Updated: August 4, 2021 8:04:07 am
She may be little, but in the skateboarding world, Sky Brown is a big deal.
Brown, Britain’s youngest ever summer Olympian, could become skateboarding’s third 13-year-old medallist when she competes in the women’s park event on Wednesday. In fact, at 13 years and 23 days old, she will be the youngest gold medallist ever if she carries her form into the bowls at the Ariake Urban Sports Park.
A week before the Olympics, she won the gold medal at the X-Games and remains the first and only woman in the competition to drop a frontside 540 — one-and-a-half rotations mid-air atop the board.
Fans and rivals have grown accustomed to looking up to Sky — the 4’5, soaring and contorting, “unicorn” on a skateboard. That moniker was given by Tony Hawk, the skateboarding legend responsible for turning the oft-derided, niche domain of Gen-X slackers into a mainstream, popular sport with uncanny feats of excellence.
“She could definitely be one of the best female skaters ever, if not one of the best, well-rounded skaters ever, regardless of gender,” Hawk told ESPN last year.
On Wednesday, she could also become an Olympic gold medallist in her country of birth. Born in Miyazaki to British father Stuart and Japanese mother Mieko, Brown speaks fluent Japanese and shuttles between Japan and California to take part in competitions. According to The Guardian, Brown chose Team GB because, “they said ‘Come be on our team, there’s no pressure, just get out there and have fun.’”.
“I’m so excited!” Brown tells The Indian Express in an email interview. “I can’t wait to see all my friends in Tokyo. There are a lot of athletes that I don’t get to see very often so it’ll be super fun.”
Skateboarding was a means of transport for the family in Japan but Stuart identified, and encouraged, her daughter’s love for the sport and built a mini-ramp in the backyard. Brown has been competing professionally since 2016 and younger brother Ocean, 9, is also an accomplished skateboarder and surfer. How many hours, then, are spent on a skateboard or surfboard every day?
“A lot of hours!” she says. “I get up around 5 and then I get in the ocean, head to the skatepark, then back to the ocean. It changes some days as well. I also love practising jiu-jitsu, dance and TikTok!”
Yes, the face of skateboarding is a Gen-Z child prodigy. In 2018, Brown participated in the only season of US reality TV show Dancing with the Stars: Juniors and won the competition. She has published five songs, authored a book and has more than two million followers across TikTok, YouTube and Instagram. Academics haven’t taken a backseat either.
“I still do full-time online school every day,” says Brown. “It’s nice because I can fit it in my schedule and do it at a different time every day if I want.”
By the time the first Olympic qualifier came to town at Long Beach, California in 2019, Brown was an established name with a Nike endorsement deal. A week before the event, Brown also broke her right arm. But it was the Olympics, and she competed sporting a pink cast, and came first.
Injury is an occupational hazard. The moves are scored on the difficulty, height, speed, originality, execution and composition. The street discipline requires skateboarders to tackle rails, stairs, benches and walls. Brown’s park event features athletes in a hollowed-out arena, climbing curves at high speeds and gaining serious air.
During one of the training sessions last May, she lost control and fell head first onto concrete from a 15ft vertical ramp, suffering life-threatening injuries.
“I held her in my arms and she bled, helplessly moaning in and out of consciousness waiting for the helicopter to take her to the hospital,” father Stuart wrote on Instagram. “We spent the night sick and terrified not knowing if Sky was going to make it through the night, as the ICU team tried to get her conscious and kept her alive. Word came back while she was still unconscious, multiple fractures to her skull, a broken left arm, which she broke into pieces because she used it to break her fall, broken right fingers and lacerations to her heart and lungs.”
Brown, who has seen the video several times, says, “my helmet and arm saved my life.”
“I don’t remember that moment of falling,” she says. “It just made me want to push harder and go bigger. I wanted to show everyone that if you fall you have to get back up.”
The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, thus, was a blessing in disguise. She was back on the board within two months of the fall, but the extra time has made Brown stronger.
“I really hope skateboarding at the Olympics will help break the stereotype about what a skateboarder looks like. I love travelling and have been able to travel to a lot of underprivileged places where I can help girls learn to skate,” says Brown. “It doesn’t matter where you live, if you’re young or old, girl or boy, it’s there for everyone. Anyone can skate!”