ligament to do because you only do it from impact,” she says. “Most people get it if you’re in a car accident, and your knee hits the dash. All this impact hits, and the ligament snaps or tears.” She was supposed to stay off the knee for six months. She tried, killing time with video games and bubble tea, but couldn’t quite manage to finish out her recovery. She returned to the park early and tore the medial collateral ligament in the same knee. “Whether you have a high pain tolerance or not,” she says, “it’s not fun.”

Armanto looks like a natural skateboarder. She has ropy limbs, a bouncy stride, and a tan that appears actually earned. Her eyes are large and owlish, and the tips of her hair are dyed a shade of blue normally reserved for gaudy resort cocktails. She’s seamless in competitions, slicing across courses with a liquid nonchalance. When she talks about her career, it’s with a sense of easy inevitability, as if every young girl who starts messing around on a board while babysitting, as she did, is destined for competitive glory.

But Armanto, of course, is an exceptional case. Though an increasing number of organizations aimed at promoting women’s skateboarding have cropped up in the past decade, the incentives for girls to pursue the sport professionally still lag significantly behind those for men. At the Kimberley Diamond Cup last October in South Africa, the men’s street-­skating champion, a Brazilian named Kelvin Hoefler, took home $100,000. Samarria Brevard, who won the women’s street championship event, got $15,000. This gap also exists in the X Games, where as recently as 2008, the men’s prize purse was nearly double the women’s.

“With girls, it’s really confusing because there’s not really a defined line of what being ‘pro’ means,” says Armanto, whose sponsors include Vans, Sony, and Tony Hawk’s Bird­house Skateboards. Is it qualifying for competitions? Making a living from the sport? Having a signature line of merchandise? “For a while, everyone was willing to throw product at me, but no one was wanting to actually support women’s skating.” That’s changing a bit now, thanks in part to Armanto. But she’s still never quite sure what the next prize pool will look like — or whether a particular contest will even take place. The X Games won’t be staging a competition in her division this year, but she’ll definitely skate in July’s U.S. Open in Huntington Beach.

As a result, her schedule tends to fluctuate. Today’s visit to the skate park, for example, comes on the heels of a four-day exhibition trip to China. In about a month, she’ll head out on a two-week European tour with Hawk. This unpredictability, like the pain, doesn’t trouble her. “I kind of like being blind to it and just doing what I do and thinking about what’s in front of me right now,” she says. “I guess I don’t take myself seriously.”

Others, like her mentor, Hawk, do that for her. “Lizzie is ushering in a new era of female skating,” he says. “She is an inspiration to young girls that might otherwise find skateboarding and its culture intimidating.” Indeed, among Armanto’s 90,000 or so Instagram followers and more than 500,000 Facebook fans are scores of girls who 20 years ago might not have considered skateboarding as a profession. Now they’re hanging on her every post, watching her every trick, cringing at her every throbbing contusion.

As Armanto gets up to leave the park, a boy who looks about 9 or 10 enters. He’s carrying a board under one arm. She asks if it’s new, and he nods. “And you’re walking it into the park?” she says, incredulous.

The boy’s father lopes in behind. He knows Armanto and introduces his son to her. The boy looks to his father, then back to Armanto, holding his hand up for a high-five. Armanto stoops to oblige, then turns to leave.

“Are you really the best in the world?” he asks.

“Maybe,” she says over one shoulder. Her smile is impeccable ivory. It’s also a fake; she broke both incisors against a concrete bowl years ago.