It was the third day of the Vans U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, California. Thousands gathered that July afternoon to watch the pro surfers compete, but arguably the day's most talented athletes, pound for pound, had shown off their skills hours before spectators crowded the shoreline. They were over at the custom-painted professional skate bowl a short walk from the ocean.
One by one, four pint-sized skateboarders dropped into the nine-foot bowl, their ponytails and braids sticking out of their pink helmets. It was their own private session, a chance to skate the surface that the pros they emulate would take on later that day.
Meet seven-year-old Bella Kenworthy, Sierra Kerr, and Rella (Relz) Murphy, plus six-year-old Ryann Cannon. They like tutus, glitter nail polish, the color pink — and shredding at skate parks. The members of the quartet, nicknamed the Pink Helmet Posse, are doing what they love every time they strap on their pads and hop onto their boards. But they're also helping to change the male-dominated sport with every jump, scrape, and flip.
"The Pink Helmet Posse shows the world that it's O.K. to be feminine and still ride a skateboard," says Sierra's mother, Nikki.
The girls' parents, who are all involved in the surf-and-skate culture of Southern California, set up a playdate for the original trio — Bella, Sierra, and Relz — at the Encinitas YMCA skate park 18 months ago. Without coordinating it, the girls each showed up wearing the same pink helmet.
"Our daughters liked to skate individually, and they liked to surf," says Bella's dad, Jason. "Immediately they were friends. There were these three little girls tearing around the skate park. Wherever there was one, there were two others."
It wasn't long before someone at the skate park piped up, "Hey — it's the pink helmet posse!"
More Than A Nickname
Since then the girls have received plenty of national exposure. A nine-minute documentary short film about them premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City this past April. And Bella's mom, Sarah, runs PinkHelmetPosse.com, which sells skateboard, helmets, and skate gear customized for younger girls.
"Parents and kids from all over the world — Hong Kong, Bali, China — email us everyday thanking the girls for inspiring them and getting the word out there and asking for advice," says Sarah.
One of the group's most dedicated fans was Ryann, who was inducted into the crew after practicing for a year to reach the same level. In an impromptu ceremony this summer, the other three girls presented her with a pink helmet to replace her white one, officially welcoming her to their ranks.
"I was really happy," says Ryann, who admits that it took practice and courage for her to master the fancier moves. "I get really nervous," she says. But she's gotten used to falling down. "You get up and you practice again."
Sierra says falling is just part of the sport. "It makes me smile even if I fall because I know I am trying hard," she says. "It's O.K. to cry, but it is worth it when you make it. I don't give up until I make it."
All four began skating around age five when their dads and brothers went to the skate park. The girls have progressed significantly since. "Bella's dropping into the 14-foot vert ramps that they skate at the X Games, and she's seven," says her dad. Adds Relz's father, Gary, "The reason they are so good is that they push each other."
Each girl dreams of one day making it to the X Games. It's an ambitious goal — the June 2014 event in Austin, Texas, included only 28 females among 235 competitors — but the contestants are getting younger. Just last year Alana Smith, then 12, became the youngest X Games medalist when she won silver in the women's park competition in Barcelona.
Pro skateboarder Lizzie Armanto, who won the event held following the Pink Helmet Posse's private session at the U.S. Open back in July, says that the crew's mission to make it easier for other girls to try the sport is great for women's skateboarding. "It's breaking the stereotype of skateboarding being a men's sport," says Armanto, 21.
"There are probably a bunch of moms who see them skating and realize that their daughters might want to [try]. Not everybody is cut out for team sports."
And of course you don't have to own a pink helmet to be part of their movement. As Bella says, the reason she loves being in the Pink Helmet Posse isn't nailing cool tricks or even proving skeptics wrong. It's simply being with her friends. "The best part," she says, "is just skating with them and having fun."
Photos: Jason Kenworthy