Life hasn’t changed much for Sky Brown since the Tokyo Olympics. At home in Los Angeles she has found something resembling routine: up early to surf the Californian waves where she can lose herself for three or four hours if the water’s good; back for breakfast before school, then out skating until dark with friends at Venice Beach or the giant Huntingdon skate park, trying to learn a new trick. She’s home at sunset for mum Mieko’s food. “She’s such a good cook,” Brown says with a grin. “She makes traditional Japanese food, which I love.”
The only difference now is that she gets stopped in the street by admiring fans a little more often, asking for a selfie or just to say congratulations – winning an Olympic medal aged 13 will do that to a person. “They usually say my full name, which is kind of funny,” she laughs.
It has been six months since that blisteringly hot day at Tokyo Skate Park when Brown made history as Britain’s youngest ever Olympic medallist, displaying not only skill but deep reserves of courage and resilience after falling on the same trick twice before landing her final attempt to clinch bronze. It is apt, then, that she has been nominated for the Laureus Comeback of the Year award, not just for her performance but for simply competing in Japan at all after a life-threatening accident in 2020 when she flew off the edge of a half-pipe and crashed to ground from several metres high.
The fall broke her wrist and fractured her skull, and she arrived at hospital unresponsive. Four weeks later Brown was back on her board, and in the spring of 2021 she was competing again ahead of the Olympics. “It was easy for me, I wasn’t really scared, I just wanted to get back on my toy, my playground,” she says. “But it was a tough time for my parents because my dad saw it in real life … it was super hard for my family.”
Her parents tried to dissuade her from going to the Olympics, warning her of the pressures she would face, but Brown was adamant, and it was under the world’s glare with the pressure at its most intense that she produced her brilliant final run. “It was hard because I’m usually pretty consistent and I don’t really fall – it was like the worst feeling ever. But before I went for my third run, my dad told me ‘this contest won’t define you, just do you, do whatever you want, but just remember that a contest won’t define you’. That really gave me a boost.”
Her father, Stuart, was her first influence as she watched him skate with friends, and is always at her side when she competes. In many ways she is just a normal teenager: close to her parents and protective of her younger brother Ocean, who is following in her footsteps. Her parents “keep her grounded”, she says, with orders to tidy her room and encouragement not to stare at screens, not that a child who wakes at 5am to go surfing can need much cajoling. “Your phone is something you can get addicted to and that’s not what I want,” she says sagely. “Sometimes I do get a little sucked in but I try not to as much as I can, I just think about how much time it’s taking away from my life.”
Of course there are some things that make life very different, like the 1.4 million Instagram followers and 1.8 million on TikTok. The Laureus award pitches Brown against famous names from more established corners of the sporting landscape including Simone Biles, Tom Daley, Marc Marquez and Mark Cavendish – Brown says she is honoured to be among them, though she would be forgiven for being unfamiliar with some; conversation at LA skate parks rarely drifts to who will be carrying Deceuninck-QuickStep’s bid for the maillot vert at the Tour de France this summer. The irony is that Brown is as famous as any of them, particularly among her own generation.
This was the overriding purpose of including new disciplines like skateboarding at the Olympics, so that the Games might break free of its traditional shackles and appeal to a new wave of fans. Brown was the perfect vehicle: young, talented and fearless; multinational with global appeal, displaying the kind of sporting prowess that could be packaged into bite-sized clips and shared online. The commodification of young talent is amplified in the digital age, but there are some benefits to social media, which allows an element of control of the message. Brown’s father helps curate her posts, while her mum looks after Ocean’s content. “I don’t post that much actually, I need to post more,” she says, “but I love showing the world my life.”
She may be known for her skating prowess but Brown is multi-talented (she won a US TV dance show aged nine and released a song last year) and she is almost as prodigious on a surfboard as a skateboard. Her next ambition is to compete at the Paris Olympics in two years’ time in both skating and surfing. That will present practical challenges, given one competition will be held in Paris and the other off the Pacific island of Tahiti, as well as the sporting test of preparing for two disciplines, but then Brown has overcome greater challenges already in her burgeoning career. “It’s gonna be pretty hard but I’m gonna try my best because I love them both.”
Her parents would rather she didn’t compete quite so much, but Brown has had a taste of what winning an Olympic medal feels like, and she’s hooked. “That feeling, being on the podium, it made me fired up. It made me want to go and get a gold medal next time. It was so fun and I want to do it again.” Her powers of recovery, both from serious injury and stumbling on the Olympic stage, are more reasons to think this is no ordinary teenager. She better get used to the sound of her full name.
Sky Brown has been nominated for the Laureus World Comeback of the Year Award, at the Laureus World Sports Awards. To find out more, visit www.laureus.com.
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