Continuing with our Meet the 2020 Athletes series, TW caught up with 11-year-old skateboarding and surfing prodigy Sky Brown. Nike’s youngest sponsored athlete, she’s an Anglo-Japanese sporting star who has chosen to represent Team GB at next year’s Olympics. With just 20 spots up for grabs in the Park Skateboarding competition, Brown’s first goal is to secure enough points to book a spot at the Games.
When the Tokyo Olympics kicks off on July 24, 2020, Sky Brown will be 12 years and 12 days old. If she qualifies for the Park Skateboarding competition, set to take place on August 5 and 6, she’ll become Britain’s youngest-ever summer Olympian, breaking a long-running record set by swimmer Margery Hinton who was 13 when she competed at the 1928 Amsterdam Games. Going up against people older, bigger and more experienced holds little fear for the young skateboarder. In fact, it’s something she thrives on.
“People sometimes tell me I’m too small or this isn’t a sport for girls, and I love hearing that,” Brown tells TW. “It’s the best motivation. I feel there’s a fire in me and those kinds of comments spark something. [Laughs] I’m happy to be one of the youngest and want to keep pushing the limit in women’s skateboarding. I believe anything’s possible when I go out to perform and I want to let every girl out there know that they can do anything, too.”
“People sometimes tell me I’m too small or this isn’t a sport for girls, and I love hearing that”
Born in 2008 to a Japanese mother and a British father, Brown splits her time between California and her hometown of Miyazaki on Japan’s southern island of Kyushu. “Miyazaki’s my favorite place on the planet,” says the pint-sized star. “The weather’s usually warm and the waves are great all year. The food’s always fresh and delicious. It’s a small place with a real community. I know everyone here, so it feels safe and friendly.”
Living next to the beach, Brown has always loved being outdoors, attempting sports she considers exciting. Skateboarding naturally appealed. As a toddler, she often played with her father’s board. He was reluctant to let her have a go but eventually relented as she was so drawn to it. She began skating at the age of three and started surfing not long afterward. Her brother, Ocean, three years her junior, followed suit and the pair were soon attempting techniques that even some pros have yet to master.
The siblings have a very close relationship and can often be seen in and out of the water together practicing the two disciplines. “That’s when I’m at my happiest,” says Brown. “We don’t call it practice, we call it playing because surfing and skating are what we love doing. I was hooked immediately after trying both, and Ocean was the same.”
“Sky has something about her that’s very special,” adds her father, Stuart. “It’s hard to put it into words, but anyone who meets her soon becomes aware of it. She has so much passion for everything she does. It’s infectious. Ocean, on the other hand, is completely different. He’s a free spirit who’s less focused and has more of a wild side.”
Ocean is expected to compete in international events in the future. For now, though, the media focus is on his sister who has the potential to light up the 2020 Olympics. She first came to the public’s attention aged five when her father uploaded footage of her skateboarding on Facebook. After amassing a few million views, sponsors began circling. In the summer of 2016, an eight-year-old Brown became the youngest person to compete at the Vans US Open Pro Series. That same year, the IOC announced that skateboarding would be making its debut at the 2020 Summer Olympics. Unlike most other sports, there will be no age restrictions in the competition, meaning Brown can compete if she qualifies. While parents Mieko and Stuart felt 2024 was a more realistic target, their daughter believed she was capable of trying for the Tokyo Games, initially stating her desire to represent Japan. Things have changed since, however, with the youngster confirming her allegiance to Britain earlier this year.
“Lucy Adams, the chairman of team GB, has video called me and my parents a number of times over the last few months,” says Brown. “She explained that for Great Britain, what’s most important is that I enjoy the journey. There wouldn’t be a heavy training regime, just support for me when I needed it. This was perfect because I love skateboarding and I work hard enough by myself. It’s the way I approach skating anyway. I’ll do my best but have fun. Her words were very reassuring for my family, too.”
Takehisa Miyazawa, chairman of the Japan skateboarding committee, admitted he would have liked to have had Brown on his team, but also emphasized the country’s strength in women’s skateboarding. Currently, four of the top five qualifiers in the female Park competition are Japanese. Thirteen-year-old Misugu Okamoto leads the way with Kokona Hiraki, aged just 11, at number five. The pair placed first and second at the recent X Games in Minneapolis, though it was fifth-placed Brown who got most of the headlines after she became the first-ever female in the history of the Games to land a Frontside 540.
Without an official coach, Brown teaches herself these kinds of manoeuvres, usually after watching videos on YouTube. It’s not the conventional way for a pro athlete to practice, but it seems to be working. Less than a year away from the Olympics, her prospects of qualifying look good and, according to her father, she’s very relaxed about everything. “Sky handles the pressure better than we do,” he says, laughing. “She’s very chilled and likes to take things at her own pace.”
Despite all the hours she spends skateboarding and surfing, Brown still manages to find time to do her schoolwork as well as pursuing other hobbies such as the recorder, jujitsu and dancing. Last year, she competed against several other celebrity children on the debut season of Dancing with the Stars: Juniors. Brown and her partner, JT Church, became the show’s first-ever winners. “I still can’t believe it,” she says. “I have to keep pinching myself.”
Having achieved so much at such a young age Brown is determined to use her fame to give back to those less fortunate, helping to raise money for underprivileged children. She also visited Cambodia and Cuba to show kids how to skate. “I was able to practice with girls just like me,” she says. “I had so much fun teaching them and seeing their smiles. I want to do more trips in the future. It’s what motivates me most. We are all equal and I think it’s important to support each other.”
Japan’s Skate Contenders
If Sky Brown does qualify for the Olympics, many of her biggest rivals in Tokyo may come from Japan
Young stars Misugu Okamoto and Kokona Hiraki were the stand-out performers at the recent X Games and both have enjoyed fine seasons so far. Other names to look out for include Mami Tezuka, 2016 X Games winner Kisa Nakamura, and 2018 Asian Games gold-medalist Sakura Yosozumi. In the men’s event, 2018 Asian Games champion Kensuke Sasaoka is Japan’s highest ranked skater, though two-time Olympic snowboarding silver-medalist Ayumu Hirano recently defeated him at the national championships.
Aori Nishimura is Japan’s best hope of a gold medal in the women’s Street Competition. The 18-year-old has won two X Games gold medals and in January of this year was crowned World Champion. Twelve-year-old Yumeka Oda is a rising star who has the potential to challenge for a medal. As do Funa Nakayama and Kaya Isa. In the men’s competition, recent X Games winner and four-time Street League gold-medalist Yuto Horigome is the name to look out for, though Sora Shirai is also capable of challenging.