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TOKYO — It took 125 years for skateboarding to become an Olympic sport and then it was almost won by a 12-year-old.
Kokona Hiraki of Japan took silver in the women’s competition of the sport's Olympic debut here Wednesday with a score of 59.04. To do so, she had to beat 13-year-old Sky Brown of Great Britain, who took bronze with a 56.47.
The relatively ancient Sakura Yosozumi, age 19 from Japan, actually won the gold with a 60.09 after hitting consecutive 540s.
Hiraki, at 12 years and 343 days, became the second youngest individual medalist in the history of the modern Olympics. Inge Sorensen was just 12 years and 24 days old when she won the 200-meter breaststroke at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. Brown is now the third youngest.
That two teens and a preteen owned the podium was perfect. The sport provided a much needed pop of youth, enthusiasm, coolness, supportiveness, fashion and sheer fun to the Olympics, which can too often be none of those things.
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach even showed up and talked to the competitors after.
How was it speaking with such an important person, Sky?
“Who?” Brown answered.
Exactly. This was a competition, sure. It was also a celebration of a sport that rose from the streets — and empty swimming pools — of Southern California through decades of dismissiveness right into Olympic legitimacy.
If you don’t think what Yosozumi, Hiraki or Brown did was athletic, well, go ahead and give it your own try. This is gymnastics on a rolling board.
Pushing the envelope for more difficult tricks seemed to be the goal. If you stayed upright, great. If not, so what? It’s nice to win, but the performance was what mattered.
Brown, for instance, fell on her first two runs while trying a kickflip indy.
“I was like, ‘That’s kind of sketchy,’” Brown said.
Before her third and final attempt she could either back off and take the safe route, or go out in style. There really wasn’t a decision. Even her “opponents” were coaching her up.
“Sakura said, ‘You’ve got it Sky, we know you are going to make it,’” Brown said. “... So I was like, ‘I’ve got to make it.’ And I didn’t really think I was going to make it, but I did it. And I’m so happy.”
The competitors cheered each other on and hugged in sympathy when someone eventually fell. If there was a particularly disappointing run, the rest of the field would gather together and literally lift their supposed opponent in the air.
It’s one reason why Japan does so well, according to their medalists. They have a good time at training.
“We have so much fun and do tricks all together,” HIraki said. “We have a relaxed atmosphere.”
The event was held under a searing sun and the brutal midday heat of Tokyo. Due to COVID-19 protocols, no fans were in attendance. Pack a full house, get a DJ and move it to nighttime for the 2024 Games in Paris, and this will quickly become one of the most exciting and anticipated events of the Olympics.
There was nothing not to love about it.
Hiraki, the 12-year-old, got into skateboarding when her mother decided the entire family should give it a try. Her nickname: “Nosegrind Master.” Her other hobby: painting. Fun fact: she was named after a coconut.
Back in 2018, at just 10 years and 11 months old, she became the youngest skateboarder to win a medal at the X Games, so this was old hat.
Then there is Brown, the 13-year-old sensation who arrived with the most star power.
She has a marketing dream of a name. Her parents hail from England and Japan, she competes for Great Britain but lives in Oceanside, California. She spends most early mornings surfing. She says the surfing helps her skateboarding and her skateboarding helps her surfing.
“It's like if you go and get ramen and ice cream,” Brown said. “If you eat too much ramen you want to go and get ice cream.”
She's been on Dancing with the Stars Jr. and has a Barbie doll made in her image. She appeared in a Nike commercial with Serena Williams and Simone Biles. She has one million followers on Instagram and 1.3 million on TikTok. And those will certainly rise now.
Then she went out and proved she was more than hype by coming from behind to take bronze.
This is Brown, though, forever with her infectious “you go, girl” mantra.
“Girls are sometimes scared to do what they want to do,” Brown told the Guardian newspaper. “Girls sometimes think, 'He can do it because he is a boy, and I can't do it because I'm a girl.' It's my dream to change that. I want it to be, 'I'm a girl so I can do it.’”
Fearless doesn’t begin to describe her. In 2019, she had a colossal wreck while training with skateboard icon Tony Hawk. While trying to clear a space between two 14-foot vert ramps, Brown wound up falling between them and crashing 15-feet to the ground.
“I did this trick which is a front side alley-oop, but when you do it you can't really see where you're going,” Brown told the newspaper. “So when I came down the ramp I'm facing the other way and I realized I was going off the edge.”
She knocked herself out and wound up hospitalized with multiple skull features, lung and stomach lacerations, a broken left arm and broken fingers on her right hand. Her parents thought maybe she should quit.
She was 11.
“My parents were like, ‘eh, don’t skate anymore, do something else,’” Brown said Wednesday.
Instead of retiring, Brown posted the video of the wreck on social media and became even more famous. Eight weeks later, she was back on a skateboard.
Of course she was.
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