Lacey Baker hits a rut
The day before the women's Skate Street competition at X Games 17, Lacey Baker surveyed the freshly poured California Skateparks course at the Staples Center. She examined the banks, rails and hubbas. At the gaps and wall-ride tranny, her eyes widened to the size of salad plates. You could sense her mind skimming the possibilities of each element as if she were on four wheels rolling over cement.
But while her eyes glided from feature to feature, Baker's petite frame could not follow suit. It traveled slowly on two feet, irregular and deliberate, with the help of her grandmother's cane.
Lacey Baker is 19 years old.
The Covina, Calif., phenom received confirmation in the hours before the biggest competition of the year that the MRI performed on Tuesday revealed a partial tear in her left MCL, rendering her unable to compete for the 1-in-10 shot at $50,000.
"There's an amazing course in front of me and I can't even skate," she said with a frustrated smirk and a gentle shake of her trademark dishwater-blond drape.
A precis of Lacey Baker's entire season -- everything that she and the tight group of the world's best women street skaters live for -- is four competitions in swift succession through the month of July.
At the Rome World Cup of Skateboarding over Fourth of July weekend, Baker rode her way to a second-place finish and 600 euros (about $860).
Days later, at the 2011 Relentless Energy Drink NASS Girlzilla in Shepton Mallet, England, Baker edged out last year's X Games winner, Alexis Sablone, and last year's Girlzilla victor, Leticia Bufoni, for top honors, earning her 650 pounds (about $1,000).
The following week, Baker moved on to the third and final major tour stop in Europe, and was tasked with defending her title at the Mystic SK8 Cup in Prague, Czech Republic.
"On the last day of the Prague contest, I came in fast to this jump over a fire hydrant. I stuck it completely, but after I landed, my foot just slipped off or something and I ripped my knee," she said. "I wasn't sure how bad it was at first. I mean, I could kinda walk. And dance to Gaga. I didn't know. But I guess I did know, even before the results came back, that I wasn't going to be able to skate X Games."
Baker's sense of humor is -- as always -- fully intact, but the timing of the knee injury is a blow to the momentum of the blue-chip skater, who was coming in hot to a most promising shot at the year's biggest annual prize purse.
"I'm really pretty bummed out. We're broke," Baker said. "This was my opportunity of the summer to make some money. I'm in school during the year. I took this summer off in order to skate. My plan was to take the three weeks in Europe, come back to compete in X Games, and then go home and just skate and shoot photos and video and get myself out there. But I kinda hit a little bump in the road here."
And just as I think the frustration of the situation might be chiseling the kid's spirit; just as I think she should be feeling sorry for herself as we sit chatting on the street course while her peers sashay around her on their skateboards, she looks at me, raises her eyebrows above her Ray-Ban eyeglass frames, and says, "Did you know it's Shark Week?"
It's exactly that kind of clever reaction and nippy originality that you'll see when Baker is on a skateboard. She's inventive, effortless on the switch, evolutionary in transition, acutely technical and always aware of the whole course.
In competition as in life, Lacey Baker sees the big picture.
"I've been skating for so long, I don't think this is that big of a deal," she said. "I mean, I'm totally bummed. But it's one contest. I can't really worry too much about it, you know? This is just how it is. You come out of it."
While she's laid up, Baker keeps sane by playing guitar and swimming. She is also one of the six people on the planet who enjoys spending an entire afternoon at the laundromat. "I think it's cool, because you can just chill and listen to music while you get everything done," she said. "I guess I can do the same thing at home, but I just like to get out there."
After her whites are all folded and the summer skateboard season wanes, Baker will train her brain at the Art Institute of California in Hollywood, where she is studying graphic design.
"I'm excited for October and getting back to school," she said. "My education is really important to me. Injuries happen. Anything can happen. You need something to fall back on. Plus, everybody needs money, we all need a job.
"I've always imagined that I would work for a skate company or maybe start my own company, do some designing and have my own art direction. You can't just come into skating and think, 'I'm going to be able to do this forever.'"
But at just 19, she already seems to have longevity, having first turned heads as a grom in 2008, when she became the first girl to make it to the semifinal round of the Tampa Am (coming in 33rd out of a field of almost 200 guys).
Skateboarding skills and immediate sponsorship afforded Baker the chance to travel the globe, which she has embraced. But while en route to those World Cup competitions, she made sure to finish high school and keep her priorities in check.
"I have a really great time on the road. For a while, when I was younger, I thought, this town is boring. I want to move somewhere cool like New York, or I don't know, just somewhere else. Somewhere more. Then, I kinda realized that I don't need to do that. Not right now. I'm in a really great place in life. I have the best friends I could ever ask for. My mom is amazing; I gotta be there for her. We're supportive of each other. I'm stoked. I'm set. I'm comfortable where I'm at. Life is great."
Without a doubt, Lacey Baker is grounded and fearlessly down to earth -- despite, but certainly not because of, today's bum knee.
Mary Buckheit is a freelance writer based in San Diego. She can be reached at email@example.com.