Her hair pokes out the back of her sky blue helmet and flaps like a cape as she flies around in circles. Poised confidently on her skateboard - knees slightly bent, infectious smile engaged - she gains speed and fearlessly attacks the bowl. Sky Brown is not here to take it easy, and doesn't have time to wait behind the older, bigger skateboarders.
She's 10-years-old, about the size of two skateboards stacked end to end and has a big mission on tap.
"I want to go to the Olympics," she says. "I want to be the youngest one out there and show the girls it doesn't matter how big you are or how small you are. You can do anything."
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 outsized talents and charisma have made her one of the most popular and intriguing skateboarders - even if she's just now wrapping up the 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: Junior," and 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. "That's why I want to do the Olympics to inspire those kids who think they can't do it," she says.
Sky caused a stir when Great Britain put her on its national skateboarding team this spring, but she's since shown that she's no novelty act. She took first in the UK national skateboarding championships in April.
At this month'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.
Photo: Peter Byrne
Sky commands attention whenever she's the board. She doesn't generate the power of her competitors, who are often more than twice her age, but 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," said Lucy Adams, the Skateboard England and Skateboard GB chair.
Sky and her tight knit 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 three?or four," she explained, "but I've been playing with it since I was zero, kind of.
"It was always my favourite toy," she continued. "I'd just always want to play with it."
She'd watch her dad and friends skate outside and then study YouTube videos online. She wasn't content to be simply balancing or slowly rolling. She hit the backyard ramp with her dad and was a natural, performing kickturns on the ramp and kick flips with her board.
Stu Brown uploaded some footage of a five-year-old Sky onto Facebook. The clip bounced around and soon amassed a few million views. Sponsors and event organisers started noticing. Invitations and opportunities started piling up.
She did her first local contest at age seven?and the next year became the youngest female to compete in the Vans US?Open Pro Series. The family is selective about what to take on and say they've had to turn down many opportunities.
They 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.
"I feel like I'm the only girl skating sometimes," she says.
They often travel around to skateboard, and the family has been spending more and more time in southern California. Stu says they're careful about putting too much on their children's plates - 7-year-old Ocean also skates and surfs - and wants 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?"
Sky first met Adams, a British pro skater, 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 recalled. "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'll be just 12 years old during the Tokyo Games, which her parents felt was too young. Maybe in 2024, they told her, when she'd be 16.
"But I was like, 'Please, please, please!'" she recalled.
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 potential impact Sky could have. Because Sky's father was born in England, the young skater couple compete for either 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 said.
The governing body for most every other Olympic sport has age restrictions in place that prevent athletes as young as Sky from 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 a series of competitions over the next year and show that she's among the most competitive park skaters, regardless of age.
Even if she makes it to Tokyo, winning a medal would be a stretch, but the history books would take notice. It's not often someone as young as Sky reaches the Olympics. Twelve-year-old Inge Sorensen won a silver medal swimming for Denmark at the 1936 Olympics, Italy's gymnastics team in 1928 had competitors who were 11 and 12. The youngest Olympian ever was gymnast Dimitrios Loundras, who was all of 10 years old in 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.
With the help of her mum, 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 uses hashtags like #Nike and #hurley and shares her travels, training and exploits. After a skating mishap earlier this month, she captioned one midair photo: "a Broken wing, will NOT stop me Flying!!"
Sky had been skating at a school in Oceanside, California, where she was trying a kickflip off some stairs. A bad landing sent her tumbling on her arm.
"It hurt really bad," she said, "but I kept skating after."
The pain didn't subside, doctors explained that she'd 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 said.
Sky skates well beyond her age, but there are other 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'll 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.
"Skateboarding is like my happy place," she says. "It's like a playground for me."
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."
The Washington Post