Walk into any skatepark in America and you’re likely to find more boys than girls. Brook Run Skate Park at 4770 North Peachtree Road, which has been owned by the city of Dunwoody since 2010, isn’t an exception — most of the time. 

But on March 7, the park looked a little different. Sandy Springs resident Jennifer Finnell and others helped put on a girls-only skate contest, and tons of girls came out to prove they could skate just as well as the boys. Girls of all ages participated in contests, skated their way across ramps and down hills, won prizes and danced to a punk band. 

Gabby Belknap, 13, makes a jump at the March 7 Skateboard Girl Army contest at Brook Run Skate Park. She took first place in the “Bowl Beginners Division.” (Phil Mosier)

The event was partly put on by “Skateboard Girl Army,” a club founded by Finnell and with almost 1,800 followers on Instagram. The Army isn’t tangible. It doesn’t have a headquarters. It doesn’t have a training facility. It doesn’t have a rigorous training schedule or a dues structure. It’s a community, and the Army’s mission is simple: teach girls how to skate and make sure they’re part of that community. 

“Girls, we help mold the planet just like the boys do,” said Finnell, 45, who is affectionately known as the skatepark mom at Brook Run. “This sport, … girls can do it just as well as the boys can.” 

Skateboard Girl Army founder Jennifer Finnell with her board. (Special)

The city contracts out ownership of the park annually, allowing those with skating knowledge to run day-to-day operations, according to Dunwoody Recreation Program Supervisor Rachel Waldron. Entry is free, so bikers and skaters mill in and out as they please. Ozzie Giles, who took over the contract for the park in January of 2020, said he operates the park’s large, main building as a hangout of sorts. Park-goers can buy drinks, snacks or even an ice cream on a particularly hot day. Giles offers skateboard lessons, or skaters can spend their downtime perusing boards for sale. There are couches for lounging, games for playing — it’s somewhere the kids that frequent the park can just “chill.”

Outside, boys of all ages with beat-up bikes and well-worn skateboards glide easily over the park’s rough concrete hills. A bowl that skaters drop down into looks menacing, like a giant empty swimming pool, but they breeze in and out of it easily. Sometimes they fall, but they just get back up. No sweat. 

But, right in the middle of all those boys, you’re just as likely to see Finnell giving a skateboard lesson. As the sun dips lower and school lets out, more girls might start to appear. You may see Finnell give a high-five, or offer a hug, or induct a new girl she meets into the Army. 

Natalie Sootes, 14, enters the bowl. She won first place overall and first place in the “Transition Division.” (Phil Mosier)

Skateboarding — associated with bruises, skinned knees, and such famous pros as Tony Hawk — has long been a male-dominated sport. Popularized by male surfers in California in the early 1970s, it took women skateboarders awhile to find their stride. Progress has been made over the years — from famed skateboarders Jen O’Brien and Cara-Beth Burnside pushing ESPN to include women’s skating in the X Games in the early 2000s, to boycotting the 2005 X Games and winning equal pay in 2008, to Samarria Brevard becoming the first professional African American woman skateboarder to sign with a major skate brand in 2018. 

Throughout 2020, Finnell said, she noticed the amount of girls frequenting the park grow. This sudden spike in attendance fueled Finnell’s theory that more people in general, and especially girls, are beginning to feel a pull towards the rough and tumble sport. 

Finnell began skating regularly when she was 37. She used to be married to a skateboarder, and when her former step-son became interested in the sport, she decided to give it a shot. She still remembers the exact day skateboarding became more than a hobby: Dec. 24, 2012 — the day she went down the smallest hill at the park. 

Paige Culberson, 8, gets ready to roll. (Phil Mosier)

“I didn’t die,” she said, thinking back to her cruise down the “Mini Mini Mini Hill of Death,” as she’s fondly named it. “Oh my God, I can actually do this!”

Finnell quickly became known as the skatepark mom, or “Mama Jenn.” For her day job she works as a hairdresser, but has a side business called Finnell Grip, which sells griptape — a material that secures your feet to the skateboard — and spends copious amounts of time at the park giving lessons.

But last year, Finnell and all other skaters had to stop visiting the park when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Dunwoody closed the park to limit the spread of the virus, and it wouldn’t open back up until June 15, 2020. 

Finnell goes over the contest rules while backed by punk band Loony. (Phil Mosier)

Despite everything, Finnell said the Army only grew. When the park opened up in the summer, she said she felt like everywhere she turned, there was a new girl talking about how she picked up a board for the first time during the pandemic. 

Her theory? The ability to practice without an audience. 

“A lot of times, the girls feel very timid and intimidated,” she said. “They were able to skate at their house, practice, and then have the confidence to come out to the park. It was like the pandemic gave them some time to do something without judgment.”  

Violet Wells, 8, rides a curve in the skate park’s bowl. She won first place in the “Street Division.” (Phil Mosier)

That’s what 11-year-old twins Noemi and Isabella Mandel did. The pair began skating during the pandemic, practicing their technique by flying down the hill in their neighborhood. Once they felt comfortable with a bigger crowd, they decided to give Brook Run a shot.

“You see all of these people that are so good, and then it’s your first time skateboarding,” Noemi said. “So it’s kind of scary.” 

But not scary enough to stop them. The twins picked up skateboarding as their sport of choice for that scary, slightly off-kilter factor to begin with. It wasn’t an “ordinary” sport, like soccer or basketball or baseball. It required a bit of extra gumption.

Olivia Sawyer, 12, joins the contest. (Phil Mosier)

“It’s not limited,” Isabella said. “It’s skateboarding — you can’t think inside the box. You could do so many different tricks.”

Lily Lubin, 10, who also started skateboarding during the pandemic, said the thought of skating in front of people made her nervous and it took her a long time to work up the courage. But, eventually her nerves ebbed. A few weeks ago, she dropped into the skating bowl from the 6-foot marker for the first time, and participated in the girls skate competition on March 7. 

“Once you start skateboarding, there’s eventually that moment where you just feel it click,” she said. “And you don’t want to ever stop skateboarding.” 

Lily Lubin, 10, is all smiles after taking second place in the “Street Division.”

Lily said when she heard about the army, she knew it was something she wanted to be part of. 

“I thought it was really cool because there’s not as many girl skaters as boy skaters,” she said. “Now I’m trying to inspire girls to do that too.

As the number of girl skateboarders grows, that sense of community has allowed many of them to enter a male-dominated sport without fear of judgment. Kylie Bick, 19, has been skating since she was 15 years old. She said she understands why girls might be scared to pick up a skateboard, but Brook Run isn’t like that. 

Finnell tallies scores during the contest. (Phil Mosier)

“I see a lot of social media things, where girls will be like, ‘I’m scared to go to the park because I’ll get teased, I’ll be called a poser, or whatever,’” she said. “I personally never felt intimidated by the skatepark, but I also had a great support system, and great guys — and Jennifer.”

Finnell said through the years, she’s had girls come through the army who started as kids and are now in college, and she’s seen the ways getting used to falling on concrete has toughened them up — in more ways than the obvious. 

Olivia Sawyer rides in the bowl. (Phil Mosier)

For Bick, skateboarding was quite the turn — she was a cheerleader until she traded in pom-poms for a board. A self-described “angsty teen,” she started hanging out with friends at the park boardless before she convinced her grandpa to buy her one for her birthday. Then she met Finnell, and she was hooked. 

At the time, Bick was going through a bit of a rough patch. She said skateboarding helped keep her out of trouble, and her parents knew it too. Even if she was grounded, she was always allowed to go Brook Run.

Natalie displays some of her prizes. (Phil Mosier)

“You can’t hang out with your friends,” she said. “But you can go to the skatepark.” 

Bick, who wasn’t a straight-A student in high school, said Finnell would help her with homework during downtime at the park. Fast forward four years, and she’s enrolled at Georgia State University and has taken her skateboarding, “anything is possible” mentality and put it towards school — in fact, she aced a statistics exam a couple of hours before her interview with the Reporter.

Olivia Sawyer celebrates taking second place in the “Bowl Beginners Division.” (Phil Mosier)

Finnell said she hopes the girls keep taking what they learn from the army and applying it to everything in their life. After all, she says, skateboarding isn’t that different. 

“You may eat it. You’re going to fall, and you’re going to have to get back up,” Finnell said. “That’s the way of life. Fall, get back up.”

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers.