Nora Vasconcellos: From Scrappy Skateboarder to 'Future Icon'

In June 2012, Nora Vasconcellos quit her day job, packed her bags, grabbed her skateboard and took a 71-hour train ride from Pembroke, Massachusetts to California. It was a leap of faith, setting aside fears and facing her anxiety to pursue a life in skateboarding. In less than five years, Vasconcellos became a pro team rider for Welcome Skateboards, won a World Championship, won Transworld’s Readers’ Choice Female Award and joined the ranks of Mark Gonzales, Dennis Busenitz and Daewon Song on Adidas’ skateboarding team. “I was always going to be a skateboarder,” says Vasconcellos. “I just didn’t know that anybody was going to care.” 

In the mix of women who are pushing the limits of skateboarding, Vasconcellos awes with her unique style of skating – expert handling on half-pipes, effortlessly splicing complicated tricks into vert – just watch her part in Welcome Skateboard’s Fetish video. Her massive backside airs and seamless transitional skating are complimented by Vasconcellos’ comedic personality and antics. “For me, skateboarding is just about being fucking weird and making my friends laugh,” she says.

So how did a girl from pastoral Massachusetts become a world-class professional skateboarder in California? Both in jest and all seriousness, Vasconcellos credits her hero, Reggie Rocket, from the cartoon Rocket Power – a sassy and tomboyish female character that usually saves the day. “I was obsessed,” she says. “My cousins and me were on rollerblades and BMX bikes, and I was surfing – I just really wanted to be Reggie. Reggie had purple hair, so I did my hair purple too. She was the voice of reason and, even through she was a cartoon, she was a role model for me when I was a little kid. She was always the crew’s secret weapon in contests, because nobody expected her to do what the guys did.”

Vasconcellos took to action sports and art at an early age. Her father, Daniel Vasconcellos, is an independent freelance illustrator who worked from his home studio. Vasconcellos, and her little brother, Davis, were encouraged to paint, sculpt and draw. But action sports became her true obsession at an early age. One Christmas morning, as seen in this home video on YouTube, five-year-old Vasconcellos received her first skateboard and instantly became lovesick with learning to skate. She practiced in their barn every day and, in short time, took to the local skate parks with her friends. Skateboarding became a mode of expression for Vasconcellos without focusing on winning or losing – a positive social engagement for a child with a panic disorder. “That’s the whole reason I got into skating, because it’s not some elitist bullshit ring about being better than each other,” says Vasconcellos.

After graduating from Pembroke High School, Vasconcellos was eager to continue skateboarding, but had taken a full-time job working in a production warehouse for a large-scale advertisement company. Long hours of printing, cutting and packaging large signs and bus wraps left little time for skateboarding. A full year had slipped by and she knew it was time to make a big move and realize her dreams — so she left for California. It was around that time that Vasconcellos’ anxiety had transformed into panic when she was in tight spaces, such as airplanes. So she made the trek across America by train. “It was super cool and also super bazaar,” says Vasconcellos. “I got to see parts of America that I’ll probably never see again. I had dinner on the train over the Mississippi River; I spent two days getting to know an Amish family. It was a classic, unique journey.”

Once in California, Vasconcellos took up a summer job at Camp Woodward, a sleepaway summer camp renowned for its action sports programming. Following her summer job, Vasconcellos relocated to Southern California, where her mother, Joan Fontaine, followed to support her. It was in California, at around age 19, when Vasconcellos was diagnosed with a panic disorder. “It’s a weird thing that I don’t talk about all the time,” says Vasconcellos. “I don’t know why, because I’m super comfortable talking about it now. I’ve had anxiety since I was a really small kid. It shaped me back then – I had gnarly separation anxiety.” Vasconcellos’ first memory of an anxiety attack was when she was six years old and couldn’t find her parents at home. “I punched my hand through a glass pane door out of sheer panic, not being able to find them.”

“I’ve had anxiety since I was a really small kid,” says Vasconcellos. “It shaped me back then.”

After a run-in at a So Cal skatepark with Welcome Skateboards founder, Jason Celaya, Vasconcellos got her first shot at a career in skateboarding. “I learned how to use QuickBooks and helped with shipping and anything else they needed,” recalls Vasconcellos. “I worked in Jason’s kitchen and garage. A few months later, we moved into our first warehouse.” She worked at Welcome Skateboards for four years, learning the intricacies of running a skateboard company, until June of 2016, when she began riding for Adidas as an amateur skater.

Last August, Welcome turned Vasconcellos pro. Dressed in cat and rabbit masks, the company’s team surprised Vasconcellos with her new pro model board. “I had shaped the board, so I knew it was going to happen in the future, but I didn’t know it was there intention to turn me pro so soon,” she says. Welcome Skateboards takes pride in rekindling the passion of 1980’s skateboarding, when pro skaters rode specific shapes. “With Welcome, you could go get the Chris Miller setup with the Slime Balls wheels and Gullwing trucks and his board shape and that’s his setup – what he actually rode. That was the magic of it. And so now, when you buy my pro model board, it doesn’t just say my name on some little eight-inch generic shape – it’s a shape that I made and it’s what I ride.”

Just a few months after turning pro for Welcome Skateboards, Vasconcellos became the first female on the Adidas pro team. “It’s all happened so fast and been a dream come true – actually, it’s beyond my wildest dreams,” says Vasconcellos. “Adidas is a dream sponsor and I feel like I have all these older brothers now and we all travel the world together.”

By necessity to travel and participate in pro skater demos, signings and appearances, Vasconcellos had to learn to control her panic disorder. “I had to learn to stop saying no to things, and that totally changed my life – that and some therapy and breathing exercises,” says Vasconcellos. Finding peace in vulnerability helped dissolve her focus on fears. “Phobias were taking over my life,” she says. “Now I can travel spontaneously, which is what I need to do as a pro skater.”

Taking a leaf from her father’s book, Vasconcellos has evolved into a prolific artist, creating imagery using pen and ink and mixed media. Since her childhood days of doodling and sculpting, her artwork has taken its own identity in forms and patterns that convey heart, warmth and emotional sway. In some of her work, Vasconcellos shares her signature forest creatures with somber or joyful facial expressions. “People will mention Shel Silverstein when looking at my stuff – and that is the biggest compliment to me,” says Vasconcellos. “I’ve taken inspiration from artists like him since I was four years old and it feels subconscious how these aesthetics have remained in my head for all these years and find their way into my art.” Vasconcellos’ art has also been appeared on Welcome Skateboard’s apparel line and will likely be included in her forthcoming pro model skate deck.

Since September of 2016, when Vasconcellos first met up with the Adidas pro skateboarding team in New York, she has been on team trips to Australia and Japan, the latter being an Adidas art show in Tokyo where she joined team riders and skateboarding legend Mark Gonzales in showing their latest creations. Nora is, without a doubt, naturally gifted on her skateboard and in her art,” says Gonzales. “She’s sincere and real, in a sport or activity that can at times be unwelcoming.”

“People are just obsessed with Gonz and it’s such a crazy thing to be a part of,” says Vasconcellos, referring to Gonzales. “To have my art up on the same walls as Mark and the Japanese team, well, it’s just been pinch-me [moment] after pinch-me moment. I can’t believe it’s all real and happening.”

Professional street skater and co-founder of Baker Skateboards, Andrew Reynolds, sees Vasconcellos as a positive symbol of empowerment for women, especially for his daughter, Stella. “Nora is putting out her positive message to the world, not just about skateboarding for girls. Guys, girls – you can be a skater, dress how you want. You can be an artist,” says Reynolds.

Pro skater Lacey Baker, who recently went pro for Nike, sees Vasconcellos as a representation that’s needed in skateboarding and beyond. “Nora is super unique and she breaks the mold,” says Baker. “The way she skates and controls the board is iconic – she’s very graceful, but powerful at the same time.” Vasconcellos’ backside airs are considered among the best, between all genders. And as Baker puts it, “It’s still a small community of girls that are out there. But those are the girls that are inspiring groups of girl skaters all over the world.”

“She’s a future icon – that’s how I see her,” says filmmaker GIovanni Reda. 

In December 2017, award-winning filmmaker Giovanni Reda, in collaboration with Adidas, premiered the short film Nora, a playful documentary that spotlights Vasconcellos’ journey in skateboarding from childhood to present. “The film says a lot about the way that Nora represents herself in skateboarding,” says Reda. “My favorite skaters always went beyond the skateboarding. Nora encompasses the style, the personality, and the artist; she’s everything you want in a skateboarder. She’s a future icon – that’s how I see her.” 

“I wouldn’t have done this project with anybody else — only with Reda,” says Vasconcellos. “I love him and the film he did with Brian Anderson. It was so cool having Reda and his team around for eight months and having this time in my life documented.” The film, which premiered at Hollywood’s skate-haven bar, BLACK, on December 21st, was intended to be a nice feel-good wrap up to 2017.

“I think what Nora is doing for women as a role model,” says Reda. “I hope my daughter looks up to her as somebody that has persevered and doesn’t let things get in the way of what she wants. And Nora does that by simply being herself, which a lot of people don’t always do. She’s a role model for young girls to see that women could become successful in a male dominated world.”

With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on the not-so-distant horizon, and skateboarding’s inclusion in two events, Vasconcellos is excited for the opportunities the games have provided globally. “The Olympics are the source of why girls are having success in skateboarding – with all the contests and heavy marketing,” explains Vasconcellos. “They can’t sanction a men-only event in the Olympics; they have to prove it’s transparent. So, because of the Olympics, we have a women’s division in Street League Skateboarding and in the Vans Park Series.” As Vasconcellos sees it, now she and her friends get to skate for a living and make money and travel together. “We still live in a day and age when the odds are stacked against women,” says Vasconcellos. “So any breakthrough is a step in the right direction.” 

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