Tony Hawk calls Sky Brown 'a unicorn' on a skateboard

Sky Brown, 11 (yes, 11), is a social media star looking to become Great Britain's youngest summer Olympian in history. AFP PHOTO/ OIS-IOC/ NICK DIDLICK

Sky Brown is one of the best skateboarders in the world, and she has traveled the globe competing. When asked her favorite countries to visit, she didn't hesitate.

"Australia and Paris," she said with a wide smile.

Across the room, her father, Stu, looked up from his phone and laughed. "Sky, Paris isn't a country."

"Oh, yeah," she said, acknowledging her error but not letting her enthusiasm be deterred. "Well, I still love the food there, especially croissants, and the language is so pretty. I want to learn it."

This would probably be a good time to mention that Sky Brown is 11 years old, and though her résumé and skills seem far beyond her years, in many ways, she is your typical preteen who loves learning Tik Tok dances and hanging out with her friends.

That is, she is your typical preteen who is looking to become Great Britain's youngest summer Olympian ever next summer in Tokyo, with a legitimate shot to win a medal.

"She has incredible potential," skateboarding legend Tony Hawk said. "She could definitely be one of the best female skaters ever, if not one of the best, well-rounded skaters ever, regardless of gender. She has such confidence, such force, even at such a young age. The way she's able to learn new tricks and the way she absorbs direction, it's so rare.

"She's a unicorn."

Lucy Adams remembers the first time she met Brown. It was July 2017, and Adams, then 33 and a seasoned veteran of the sport, was competing at the Skate UK x NASS Women's Open Street Competition. So was then-9-year-old Brown.

Adams finished in third place. Brown finished in second.

"I remember thinking, 'Wow, I've been beaten by a 9-year-old," Adams said before turning slightly sarcastic. "So that was pretty cool."

Despite the momentary bruising of her ego, Adams couldn't believe what she had seen.

"I had seen Sky and her brother, Ocean, on social media, and they were always doing crazy stuff on there," she said. "But seeing them in person, they were both so small, and she seemed to always be smiling. I remember watching Sky do a specific trick called a 'blunt kickflip out,' and then she did it on, like, a 5-foot ramp, and it was absolutely crazy. It was the best trick of the female competition by a million miles."

She struck up a conversation with Stu at the event, and he casually mentioned that he was born in the United Kingdom and was still a citizen. They stayed in touch, and Adams kept up with Brown's progress.

Adams is now the chairperson of Skateboard Great Britain, the official governing body of the sport for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. With skateboarding making its official Olympic debut in Tokyo, Adams was tasked with putting together the first team for the event. She knew Brown would be a perfect addition.

Brown was born in Japan, and the family split their time between Japan and Southern California, so competing for Great Britain was not the obvious choice for Brown. With her native country hosting the Games, it almost seemed like a no-brainer as to which nation she would represent. But her parents were apprehensive about the pressure. Was it too much, too soon? They were leaning toward not letting her compete at the Olympics for any country.

Until Adams made her pitch.

"We had serious concerns about it all until we talked to Lucy," Stu said. "The biggest thing she said was Sky could quit at any time. Even if she made all through the qualifying and months going into the Olympics and then she didn't want to keep going, she said it was fine if she pulled out. She said she just wanted Sky to be happy. I was like, 'Whoa.'"

The laidback attitude was exactly what the family needed to hear. And Brown really wanted to do it. She begged and pleaded, and finally her parents decided to allow her to compete. But they made sure that she knew that if it ever stopped being fun, she could quit or take a break at any time.

"We are not a well-oiled machine, and our feeling has always just been, 'We're going to give it a go and do our best,'" Adams said. "We knew how young she was. We knew that she loved surfing, dancing, all the things she loves as a child just wanting to have fun, and we wanted to make sure she could still do those things and do them whenever she wants to do them and not have to knuckle down and focus in on one.

"So we were just like, 'Look, just if you want to come with us, it's just going to be when you choose to do it and however much you want to do it.' If she had gone to one qualifier and realized it was too hard or too much pressure or just not fun, we would have said, 'Yeah, no, that's cool. Well done. You gave it a go.' She's obviously done quite well so far, but she also has been able to just live her life and enjoy it, and I never want her to feel as if she has to train or go to a competition or learn a new trick."

When Adams got word that the Olympics were being postponed because of the global coronavirus pandemic, she called Stu, who was at the family apartment in Huntington Beach, California, with the rest of the Browns. Although it wasn't a surprise at that point, following weeks of speculation, Adams wasn't sure if Sky would be disappointed.

Adams didn't talk to Sky, however, because she was in another room working on a Tik-Tok video. As it turned out, she was doing just fine with the news.

Sky posted a video on her Instagram account soon after and did her best to put the news in perspective. "It's OK, it's safer, and we really need to come together and focus on what's really important right now," she wrote in the caption.

Soon after that, Sky had to rely on her positive attitude even more. In late May, while training at Hawk's facility, she lost control on the vert ramp and sped off the side, falling more than 15 feet to the floor. The footage from the accident, posted later on her social media channels, is tough to watch, as she waves her arms and legs uncontrollably, as if to slow her crash, and the video stops abruptly while whoever is recording seems to be frantically running toward her. According to Stu's account on Instagram, Sky was in and out of consciousness and bleeding profusely while they waited for the ambulance.

He said she spent the night in the intensive care unit as she clung to life. She pulled through, and a few days later, she was well enough to update the world on her status in a heavily produced video from her hospital bed. She was diagnosed with multiple fractures in her skull, a broken left arm, broken fingers in her right hand and lacerations to her heart and lungs, but she is expected to make a full recovery.

"My helmet and arm saved my life," she wrote in the description of the video on YouTube. "This will not stop me. I am going for gold in Tokyo 2021. Stay strong. Stay positive."

Two days later, Sky was back at home and posting videos of new dance routines, complete with a pink cast on her arm and the same wide smile on her face. She returned to her board before June was over.

Sky Brown is just completing fifth grade, but she isn't exactly a newcomer to the spotlight. When she was 4, her dad posted on Facebook a video of her at the local skatepark. In the clip, she stands holding her board, which nearly comes up to her shoulders, with a sideways baseball cap on her head and says, without taking a breath, "Hi, my name's Sky. I'm 4. Check me out." From there, she skates back and forth on a small ramp, showing off a confident display of kickturns, fakie tail stalls and fly outs.

Stu thought his friends would think it was cool. They did.

So did 56 million others.

The video went viral, and the family was immediately bombarded with requests from television shows around the world. It was the first time Sky's parents realized that she might have an above-average talent for the sport. They continued to post videos of her tricks and development online, and the views and requests kept coming. They created social media accounts for fans to follow, and they were surprised by the overwhelming response.

Although millions were blown away by the talent of the pint-sized preschooler, Tony Hawk wasn't one of them -- not initially.

"My first thought was, 'Oh, that's cute that this little girl can do these fly outs in the bowl,'" Hawk said. "That was my first instinct. It was like, 'Oh, that's kind of fun.' The first videos of her were literally her flying out of this bowl, and in the realm of skateboarding, that's not very advanced. But regardless, she was unafraid to try stuff, and a lot of tricks that she was doing and trying are considered pretty dangerous, and that was impressive. But it wasn't until I skated with her that I really saw her skill set and her drive and her potential."

Brown was invited to compete in a number of contests around the world. At first, her parents were hesitant, as they thought it would be too much pressure for someone so young. But when she was 7, Brown entered her first competition in Encinitas, California. She finished in third place in the 14-and-under category.

She began entering more competitions. The next year, she participated in the Vans US Open, becoming the youngest to compete in the event. She fell off her board during qualifying, but she put the world on notice and, perhaps more importantly, showed her parents that she could more than handle the pressure and stay positive despite the less-than-stellar result.

Hers has been a meteoric rise ever since. Brown came in second at the Asia Continental Finals in 2017. She won the UK National Skateboarding Championship in 2019 and took home the bronze medal at the World Skateboarding Championship soon after in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She finished in fifth at her first X Games last summer but became the first woman to land a frontside 540. Olympic qualifying had not yet begun when the Games were postponed, but as Brown is currently ranked third in the world in the park event, she seemed a near lock to make the team and surpass Margery Hinton (who swam in the 1928 Games) as Great Britain's youngest summer Olympian. Even with the delay, she is expected to break the record by four days.

Endorsements and opportunities came quickly. She signed deals with Nike, GoPro, Visa, Galaxy Mobile Japan, Mattel and Almost Skateboards, among others. She was invited to compete on the first (and only) season of "Dancing with the Stars: Juniors" in 2018. Despite having never danced, she and her partner, JT Church, won. She has nearly a half-million followers on Instagram, and the YouTube account she shares with Ocean has more than 113,000 subscribers. Her parents insist that they run both accounts, but Sky has control of what she wants to post and say.

Brown might fit the classic definition of a child prodigy, but you wouldn't know it by hanging out with her or her family. She doesn't have a coach, and she learns most of her tricks by watching others at the skatepark or on YouTube. Her parents are determined that she have other interests (and she does) and not get too hung up on results. The family surfs nearly every day, they take lengthy vacations that don't involve skateboarding after most major competitions, and Brown has recently started taking guitar lessons.

"We see two Skys, you know?" Stu said. "We see the little girl that goes to bed with us and everything, and we see this fierce, competitive Sky, too. So we definitely want to keep the kid Sky as much as we can. After she won 'Dancing with the Stars,' we went back to Japan and didn't do any media. Everyone said we should milk it and take advantage of the attention, but we really just [try] to keep her grounded and as normal as possible.

"Our main goal is to keep her protected and keep her having fun. I want her to do well because she's so competitive, but I don't want her to care about results to the point where she's not enjoying it. Listen, if she gets gold or a medal in this Olympics, that's great, but it doesn't mean she has to compete in the next Olympics or keep going if she doesn't want to. We don't want her to get caught up in this s---. We want her to be able to pivot and do lots of different stuff, and skateboarding is just one of the things she loves, but it's not all she is."

It's an overcast day in Huntington Beach, and Sky Brown sits on a couch in a well-decorated but generic common room that still smells new at the pool house of her apartment complex. She says she's disappointed that she didn't get to go surfing that morning because of rain, but even so she can't stop smiling as she talks about, well, everything she wants to do in the near future.

"There are so many things I want to do, and life is too short to do just one thing, so I want to do them all," she says with the unbridled enthusiasm of a fifth-grader. She pauses only when she looks up to make sure she's still being heard. "I want to teach other kids to skate all around the world, especially in unprivileged places, and especially girls, I want them to know they can be girly, like me, and have cool nails but also still get out there. And I want to keep dancing because that was so fun and play in the snow again and start a band with Ocean because he's taking drum lessons now, so I really want to do that."

What no one in the room knows on that March day is how quickly everything is about to change. Things that feel certain will soon be anything but. Brown doesn't know what the coronavirus is, and she is excited for the Olympics and all of the events she has scheduled for the summer. Stu has heard that there's a chance the Games could be postponed but says it seems unlikely.

The next day, the NBA announces the indefinite suspension of its season after Rudy Gobert of the Utah Jazz tests positive for the virus. Suddenly everything is different.

It has been a challenging three-month stretch since then. Most skateparks and beaches have been closed in Southern California, drastically altering life for the Brown family. However, Sky Brown has an in that most don't: She has been able to skate at Hawk's house on a fairly regular basis.

"What I've noticed with her, especially in the last few weeks that I've been skating with her, is the way she takes direction and uses it properly," Hawk said. "I honestly have seen her, in the last three weeks or maybe even less, learn at least four new tricks. It's been crazy. Some tricks are ones that she hadn't even thought of.

"Last week, I asked her if she had ever done a trick called 'lean air,' and she hadn't. By the end of the session, she did her first lean air. A lot of her kids in her position, they just want to do things their own way, and they don't want to listen to anyone in an authority position. So what's amazing about her is that not only will she try anything, even if it's beyond her skill set, but she'll take any direction you give her. It's going to be fascinating because she already has this foundation, so when she gets older and stronger, she is going to be unstoppable."

There is no timetable for when competitions will resume. In addition to the postponement of the Olympics, the X Games, previously scheduled for July in Minneapolis, have been canceled. But those around Brown are confident that the time off will only benefit her.

"I think it's totally realistic for her to achieve a medal because of the tricks that she has, the tricks that she can link together and because of what we know that the rest of the field can and can't do," Adams said. "Obviously now, with this slightly longer period, that does give everybody the chance to get better and improve, but the way Sky is skating and the way she learns, she should just be able to carry on this road of building new tricks and learning new moves at such a rapid pace.

"It's hard to say exactly what she will be able to do [in Tokyo] because she's already sort of at the top of the women's game. She's already pushing the boundaries. She's in the category of women and girls that are going to be sort of achieving 'NBDs,' that's what we call 'Never been done.' She's going to be one of the first girls to land a 720. She's going to be a girl that's going to push it with tricks that haven't been landed by women yet."

In the meantime, the postponement probably won't change all that much for Sky. She'll just do what she always does, whenever and wherever she's able to compete again.

"I hear about the Olympics a lot, but I don't really think too much about it or how big it really is," she said. "To be honest, I don't think about things like, 'Oh, I'm going to be the youngest at this competition' or 'I'm going to the Olympics.' I just think about skateboarding. I think of landing my tricks and having fun."