LONG BEACH, Calif. — Sky Brown is 10 years old: She’s about the size of two skateboards stacked end to end. But she has a big mission.
“I want to go to the Olympics,” she says.
Sky is a member of Great Britain’s national team, hoping to be among the world’s best athletes who gather in Tokyo next summer when skateboarding makes its Olympic debut at the 2020 Games. No one who has seen her on a skateboard would dare rule her out. Her outsize talent and charisma have made her one of the most popular and intriguing skateboarders — even if she’s just now wrapping up fifth grade.
She has several sponsors, a giant social media following and several viral videos to her credit. She’s a prodigy of sorts on a skateboard but also has made waves in surfing. Last year she even won “Dancing with the Stars: Juniors,” and she says there’s a purpose behind everything she does.
“If they watch me skate or do this trick, they’ll think maybe they can do it, too,” she says.
Sky caused a stir when Great Britain put her on its national skateboarding team this spring, but she has since shown that she’s no novelty act. She took first in the U.K. national skateboarding championships in April. At last week’s Dew Tour stop in Long Beach, the first Olympic qualifier in the United States, Sky was the youngest skater in the field. She posted the highest score in the qualifying round of the park event and was third after the quarterfinals, though she failed to advance to the finals.
Sky commands attention whenever she’s on her board. She doesn’t generate the power of her competitors, who are often more than twice her age, but she can be every bit as aggressive, smiling almost the entire time.
“To be able to create the speed and get the height she’s getting with the weight she’s got — she’s like a feather — you almost think it’s impossible,” says Lucy Adams, the chair of Skateboard England and Skateboard GB.
From the beginning
Sky and her tightknit family — parents Stu and Mieko Brown and brother Ocean — split their time between Southern California and Japan, where Sky was born and first learned to skate.
“I started skateboarding when I was 3 or 4,” she explains, “but I’ve been playing with it since I was zero, kind of.
“It was always my favorite toy,” she continues. “I’d just always want to play with it.”
She would watch her dad and friends skate and then study YouTube videos. She wasn’t content to be simply balancing or slowly rolling. She hit the backyard ramp with her dad and was a natural, performing kick turns on the ramp and kick flips with her board.
Stu Brown uploaded some footage of 5-year-old Sky onto Facebook. The clip bounced around and soon amassed a few million views. Sponsors and event organizers started noticing. Invitations and opportunities started piling up.
She did her first local contest at 7 and the next year became the youngest girl to compete in the Vans U.S. Open Pro Series. The family is selective about what to take on and says it has had to turn down many opportunities.
The Browns spend at least half the year living in Miyazaki, a city in the southern part of Japan known for its surfing conditions but lacking in skate culture.
They often travel around to skateboard, and the family has been spending more and more time in Southern California. Stu says he and his wife are careful about putting too much on their children’s plates — 7-year-old Ocean also skates and surfs — and they want to make sure Sky remains a kid first, a skater second.
“She’s so self-motivated. We would never want to push her, but she’s the one pulling us in all these directions,” he says. “She just loves skating. How do you stop her from doing something she loves?”
A young Olympic dream
Sky met Adams, a British pro, in 2016 at a competition in the United Kingdom. The two struck up a friendship and stayed in touch. A few months later, skateboarding was formally added to the program for the 2020 Tokyo Games, and Adams later would take a position with the Great Britain national skateboarding team.
“I was like, ‘Skateboarding’s in the Olympics?’ ” Sky recalls. “Everyone was like, ‘You don’t know what the Olympics are?’ ”
As Sky learned more, she became increasingly excited. The Olympics offer a big platform, and she thought girls all around the globe might see her and want to pick up a skateboard. But she will be just 12 years old during the Tokyo Games, which her parents felt was too young. Maybe in 2024, they told her, when she will be 16.
“But I was like, ‘Please, please, please!’” she recalls.
Adams and Sky swapped social media messages and chatted on WhatsApp. Sky couldn’t shake the Olympic dream, and Adams started entertaining the possibility, too, excited by the impact Sky could have. Because Sky’s father was born in England, the young skater could compete for Japan or Great Britain in international competition.
“I knew that Sky would be inspirational, and she’d help us raise the participation of skateboarding in this country, especially among females,” Adams says.
The governing body for most every other Olympic sport has age restrictions that prevent athletes as young as Sky from taking part in Olympic competition. Skateboarding does not.
“The idea is if a skater can earn enough points and do well enough in competition to qualify to participate in the Olympic Games, you shouldn’t eliminate their chance to participate based on how old they are,” said Josh Friedberg, the chief executive of USA Skateboarding.
Even though Sky was named to Great Britain’s national team, she’s not guaranteed a spot in the Olympics. She has to accumulate points at competitions over the next year and show that she’s among the most competitive park skaters, regardless of age.
It’s not often someone as young as Sky reaches the Olympics. Inge Sorensen won a bronze medal in swimming for Denmark as a 12-year-old at the 1936 Olympics. Italy’s gymnastics team in 1928 had competitors who were 11 and 12. The youngest Olympian ever was Greek gymnast Dimitrios Loundras, who was all of 10 years old for the 1896 Games.
Over the years, teens have left their marks on the Games, particularly in sports such as gymnastics and snowboarding. More recently, snowboarder Chloe Kim won two gold medals as a 17-year-old at the PyeongChang Games, and swimmer Katie Ledecky was 15 when she won her first gold medal at 2012 London Games.
‘Like a playground for me’
With the help of her mom, Sky is active on a social media, an important link to skateboarding fans but also a vital vehicle for her sponsors. Sky now has more than 375,000 Instagram followers. Her videos on the platform can top 100,000 likes. She shares her travels, training and exploits. After a skating mishap this month, she captioned one midair photo: “a Broken wing, will NOT stop me Flying!!”
Sky had been skating at a school in Oceanside, Calif., where she was trying a kick flip off some stairs. A bad landing sent her tumbling on her arm.
“It hurt really bad,” she says, “but I kept skating after.”
The pain didn’t subside, and doctors explained that she had fractured a bone, and Sky was outfitted for a pink cast that goes the length of her right arm. The injury has kept her from surfing, which meant more time to spend on her skateboard. Another tumble resulted in her cracking the cast, which is now reinforced with some tape.
Despite the injury, she insisted on competing in this month’s Dew Tour event. “It would’ve hurt her so much more to miss out,” her father says.
Sky skates well beyond her age, but there are competitors who are able to go higher and faster and execute tricks that Sky’s not ready for. It doesn’t stop her from trying, and in the coming years, she will be able to create more speed, more power and more air when she launches skyward.
During last week’s competition, Sky was limited by the broken arm but still skated with a smile.
She found her parents immediately after popping out of the bowl. During practice sessions, Stu Brown would chat with her between runs, sometimes lovingly poking her nose or wrapping Sky in his arms.
“We always come back to: If this isn’t fun, we shouldn’t be doing it,” her father says. “If she’s not happy, we’ll stop it. But as long as she enjoys the journey, we’re going to support her. We love what we have as a family. Everything works right now. I know the Olympics are huge, but if there’s a time where it’s not working, we can just walk away.”