Having confidently glided up to the top pipe on a ramp nearly 10 feet high, skateboarder Sky Brown lost her footing while trying a trick and tumbled down the slick concrete.
Coming to a stop at the bottom of the course, her right arm already wrapped in a pink cast from a spill two weeks prior, she looked up toward her parents watching from a staging area above and did something rather surprising.
She smiled. A full-faced grin that scrunched her cheeks and exposed two full rows of teeth to the California sunshine.
In the skating world, little Sky Brown is a very big deal — a girl who by the time she is 12 might equal the record as the youngest athlete to compete in a Summer Olympics.
Of course, that’s 14 months down the road.
Right now, Sky is 10, a child prodigy who has an endorsement deal with Nike, close to 400,000 followers on Instagram and more than 6 million views on a YouTube channel she shares with her little brother, Ocean.
Sky didn’t fret or pout over her tumble; she gathered her board, scurried back up to the starting platform and nailed the routine on her next try.
“I kind of had it planned,” Sky said afterward, giggling, “but I was kind of just skating.”
A pint-sized 4-foot-5, her head is swallowed by a light blue helmet with over-sized ear flaps that wrap so far around that only loose strands of her blond hair are able to flow. But her appearance is deceiving, youth and size belying strength and technique. The skateboard dances around her feet as she gracefully shreds at the same speeds of skaters twice her age, or more.
After her fall, she dazzled spectators with kick-flips and 540-degree spins to earn a 12th-place finish in the 24-woman park field at the Dew Tour in Long Beach this week.
“It’s not fair,” one onlooker said as Sky finished just shy of qualifying for the eight-woman final. “She’s just so cute regardless.”
Born to a Japanese mother, Mieko, and British father, Stu, the native of Miyazaki, Japan, grew up in a nation where skateboarding is scarce, especially for young girls.
“Where I live in Japan, I’m the only girl skater,” Sky said. “I usually skate with boys.”
Sky began breaking that mold at a young age. Raised by surfer parents, she started riding a board — on wheels and in water — when she was a toddler. By age 4, online videos of her skating went viral. At 7, she began her competitive career, finishing third in the 14-and-under group at the all-female Exposure event in Encinitas, Calif.
“She’s a phenom,” said legendary skater Christian Hosoi, who has become a mentor. “She was good at 7. So for her to be now developing at 10, and for difficult tricks that she's doing in the bowl and then connecting them together, it's really extraordinary.”
Now, she has her sights set on the 2020 Olympics, when skateboarding — which, unlike some other events, has no age restriction — will make its debut in the Games. Earlier this year, Sky and her family decided she’d represent Britain instead of Japan, preferring its more relaxed approach. The Long Beach event served as part of the qualification process, which will send 20 women park skaters to Tokyo next summer.
“I think the possibility of any of our G.B. riders qualifying, I think it just gives the U.K. an opportunity to improve skateboarding's infrastructure, maybe to increase funding, and basically just for her to leave quite a bit of a legacy,” said British skateboarding team manager, Darren Pearcy. “[She could] really inspire future generations from the UK as well as across the world.”
Yet, unlike most other transcendent child athletes, Sky hasn’t sacrificed her youth to mastering her craft or building her fame — an intentional move by her and her family.
“I just want her to enjoy it, like it, and then the stuff that you can be stressed about is like school homework and stuff like that,” Stu Brown said. “If you do something too much, you get sick of it. I don't want her to get sick of it. I want it to be fun.”
Brown’s thinking runs counter to that of many sports parents, prodigal child or not.
He said Sky doesn’t have a full-time skating coach, and sometimes goes weeks without touching a board. Last year, she participated in ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars: Juniors” television show — which she won — instead of competing in the X-Games. The family has a vacation planned after this weekend’s Long Beach event, including wakeboarding in Texas and a water park in Florida.
“We keep in mind that she's only 10, she has to try other stuff,” Brown said. “I try and travel with her as much as we can. She can pivot. If she's good at skateboarding, maybe she's even better at something else.”
Brown thinks surfing might be an example. Sky’s daily routine usually begins in the ocean at dawn, near the family’s home in Japan. After school, where she has taken up an interest in the recorder (an instrument similar to a flute) during music class, Sky often hits the waves again. The days the surf is bad is when she’ll skate instead.
But surfing is the family’s activity, their group release, Brown said. They want that to be strictly for fun. So they don’t want her to compete full-time yet.
“I feel that little by little, especially with kids, they compete before they really learn to enjoy skating,” Brown said. “It's the same with surfing."
They might need to relent on that rule soon though. Competition has yet to spoil her love of skating. If anything, it has reinforced her joy on four wheels.
“It makes me feel happy and free,” she said, “like I’m flying in the sky. It’s my happy place.”
Instead of consuming her, the sport has opened up opportunities. Brown said the family went on charity trips to Cambodia and Cuba, teaching underprivileged kids how to skate. Countless Instagram comments have shown Sky what an inspiration she is to young female athletes around the world.
“That's pretty powerful,” Brown said.
The potential platform of an Olympics appearance excites her almost as much as the competition.
"I want to be the youngest there and show the girls, especially the little ones that think that they can't do it or they're afraid to do a sport,” she said. “Hopefully when they see me skate, they'll think that maybe they can do it too."
This could all change, of course. Maintaining her life balance and career trajectory will be difficult, Brown acknowledged. Staying caught up in school as she travels the world is already becoming a greater challenge. For now, the family stays away from the Japanese media, allowing Sky to maintain a sense of normality at home. But that probably won’t last forever either.
If she reaches a breaking point, it will be up to her to decide what she cherishes most.
“We're ready if she wants to turn it off,” Brown said. “If she [says], 'Dad, I don't want to be a skater anymore, I want to be this,' we'll support it. It's her driving.”
Though her circumstances are uncommon, the types of potential dilemmas in her future aren’t. Almost every parent has to let their children make such life choices as they grow up.
“We want her to have balance,” Brown said. “And balance as a parent is really hard.”
For now, Sky doesn’t seem ready to change paths anytime soon. She turns 11 on July 12 and is embarking on her journey the same way she skates: Confident, aware and with a wide, toothy smile on her face.