In May last year, Sky Brown, the young skateboarding phenom, almost died when she fell 15ft onto her head while transitioning between vert ramps at a skate park in California. The horrifying impact fractured the 12-year-old’s skull, broke her wrist and hand, and left her unconscious as she was airlifted to hospital.
Footage of the accident was uploaded to Brown’s popular YouTube channel and viewed millions of times. Lesser skaters would feel deeply uneasy about returning to the sport and repeating such tricks, but not Brown: she’s famed for being fearless.
Born in Japan and raised mainly in the US by her British and Japanese parents, Brown will become Britain’s youngest ever summer Olympian when she competes in the park skateboarding discipline in Tokyo, smashing a record that’s almost a century old.
She will be just 13 years and 23 days old when she tackles the bowls at the Ariake Urban Sports Park. And there’s every chance she’ll win a medal, having won bronze at the world championships in São Paulo in 2019 and silver at the Dew Tour in Des Moines in May this year.
No wonder that Team GB’s chef de mission, Mark England, was so thrilled she signed up to the British squad despite interest from the US and Japanese Olympic teams. He described her selection alongside fellow teen prodigy Bombette Martin as “incredibly exciting” for a sport which is making its debut at the Games.
Wherever she finishes, Brown is likely to be the star of the show. She already has more than 800,000 followers on Instagram through which she records her latest tricks and bohemian childhood; she’s an American TV celebrity having won Dancing with the Stars Juniors; and she’s featured in a global advertising campaign alongside fellow Nike athletes Serena Williams and Megan Rapinoe.
A self-described “girly-girl” who stands little more than 4ft 6in tall, Brown is a confident character who habitually makes inspirational statements to her audience which sometimes seem a little scripted – “I just want everyone to know it’s OK to fall sometimes,” she said, after waking from her horror accident, her face swollen and her eye still blackened.
Yet when I met her in Los Angeles in 2019, she came across as a very likeable and normal kid. She told me excitedly about a recent trip to watch Frozen 2 at the cinema and quizzed her younger brother Ocean about his favourite foods. Hers, she said, are ramen noodles and ice cream.
However, her skating achievements set her apart from her peers. Aged eight she was the youngest person to compete at the Vans US Open; aged 11 she was the first female to land a competitive “frontside 540”; and aged 12 – only two months after her terrible wipeout – she was the first female to ride Elliot Sloan’s jaw-dropping “mega ramp”, with skate legend Tony Hawk acting as her mentor.
Watching Brown at the Olympics will surely leave you in awe – and that’s precisely her aim. “If people see me, the smallest girl, doing the highest trick, then anyone could think they could do anything,” she said.