Nora Vasconcellos traipses through the darkened hallway of her family home in Massachusetts, bleary eyed and wrapped in a robe.
It’s Christmas morning, 1997, and her father has trained a camcorder on the five-year-old before excitedly lobbing questions at her: “What day is it? What do ya see? Presents from who?”
Moments later, she’s tearing the wrapping paper off a box that’s nearly the same size as her, exclaiming: “Skateboard!” with both hands clenched.
It’s an innocent moment of empowerment, one recognisable to anyone who understands the way a toy can unlock your imagination. “Even when I was really little and didn’t skate, I always identified with it,” says Nora now. “It’s strange, but I knew it was something I was going to do.”
The biggest misconception about success is that there’s a formula to it: work hard, never give up and always visualise your goals. That can put anyone in the right headspace to flourish, but it doesn’t guarantee results.
This is the often overlooked crux of Michael Lewis’ bestselling book Moneyball, which follows the rise of Billy Beane – a scout-turned-manager who realises that the baseball industry’s collective wisdom is flawed and outdated. Driven to find a solution, he discovers a way to utilise undervalued talent – skill-sets that aren’t being leveraged correctly – and dramatically disrupts the sport.
In 2018, skateboarding is going through a similar change from the inside out. There’s increasingly less space between what skateboarding actually is and what a bunch of middle-aged men perceive it to be. That wave of change is best represented by the breakout success of Nora Vasconcellos.
Nora was born at the tail end of 1992 in Pembroke, Massachusetts – a sleepy town nestled between Cape Cod and Boston that’s known for its preppy culture. It’s the kind of place where locals are defined by their clothing, social standing and achievements.
For a child, that structure is all you know – and Nora always felt somewhat disconnected from it. She shuffled through all the usual outdoor sports loved by New Englanders but never quite found the right fit until she landed on skateboarding.
“As 11-year-olds, my best friend Becky and I didn’t make the soccer team and we were devastated by it,” she says. “When you’re from a small town and don’t make the team, you’re totally left out of just about everything people are doing, so we started making goofy skate videos and skits.
“My brother is a parkour athlete and we’re really similar in that aspect: there’s a really artistic, performative side to what we do. I was never once like, ‘Mom, film me kick this soccer ball!’”
Nora is part of a generation that grew up in front of cameras, but the 25-year-old would stand out in any decade. Although her new obsession felt alienating at first, she managed to excel at the physical act of skating while simultaneously developing a unique on-screen persona: an analytical storyteller who exudes goofy curiosity. In conversation, she’ll interrupt answers to fire back questions with all the charisma of a talk-show host.
As a teen, Nora spent her week working the cash register at a grocery store just to buy enough gas for a trip to a New Hampshire skatepark on the weekends. Though her parents were supportive, their economic situation eventually led to them losing the home she was raised in. The experience offered up a valuable lesson: don’t be precious, be proactive.
“My parents were so hardworking and, in a lot of ways, did everything right… but things didn’t work out,” she explains. “It gave me a real respect for money and finance because we didn’t have it. I could go to school and amass all this debt or I could go and pursue skating with no debt. I had nothing to lose, so why play it safe?”
After high school, Nora got a job in a warehouse for large-scale advertising productions. She worked with some great people, but their life paths didn’t really line up with hers. “Suddenly you realise that a whole year had passed – and it was a really lonely year. That’s when I pulled the plug and decided to move.”
Fuelled by that “lost” year, Nora packed up for Southern California – moving closer to her then-sponsor Hoopla Skateboards – with her mother in tow as both support and roommate.
They settled in Orange County, where Nora immediately picked up a job at a local mall. Her first shift happened to fall on Black Friday: working from midnight to 9am at a clothing store where throngs of rowdy kids lined up to cop the latest Diamond Supply Co. drop.
“It was fucking evil,” she says. “Kids were trying to break in before the store opened. It made me hate human beings; I didn’t want to see one for days. All I wanted to do was go home; I even ended up getting a flat tire on the way there. Later that week my mom and dad split up. It was a miserable, shitty time… but in my head it was just temporary.”
One day at a skatepark, Nora met Welcome Skateboards owner Jason Celaya – making so much of an impression that he offered her a job on the brand’s “administrative” end. It required working off a TV tray in his living room, but it fostered an interest in the entrepreneurial side of skating.
Welcome’s product not only stood apart visually from standard popsicle-shaped boards, it also appealed to a demographic that other brands ignored: the average kid at any skatepark, USA.
“Working at Welcome taught me that if you don’t like what’s out there, create what you want. And that applies across the board.”
As the company’s profile soared, Nora left Hoopla to become an official Welcome team member. Then in 2013 – just six months after moving to California – she won her first competition. It felt like a turning point: Nora managed to overcome her self-consciousness in a contest setting while earning a little money in the process.
“I didn’t have a personal life,” she says about those early days in Orange County. “I just worked and went skateboarding. I had an idea of what I wanted and I was very content [to pursue that]. I don’t know how I did it.
“I started dating Daniel [Vargas, an employee at Welcome] and we never had a comfortable place to be; he lived with his parents and I was in a bedroom with my mom. We just went to the movies a lot. Fuck it, things are better now; I’m sitting by my pool and drinking a smoothie.”
“Better” doesn’t quite do justice to Nora’s trajectory. She’s released several parts, including one in Welcome’s full-length video Fetish. She’s also won more contests, appeared on Thrasher’s King of the Road and become the first female professional on Adidas Skateboarding. Most importantly, she’s eked out a sustainable position to navigate her career whatever way she wants.
Female skaters are being viewed and valued much differently than they were even 10 years ago, but there’s still a lot of ground to be made up.
Nora’s been outspoken about teams expanding their rosters to include a token female rider just because it’s “trendy” – noticing that their choice of skaters are often figures who treat it as a sport rather than a lifestyle, the kind who didn’t grow up within skate culture and probably wouldn’t be in it now were it not for skateboarding’s inclusion in the 2020 Olympics.
“I listen to interviews that some girls do and know they’re bullshitting,” she says. “I compete against girls half my age, who have private skateparks in their yard that cost up to a quarter-million dollars. I just laugh about it.
“The amount of girls I’ve seen come and go – ‘the best of the best’ – I just laugh. You can tell when people are doing it for the wrong reasons. I hate that shit, but my whole thing is that it’s not going to work. This is skateboarding. You can’t fake it.”
Either way, she says, the presence of legit female skaters aren’t going to waiver based on what teams or sponsors acknowledge them. Women-run crews, brands and DIY projects are flourishing at street level, illuminated organically through social media. A reality check, Nora suggests, is long overdue.
“This is not a phase anymore,” she says. “But what I laugh about is that you have an industry that’s all dudes – they own the brands, they are the team managers – now understanding that the female market is fucking insane. Who’s really spending money? Women are.
“And yet how many skateshops are going under because they’re alienating women? How much shit does Thrasher sell to 15-year-old girls? We’re half the population, so you’re not gonna fail either way.” She lets out a sigh, half-bemused, half-exasperated.
“Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘If you ever get in trouble, ask a woman’? For some reason, women are more welcoming and maternal. Skateboarding could really use that personality.”
This article appears in Huck 64 – The Journeys Issue. Buy it in the Huck Shop or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
Check out Nora Vasconcellos on Instagram.