Elite competition skateboarding seems like a lifetime from where Leo Baker is today, even though he was on a fast track to the Olympics just two years ago.
In 2020, two major events changed the sport and his life. One was the global COVID-19 pandemic that pushed the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, and the debut of street skateboard as a full medal sport, to 2021.
The other was Baker affirming his truth as trans-masculine, non-binary and queer, and deciding to forgo his place on the U.S. Olympic team to make a personal leap forward.
“My calendar was just full of flights, like one after another. There was never enough time where I could anticipate rest,” Baker looked back in an interview for the Trans Sporter Room. “The fact that everything got paused was a blessing for me to focus on what I needed to get done and not compromise my time in that way anymore.”
The rise, decision, and aftermath for Baker is the focus of the Netflix documentary, “Stay On Board: The Leo Baker Story,” which debuted on the streaming service in August. The film, directed by Nicola Marsh and Giovanni Reda, is an intimate look into Baker’s ascent from California-born newbie to six-time X Games medalist and Olympic medal contender.
The film also looks at Baker’s struggle of being in the spotlight as a top women’s skater, while dealing with an identity that was opposite of the perception. The story is told in a manner much like Baker is on his skateboard: intense, raw, and human.
“An intense period of my life” is how Baker described his experience shown in the film. There was the contrast in the evolution of the sport on its journey from the underground fringe to the Olympic stage, set against Baker’s evolution away from crafting a space on that stage and finding a different path.
One contrast was Baker instructing some would-be skateboarders, and then being part of a support group of those same skaters, who are all trans. Another was when Baker turned a photo shoot into his public coming out, and the fallout that followed on social media.
A scene that stuck with this reporter: Baker returns to his old high school to be inducted into the school’s hall of fame. His dead name adorns the plaque, and a teacher congratulating him on being a “world class female”.
The eye roll from Baker as the teacher walked away was worth a paragraph of monologue. It was a sign of the increasing energy it took to compartmentalize.
“Early on it wasn’t super difficult, my early to mid-20s, because everything was kind of convoluted and there wasn’t a lot of clarity around what I wanted to do,” he said. “It was getting more clear at the same time the Olympic hype was rising.
“I would be out there and would just be miserable and then I just can’t wait to go home and just be alone. It was a dark time for being in competition and knowing what I know and what I needed to do.”
Baker made his clean break in February 2020, leaving his chance at the Olympics behind and going forward with his medical transition not long thereafter.
He started to skate and make videos as a passion, and started his own skateboard design firm.
Baker also saw the decision as putting himself first.
“When the spotlight is so clear on how much I am stripped of being creative on those space and my humanity, when I move into the space I want to be in I really get to lean into those things,” he said. “I feel grateful to be able to work on skating the way I want to do it and not have to compromise that anymore.”