The last year has undoubtedly been tough for everyone.
But Covid aside, it’s been especially tough for Lea Schairer.
Having torn her inner meniscus resulting in knee surgery in 2019, Lea’s skateboarding career was put on hold. No sooner had the road to recovery begun to improve, lockdown started and with it her skateboarding opportunities continued to stagnate. Travel opportunities and skate trips were cancelled, resulting in a knock-on effect to both her mental and physical strength.
Fortunately, by summer 2020, her knee had begun to heal and with the world reopening, Lea slowly started to regain strength and confidence, both in herself and her skateboarding skills.
By the time I arrived in Munich in mid-August, Lea was back in her natural groove. As we spent four days together skating the streets of Munich via a detour to the Austrian mountains, I realised I was in the presence of someone who refuses to give up, no matter what the odds are.
With sunlight pouring into her fifth floor apartment located in the cosy surroundings of Maxvorstadt, Lea sits down with a fresh pot of coffee to reflect on perhaps her toughest year as an adult.
“I’d injured my knee before, like eight years ago. And both times, I was at a point in skateboarding where I thought, ‘This is actually going really good right now’. I’d been getting all these opportunities and magazines were calling and asking if I wanted to do projects. It was going really well with my sponsors too. I’d been to the States and met some people there and then boom, injury.”
By her own admission, patience isn’t something Lea handles well. “I was really impatient. Like, ‘Okay, I have to get back on a skateboard as soon as possible.’ And obviously, that’s super frustrating, because it just takes time. And I was stressing out because it wasn’t feeling so good yet, and I was thinking, how much longer is it going to take? I don’t want to be out for a year.”
Skateboarding careers are short-lived at the best of times. Especially in an era where more and more people are skating and the level continues to get higher. “I didn’t know if I could recover soon enough to not be forgotten. And, thankfully, the interest is still there for now. So, it feels really good to have the impression of being kind of relevant. But still, it’s tough. Because if I lose skateboarding, which has always been my biggest influence, I’d kind of lose my identity in skating as well.”
It doesn’t help that once you reach 30, your days can seem numbered, she explains. “As you get older you realise everyone is kind of getting to the level where it’s like, ‘Oh shit, I’m probably going to be irrelevant soon, because there’s younger girls doing a lot better than me and it’s hard to keep up!’ And with skating, I think I’m really impatient as well, like I want to land my tricks right away and I get super frustrated when I don’t, because I have the feeling I suck. That I just suck at skating. Yep, there’s days like that. But most of the time, I love skating because getting tricks is the best feeling. And I like the vibe, being out with friends and not thinking about other stuff, but it can still be super bad sometimes. And yeah, doesn’t work out some days. And you just struggle, and it’s frustrating. And you bail. And you don’t land the tricks in the end.”
Skateboarding can sometimes feel like a love/hate affair. And you’d be forgiven for thinking this all sounds a bit negative, but as we delve deeper Lea’s humility shines through. She is clearly someone incredibly grateful for the opportunities she’s been given. “I think for me, there was never a point where I expected to be sponsored. I never thought I’d ever get the opportunities that are given to me now. Like, I got shop support when I was like 12 and that was super cool for me, but nothing developed from that. Coming from Heidelberg there wasn’t many people I could skate with. There was the younger kids, but it was pretty scattered around, like, no real skatepark. No scene. The shop was really small. And then I moved to Munich. And obviously, it’s a bigger city and there was a scene and different groups of people and different crews. The first guy I actually met who was skateboarding here was Conny Mirbach. And his crew took me in pretty easily and that was it. After two years, I was living with him and another friend who skated and they helped me out a lot. Being with really like-minded, nice and supportive people was everything.”
With Nike’s first all-women feature length video GIZMO dropping in 2019, as well as the rapid increase of female skateboarders globally, women’s skateboarding has arguably never been in a better place. “I actually really like it because it shows the level of skating that we’re at right now. And it’s fucking high. I think that’s super cool to see.” But despite being hyped on the progress, Lea thinks it’s just the beginning. “What I’d like to see happen is that it’s not an exclusive thing. That women’s skateboarding is not just women’s skateboarding, but it belongs to skateboarding in general and that there’s more inclusion, I guess, or mixing it up at least. I think it’s great that they did GIZMO. I think it was super important to get the awareness that women actually matter. Like I said, the level is super high and everything. But for me, it would just be great to see women being included in any skate video. It doesn’t have to be an exclusive women’s skateboard video.”
Lea’s point perhaps stems from her crew consisting of both males and females, having spent several days on street missions together. “For me, it’s not normal to just skate with women. It’s great that I have the opportunity to, because there are more women skating now than before. But I go skate with guys all the time. A lot of the time in fact, it’s only with guys and it’s super strange to not reflect that in what you put out.”
One can’t help but think that being in what is still generally a male-dominated sport has pushed Lea’s skating level to where it is today. She skates faster than a lot of guys I see, slams harder than most guys I see and refuses to believe her sex should determine what she’s able to achieve.
“I always only had guys to look up to in skateboarding. And I think it helps, because you see what’s possible, kind of. And that’s the level I always wanted to get to. Now it’s a little different, just seeing the progression in mens skating now, I mean, it’s so far away from what I’m able to do on the skateboard. But I think with women now, it doesn’t have to be a super hard trick. They evolve their own style. And that’s what I think is the best thing about more women skating at a higher level. There’s so many different styles in women’s skateboarding and there’s actually no rules. So everyone can just interpret it in their own way. I think that’s really good. Like not doing the hardest trick on a 16-stair handrail, but looking at spots differently, and just skating it differently. I think it’s a good thing, because the styles are so different—not always, but in some ways the women are actually becoming the inspiration for, like a new generation. It doesn’t matter if it’s boys or girls. The fact that there’s stylish women that boys will look up to and be like, ‘Fuck, I want to skate like her.’ I think that’s super cool.”
Having chased after her older brothers from a young age, Lea’s quick to admit she was perhaps seen as ‘boyish’ as a kid. “I just wanted to do whatever they did. I started skiing when I was like, four. Because that’s just something my parents always did since they were living here in the south. I started snowboarding when I was ten probably. And then started skating shortly after, at like, ten or eleven. My brothers socialised me pretty well too, with all the music and youth culture I guess. They would listen to Beastie Boys, The Pharcyde, and all those hip hop bands. And so that’s what I was listening to, like, super young as well. And I think, coming from that, it’s like skateboarding was just a natural thing. If you’re interested in that kind of music, or that sort of culture, you’re going to get confronted with skateboarding at some point. And I think that’s where they picked up skateboarding. And then, obviously, I did it as well, because I did everything they did. And yeah, that’s how I came to skate.”
It quickly became an obsession to the point where Lea didn’t even stop to realise that what she was doing was perhaps seen as unconventional commercially. “In my hometown, I was the only girl skating. But I didn’t realise that it was special until I was like 15, maybe. Because at first, we only had a super shitty skatepark, so we always went street skating. And it was just my brothers and some friends. So I didn’t have the full picture of skateboarding yet; I didn’t know what was going on. I guess at some point, people started asking, like, ‘Why are you skating? You’re a girl…What are you doing?’ And then I kind of realised, from looking at skateboard magazines and contests, there’s only guys, there’s no girls division or whatever. Being the only girl for like four years straight in that city, that was skating. At some point, I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s kind of weird. There’s no other women or girls.”
Over the years, Lea’s met more like-minded females, such as Kim Wibbelt and Laura Kaczmarek. “It’s a cool movement. That’s why I enjoy hanging around with Laura and Kim, who’ve both been skating for a long time as well. Just kind of showing that this is also what skateboarding is about, you know? Hanging out with friends, having a good time and enjoying what you do. And then getting the respect for it. Because that’s what I think is skateboarding. Skateboarding is about just doing it and doing it the way that you want to do it.”
Yet despite continuing to pursue her skate career full throttle, like most skaters, Lea sometimes needs to take a step back—often retreating to the nearby mountains and countryside in the south to reflect on her journey and her career aspirations. As we take a day off from skating and drive to the Austrian mountains, she explains her need to escape the city and be outdoors.
“Everything I do that comes close to exercising or doing sports has something to do with being outdoors. Whether it’s hiking, snowboarding, surfing, skating…it’s always something that allows me to be in the zone and not be distracted by anyone else. Like going to the mountains, for me, is super relaxing. Kind of leaving the pressure of society and caring about different things. Going to the mountains, enjoying the view. Feeling pretty small.”
As we reach the summit of Hinterer Tajakopf after a three hour hike, it dawns on me: with all her achievements in attaining sponsorship, helping shape women’s skateboarding and recovering from an intense injury, all whilst working a full time job, is there anything left she still wishes to achieve?
“I definitely still want to do a full part. That’s one main goal. Other than that, to just enjoy it. Just go out street skating. Go filming. For me it’s all about making memories, I guess. And taking in the good times. But yeah, for now I’m still pretty eager. And when I have those goals, I really want to achieve them. To just focus on filming a full part that I’m happy with. And I guess I’ll just see what comes after.”
Judging from our brief spell together what comes after seems a long way away. Lea’s clearly focused on making up for lost time and as long as she can and is healthy physically, there’s plenty more to come. Lea Schairer isn’t slowing down any time soon.