July 2016. A cloudless Southern California sky looms over the Pro Park Course for the Vans Pro Skate Park Series. Here to compete in the final Global Qualifier competition are some of the top female skaters in the world. There’s Lizzie Armanto, the first female skater ever to complete a full circuit on a 360-degree ramp. Kisa Nakamura, X Games gold medalist. Brighton Zeuner, the youngest champion in X Games history. The past, present and future of women’s skateboarding have assembled at Huntington Beach. At stake is a spot in the Vans Park Series Pro Finals event, skating with the best of the best. The skaters range in age from early adolescence to early 30s, but in a sport that embraces youth, there is one who stands out beyond the fresh-faced potential of her peers. At 8 years old, Sky Brown, half-British half-Japanese phenom, would be the youngest skater, male or female, ever to compete at the Vans US Open Pro Series.
She is a known quantity to some — a minor star of the viral age. Still, the question remains: Is she truly ready, or will this be another case where reality comes crashing down hard on all the hype?
Sky first gained a modicum of internet fame as a precocious 4-year-old, when she starred in a series of skate videos posted to YouTube, the first of which sees the pint-sized prodigy ripping it up on a backyard quarter pipe. “Hi, my name is Sky!” she says brightly toward the camera in the first of many videos to come. She stumbles a bit, then, “I’m … check me out!”
From there she drops in like a pro, pulling off grinds, stalls, switching stances in the flat. It quickly becomes clear. Skateboarding has seen young stars before. It was started by adolescents. Young guns are nothing new. But skateboarding hasn’t seen anything like Sky yet.
Still, perhaps there was some sense of trepidation when, four years after Sky’s first video popped up, it was announced that she would be competing at Huntington Beach. Yes, she had her parents’ love and support behind her. Yes, in her groomed online presence she seemed in every regard to be a level-headed kid — highly intelligent, well-spoken beyond her years, hugely talented, and yet grounded. But there was always a possibility that at one point or another, the pressure would become too great, that it would be too much too soon, and when the fall came, it would be long, painful and sad.
And then, it turns out to be anything but. Despite what her father says was a lack of adequate practice time on the VPS course and not knowing what lines Sky was going to follow or even what tricks she was going to try to pull off, Sky goes out and rips one revelation after another.
Front nose blunt. Straight ollie over the spine. Kickflip to fakie. Frontside air.
Commentators Neal Hendrix and Chris Pastras are left in awe as an 8-year-old pulls off tricks that, in their words, “half of the pros [in this competition] can’t do.” The only thing that makes her look like a kid is her size. In every other regard, she holds her own with skaters 10 and 20 years her senior. Before those three runs at Huntington, Sky was a curiosity. After, she is a contender.
Born on July 12, 2008, to a Japanese mother and a British father who had moved to southern Japan for the surfing, Sky’s first memory of a skateboard is seeing her father, Stuart, doing a few tricks in front of the family home. By age 3, she was already itching to emulate her dad. Her parents weren’t initially sold on the idea of their toddler getting on a board, but the precocious youngster was able to wear them down.
“I would see my dad skate every day, and it always looked really fun,” says Sky, still less than a decade removed from her first driveway runs alongside her father. “I just kept begging to try it until he finally gave in.”
Sky progressed quickly. Her father built a backyard ramp for her to practice on, showing her the basics. She never had a formal coach. She watched her dad, tried to do what he did. Somehow she just had … the knack. Every movement, every shift in weight, every push and pull of body on board, she absorbed. Then, she did it herself.
“You get so close to making it,” she says of her process, “and think you’re about to land it, and then it takes you 100 more times. I’m always saying to my parents, ‘Just one last try.’”
Nobody, it seems, pushed Sky to excel the way so many young athletes are pushed, pulled and dragged by overzealous parents looking to redeem their own faded dreams of glory by living vicariously through their offspring. Sky skated nearly every day. If the surf was up, she and the family (later rounded out by little brother Ocean) headed for the nearby beach. If anyone was pushing, striving to get better, it was Sky herself, learning new tricks the same way everyone else does — by trying, failing, falling, and getting back up again.
Miyazaki Prefecture, where Sky grew up, is located on Kyushu Island in southern Japan. To the south and east lie the blue waters of the Pacific. Near Aoshima, a popular beach, those waters wash over a flat, ribbed geological formation known as the Devil’s Washboard. Head south toward Aoshima from Miyazaki City and you’ll find Kisakihama, a stretch of beach known for its right and left breaks and consistent swell, where many local surf contests are held.
Miyazaki is a paradise for those of any age who thrive in the outdoors, but it’s also small by Japanese standards. Like any place far from the urban trend centers that radiate culture slowly outward to the extremities of humanity, Miyazaki takes in those waves of influence slowly. Skateboarding, a sport well into its fifth decade of mainstream knowledge, still has yet to fully permeate here.
“The skate scene is pretty small where I live,” says Sky. “We had to build a ramp behind our house because there are no skate parks around.”
Relative isolation may have helped rather than hindered Sky’s rapid ascension from unknown to viral sensation. In Miyazaki she had the time and the freedom to skate and surf every day. No long urban commute to school. No stifling big-city sense of competition and pressure to conform among the faceless millions. Here, along with her parents, she could do what she wanted, when she wanted. The brand — what people see when Sky competes on TV or puts her effervescent personality on display on her YouTube channel (curated by her parents) — doesn’t come off as a put-on, perhaps because she doesn’t seem like anything other than what she is, a small-town kid, full of youthful enthusiasm. One who found her passion early and has nothing but a purely motivated desire to spread it around.
“I always imagine there’s some kid out there like me with a dream they are afraid to chase,” she says of what motivates her, “and when they see me they become inspired.”
The Sky Brown brand is quickly going global. In 2018, at age 10, she was invited to compete on Dancing with the Stars: Juniors in the United States. The call was no doubt based in part on Sky’s impressive showing at Huntington Beach. Prior to her runs at the Vans US Open Pro Series, she was a modest sensation. Before the competition, views of her videos were in the four- to five-figure range. When the three-minute mash-up of her runs at Huntington hit the ether, she had her first million-view viral hit on her hands, moving her from under the radar to somewhere on its outer edge.
On DWTS, partnering with competitive dancers JT Church and Alan Bersten, Sky had a chance to introduce herself to an audience beyond the skate and surf scene. As with skating, Sky took naturally to dancing, as though all forms of movement are merely something she needs to observe, internalize and master. As she did at Huntington Beach, Sky appeared less the girl partway through elementary school, and more the poised, actualized athlete, displaying equal parts drive and joie de vivre. Naturally, she won, pushing her fame to new heights on the nationally televised program.
There is time for normal “kid stuff,” too. Sky and her friends watch scary movies. They try on makeup. Sky loves to cook (and eat). But it’s unlikely that any of her friends have endorsement deals with big companies like Roxy, and less likely still that they’ve been on a national television show. They probably don’t spend their weeks bouncing between such varied activities as skating, surfing, kickboxing, wakeboarding and jujitsu. And she keeps adding aspirations. In the future, she says she’d like to find more time for snowboarding. Later, she might like to give kiteboarding a shot. In the meantime, something else looms on the horizon: the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — the first time skateboarding will be an official Olympic event.
Earlier this year, Sky announced her intent to compete in the park skateboarding event for Great Britain, rather than Japan. “Team GB has always been really supportive of me, so it felt like the right decision,” she says. In April, Sky took a huge step toward securing a spot on the British national team, taking gold at the British National Skateboarding Championships in Salford. If all goes well at a few more qualifying events, Sky will punch her ticket to the 2020 Games. At Salford, she scored a combined 308 points over two runs, besting by 33 points silver medalist Amy Ram, who is nearly three times Sky’s age.
The tragedy of life (or cosmic joke, depending on your point of view) is that it’s short. Even with great vitality, 80, 90 and even 100 years can speed by in an instant, without one ever figuring out the purpose or the point. And in the end, many go to whatever is next without having found that thing — that one thing — that might have made it all make the least bit of sense. Perhaps that’s why we gravitate so readily and joyously toward child prodigies like Sky. They’ve got it, those infuriating little phenoms — something we often fail to get a grip on no matter how hard we try. They’ve figured it out. Sky skates so extraordinarily well, and at such a young age, that we can’t help but entertain the thought that for all of life’s vagaries and frustrations, if a child can make something so difficult look so easy, maybe there is some unseen magic they’ve tapped into, some elusive piece of the puzzle they’ve found. For Sky, it just seems simple.
“I want to be able to inspire girls around the world,” Sky says. “That’s my biggest mission. Everything else along the way is just for fun.”