"Changed the Game" is a Yahoo Sports series dedicated to the women who are often overlooked, under-appreciated or simply deserve more flowers for their contributions to women's sports history.
These days, Peggy Oki can be found campaigning for the well-being of whales and dolphins through impactful environmental campaigns across the world. Forty-five years ago, she was an original and the only female member of the Zephyr Competition Team, a group of athletes who dominated the mid-70s California skate scene.
Born in Los Angeles, Oki was gifted her first skateboard at age 10 from her father. A “Black Knight” model from FedCo, Oki remarked in an interview with Cal Streets the Fred Flintstone-like rock wheels. She got her start skating around Dogtown, a popular neighborhood affectionately known as the birthplace of America's skateboard culture.
Oki began her tenure with the Z-Boys after youngest member Jay Adams approached her to join the squad. In 1975, Oki competed in her first national event, the Del Mar Nationals. It didn't take long for her to put the industry on notice, taking home top honors in the women's freestyle. You could argue she possessed a humble demeanor from the start, because even an impressive debut representing an all-boys side didn't elicit an arrogant personality.
"I was doing something that I really loved doing," Oki told Pop Sugar in 2019. "I didn't really think about, 'gee, I'm the only girl on the team, where are my girlfriends,' or anything like that. I was just doing it."
For Oki, skateboarding was a way of life. An opportunity to challenge her skillset while at the same time invigorating her love of motion.
"We were known to live a little bit outside the box, be a bit rebellious," she said at a TEDx talk in 2016. "While lots of kids were trying to figure out how to stay out of school, we were getting into them to skate the banks, and getting in to skate the pools, which led to our surfing style that was our trademark: vertical skateboarding, that led to what you see in today’s X Games."
Even though skateboarding is how the world was introduced to Oki, her actions decades later prove she was bound to make history outside of this sport.
Upbringings inspiring activism
Now 64 years old, Oki's competitive days are long behind her and she's become a major environmental activist.
Her parents escaped to the United States from Hiroshima, Japan during World War II, and the story of Sadako Sasaki would forever stick with Oki.
Sasaki was only 13 when she was exposed to radiation after a bomb was detonated in Hiroshima. Consequently, she was diagnosed with leukemia and while hospitalized, was encouraged by friends to fold origami cranes. A Japanese folk legend states that if you fold 1,000 cranes, the gods honor your wish. Armed with a desire to beat the illness, Sasaki began folding. She constructed 650 cranes before passing away. Sasaki's story has since been used as a metaphor for those advocating for peace and nuclear disarmament, and served as the inspiration for Oki's own non-profit.
Oki founded the Origami Whales Project in 2004 to raise awareness about whaling. Since then, she has developed a run of origami curtains shaped from 38,000 paper whales, which symbolize the total killed since the International Whaling Commission issued a suspension on commercial whale hunting in 1986.
Oki also harnesses the power of words to further support her mission. Her TEDx speech exemplifies that it only takes one person connecting with other passionate individuals to make a permanent difference in the world.
"Lots of people can have passion. You don’t have to be passionate about seeing whales and dolphins. It’s turning passion into action that can make a difference in the world. I never imagined that the Berlin Wall would come tumbling down. But some passionate people did.
"They took action and it happened. I never imagined that nations across the world would ban circuses from using wild animals. Some passionate people did, and it happened. I never imagined that with one remaining female New Zealand black robin left, that that species would be brought back from the brink of extinction. Some passionate people did, and it happened."
The future of skateboarding
More than 45 years since her debut, millions will see skateboarding on a worldwide level when the sport makes its Olympic debut at this year's Tokyo Games. Oki admittedly can't forecast the impression it will have compared to the more popular events like gymnastics or swimming. She does hope that individuals, perhaps more women, will feel emboldened to hop on a skateboard at some point in their lives.
"I'm not sure what it's going to do. I think it's going to spark some more curiosity," she said to Pop Sugar. "It will be interesting to see how many people, after seeing these things in the Olympics, are going to go, 'Well I'm going to go out and buy a skateboard.'"
As for her, Oki will keep continue finding a balance in what commands her life at the moment: rock climbing, art and of course, saving the orcas.