With boardsports usually labelled 'extreme', it is no wonder anyone over 25 is hesitant picking up a board for the first time. It isn't just the risk factor, but also the fear of ridicule, for board sports are well known to be young male territory. By picking up her first board at the age of 57, Lena Salmi proved there are no double-binds that can't be solved by flipping up a finger (or two) in the face of the establishment.
Finland is a maiden: ‘Suomi neito’, a young woman with one arm up, a flowy dress, in the shape of the country she represents. Lena Salmi picked 'The Skateboarding Maiden of Finland' as an alter ego, tagging her figure on the walls and boards of Helsinki. And the claim isn’t entirely unfounded: at the tender age of 65, Lena is one of Finland’s highest profile skateboarders, after starting the sport in her mid-50s. Regularly travelling around Europe, she was instrumental in promoting the ‘Very Old Skateboarders Facebook group’ created by fellow silver skater Elizabeth Stuart, a group now 3,000 strong.
Building on a life as a sports journalist, Lena skates, dabbles in skate art and surfing, loves winter sports, diving, swimming, boxing and ... circus training. ‘Injury’ and ‘gossip’ are footnotes in her book which contains fascinating history chapters, tales of resilience and life lessons. Swellbound tells the story.
"If I fall walking in the street I immediately look around ashamed and hope other people didn’t notice. I just wonder why so? Falling belongs to skateboarding.”
Not too many 65 year-olds have a quiver: Lena owns a couple of longboards including one for cruising, one for downhill (or ‘DH’ as she reminds me), one for sliding, a surfskate (‘pure fun but quite difficult to ride’) and her favourite setup, a ‘fish shape specially tuned up’ for her tricks. Her love of skateboarding was born out of frustration of not being able to snowboard year round. And what she found was something unique: “in many sports, motivation is based of measurable success. In skateboarding, motivation originates from joy. Skaters are so goal-oriented, they repeat and repeat whereas my diving coach for example might say seven repetitions is enough. If I fall walking in the street I immediately look around ashamed and hope other people didn’t notice. I just wonder why so? Falling belongs to skateboarding.”
Skate art was a natural progression from being immersed in the scene: “while cruising on the streets or skating in parks I began to see the beauty of street culture, especially graffiti. I thought this is something for me.” Finding graffiti art “very liberating and quite demanding”, Lena went into drawing, taking part in a couple of exhibitions, and then deck decoration: a commercial series with 'the maiden of Finland' (see picture below), a board for her grand-niece featuring her favourite things (“ice-cream, Moomins, Hello Kitty, her sporting club and heavy metal”) and three boards for herself, including one featuring Helsinki’s “tram number 4 as it has the most charming drivers”. Hello boys!
"Alberto Tomba gave me a rose from his podium bouquet. ”
And Lena has been around a couple of boys in her time as a sports journalist, which goes a long way to explain her ease in a male-dominated discipline. As a Finn, she naturally covered winter sports (ice hockey, alpine, cross-country, freestyle skiing and snowboarding) but also other testosterone-fueled sports such as American football. Unsurprisingly, she sometimes caught the eye of sportsmen, including slalom superstar and sex symbol of the peaks Alberto Tomba, or ‘Tomba la Bomba’. By the time she met Tomba at the 1992 Winter Olympics in France, the skier was already a multi-gold medallist (Olympics, World Cup and World Championships) and his fame had spilt over beyond sports: “when the competition began, Tomba went up the lift and took one of his fan on his lap. Later another fan gave him a bottle of wine which he took a gulp from.” Both fans and journalists were ecstatic. At the press conference, the room was full of Italian journalists and Lena was the only female. She eventually interviewed Tomba in person: “after our conversation, he gave me a rose from the bouquet he got on the podium. An Italian journalist asked my name” and she, the journalist, ended up in the papers.
This anecdote is telling of what the environment in the sports media was like, and to some great extent, still is: “as a female sports journalist I can’t give a damn what the others think. I just have to go to the core regardless. When my colleagues go in one direction I may choose the total opposite. When I began my career at the beginning of the 80s, we were very few female journalists in Finland. You had to take your place in a very male working environment and build your reputation.”
"If you’re all the time afraid of doing sports then fear will overwhelm you and you’ll curl up. Slowly you will not do anything anymore."
Since childhood, Lena has learnt to find value not just in performance, but effort and participation. She swam at national level both in junior and adult categories and won gold in the 4x100m medley relay (her specialty being backstroke). Her most memorable event was a 100m front crawl competition when she was twelve years-old: “at fifty meters I was 7th and I could see this girl swimming just ahead of me. To bring one point to my club I had to place at least sixth. I just beat her and brought the point to my club. I was so happy!”
This ability to celebrate positives in adversity is a quality that serves her well in old age. After getting a hand injury in circus class, Lena was out of action for a full three months. “That time I was naturally mentally miserable but on the other hand I could use my imagination to find other ways to do the exercices and my instructors tried to find moves suitable for me.” Which meant she kept skateboarding, did trampoline, floor acrobatics and even tried one-arm stands!
Undoubtedly, Lena has been gifted with great genes supported by a lifelong healthy lifestyle, but she is also aware nothing lasts forever: “I’m now 65-years-old and of course I know that there will be a time when skateboarding and different circus disciplines are not possible for me anymore. But I don’t know exactly when and there is no point thinking about it. If you’re all the time afraid of doing sports then fear will overwhelm you and you’ll curl up. Slowly you will not do anything anymore. Focusing on the now is my advice."
“This young guy took his necklace and handed it over to me. It was miniature skateboard, a cross, some small rings, and a printed motto on a plate”
This rare self-awareness naturally leads to great empathy, and part of her success or ‘celebrity’ status is based on her ability to connect and inspire.
In October 2017, Lena decided to overcome her irrational fear of Africa (spiders and snakes), and took up an offer to visit Uganda. Rather than just stick to a traditional tour, she took upon herself to contact local skateboarding groups. She collected gear including decks, trucks, wheels and Vans shoes. She even took her all-time favourite board, the one with the ‘maiden of Finland’ on its back, and gave it to Olivia, a promising young female Ugandan skater who was skating bare-feet and already starting to master the ramp. Lena was moved by the heartfelt welcome of the Mukono skatepark community. “This young guy took his necklace and handed it over to me. It was miniature skateboard, a cross, some small rings, and a printed motto on a plate, one of his most valuable possessions.”
Lena is set to visit again in September, and this time collected even more donations from Helsinki skate shops and local skaters. “What an experience, to witness all that friendliness! People’s helpfulness was totally the opposite of what I had expected.”
She’ll have a busy couple of months, with a skateboarding choreography planned with Mikko Koski, a 47 year-old finnish skater; a swedish gathering at HighValley Skateworld in Högdalen for ‘girls, women and transgender people’, organised by veteran skaters Sussi Erikson and Anna Hougner; and a trip to New Zealand which includes some surfing.“Because once you experienced the desire for waves, you can’t forget it.”
Follow Lena on Instagram
Chief Storyteller at Swellbound