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Skateboarding's Den Mom Is on a Roll

July 05, 2003|Richard Marosi | Times Staff Writer

For thrill-deprived skateboarders around the world, Heidi Lemmon can make airborne dreams come true.

A Nepalese teenager, Ram Chandra Koirala, wants the Santa Monica mother of three to help get a skate park built near his Himalayan home. Lamonzo Coleman would settle for a few concrete ramps near 103rd Street in Watts.

Coleman, Koirala and hundreds of teenagers like them suffer the same I-get-no-respect dilemma from being branded outlaws on wheels. So they turn to Lemmon, a one-time perfumer who has become an unlikely advocate for a generation of skaters. Through sheer chutzpah and soccer mom-like devotion, Lemmon has helped spark the skate park building boom and bring order to the Wild West of youth sports.

Founder of a nonprofit organization called the Skate Park Assn. of the USA, the 53-year-old Lemmon channels skaters' rebel energy into social activism. She preaches skater unity and, using street lingo, provides in-your-face tips for lobbying politicians to build skate parks. "Dog them," exhorts Lemmon's Web site for Skate Park USA, which has 3,500 members.

The tips on organizing, petition-gathering and getting media coverage have been behind dozens of campaigns to build skate parks, from Ireland to Hong Kong. Lemmon has become a major player in the $1.4-billion skateboard industry, able to get skateboard legend Tony Hawk to appear at events, and bold enough to lead a boycott of a Nike commercial that she thought demeaned skaters.

Lemmon's advocacy goes beyond education and corporate lobbying. She leads protest rallies, talks police out of citing skaters, gets hundreds of poor children free skateboards, and shuttles impoverished black and Latino kids to distant skate parks.

"Hey Heidi. Hey Heidi," comes the cry from skaters at competitions. Did you see my move? When does the contest start? What's this about having to wear a helmet?

A short, cheerful woman who wears long-sleeve skater T-shirts and red Chinese slippers, Lemmon revels in her den mother role, rolling with the off-color jokes and exhibiting endless patience with the sport's more raucous customs.

"You can go deaf at these things," Lemmon said jokingly through the din of punk and rap music blaring at a recent East Los Angeles competition.

In a disorganized youth sport almost bereft of parental advocates and often associated with motley bands of baggy-dressed skaters careening down sidewalks, Lemmon's constant presence and pleasant pestering often amount to a parental stamp of approval for wary cops and politicians.

"She's basically the mom of the skateboarding industry," said Mitch Brian, advertising director for Skate Park magazine. "She's the one true 'I care about the kids' person in the industry."

Lemmon's rad trip through the skateboarding world surprises, and upsets, some of her friends and relatives in her upper-middle-class neighborhood, where skaters once slid down rails in the yard of her Victorian-style home.

But no one is more surprised than Lemmon herself. Coming from the art world, where she worked as a fashion photographer and maker of perfumes and women's accessories, Lemmon's days were once filled with fragrance and flowers. Now she hangs out with sweaty, wisecracking teenagers, gets caught in food-fight cross-fires, and hops chain-link fences to keep up with her skate team.

Though she finally learned how to ride a skateboard last year -- "I don't do tricks," she said. "It doesn't really count as skateboarding." -- Lemmon only goes along to watch.

The skaters' tales about run-ins with cops and a lack of parks, Lemmon said, offended her sense of social justice. Why should only Little Leaguers and soccer players get playgrounds, questioned Lemon, who cut her teeth on the anti-Vietnam War movement of the 1960s.

Besides, she said, the skaters, though a little rowdy, were too cute to turn down. "They just kept begging me to do more, and I couldn't say no to them," she said.

Lemmon, who was raised in Calgary, Canada, moved to Santa Monica in 1987 with her husband, a commercial real estate broker. Her three children played volleyball, baseball and football, and for years she played the happy role of a sports-shuttle mom.

But when her son Duncan started skateboarding regularly in the mid-1990s, things changed. Police would ticket his friends for skating on the street, yet the city provided nowhere for them to practice.

Demanding that a skate park be built, Lemmon led Duncan and other teenagers in protests at City Hall and spoke at council meetings. Funding for the skate park was approved in 2001, and it is scheduled to break ground next spring.

With word spreading about Lemmon's tenacity during the seven-year-long campaign, she soon was besieged with pleas from frustrated teenagers looking for guidance. Her decision to carry the torch for skaters' rights, however, was not popular in some quarters.

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