“I thought it was kind of cool,” Sky Brown says as she remembers the first time she watched footage of her horrific skateboarding accident eight weeks ago. In the video, she flies up a 14-foot ramp, flips around in the air and comes swooping down on her board. Her skateboard makes a clattering whoosh as she zooms up the opposite vertical ramp and it’s only near the top that Brown loses control. The board veers to the right and she hurtles off the ramp.
Brown’s arms and legs flail helplessly as if seeking some kind of invisible traction while she plummets 15 feet. The camera drops to the ground as her father runs towards his little girl. She was still only 11 years old and Brown suffered multiple fractures in her skull, lacerations to her lungs and stomach, a broken left arm and busted fingers on her right hand. The skateboarder, who will represent Great Britain at next year’s Olympic Games, where she hopes to win a medal, recovered in intensive care.
Now, less than 60 days since her life nearly changed forever, Brown sits in her bedroom and smiles on Zoom. It’s early afternoon in London but, for Brown, it’s just after five in the morning in California. She chose this time slot for our chat because she wants to head out to the beach just after 6am to surf with her dad and nine-year-old brother, Ocean.
Brown, who turned 12 three weeks ago and won a bronze medal at last year’s skateboarding world championships, is cheery at such a desolate hour of the morning. She insists the crash has not affected her desire to try out new tricks and believes her life was saved by her helmet. Brown also explains the accident was far more traumatic for her parents. Her mother, Meiko, is from Japan while her dad, Stuart, is an Englishman who moved to the US. It is through her father that Brown became eligible to skate for GB.
“It was definitely hard for them,” she says of her parents. “They were both crying. And it was also really hard because only one of them could be with me and I couldn’t see my brother at all.”
How did her mum and dad feel about skateboarding as she lay in hospital? “They both wanted me to stop. They were like: ‘Are you sure you want to skate again?’ They absolutely didn’t want me to – but that’s why I love them. They support me because they know I want to keep going.”
Brown relives her hazy memory of the crash. “It was just a regular day. I like to skate at Tony Hawk’s place [Hawk is the world’s most famous skateboarder who, at the age of 58, has 5.8m followers on Instagram]. He has a 14-foot ramp and 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. So when I come down the ramp I’m facing the other way and I realised I was going off the edge. But it was really quick and I was knocked out.”
What did she think when she heard her list of injuries? “It was pretty shocking and scary. My dad didn’t want to show me the video and he didn’t want me to look at my phone because there was so many messages. But, three days later, I asked again and that’s when I saw the video.”
Soon afterwards Brown posted a video produced by people far older than her. The startling footage of her accident cuts away to screaming sirens, helicopters and beeping monitors. It melts into a shot of Brown wearing a sponsor’s shirt and surrounded by stuffed animals on her hospital bed as she says: “I don’t usually post my falls, or talk about them, because I want people to see the fun in what I do … but this was my worst fall.”
Music swirls as Brown continues: “It’s OK to fall sometimes and I am going to get back up and push even harder. I know there’re a lot of things going on in the world right now … but I want everyone to know that, whatever we do, we’re just going to do it with love and happiness.”
She sinks back on to her pillow and the video fades away. Brown can be commended for her courage but it’s a little unsettling. The cold hard sheen of corporate marketing seems at work even though, as Brown is so young, I choose the softer option and ask if the video was her idea. “My dad didn’t want me to post anything about the accident because we always want to show how fun and cool skateboarding is. We didn’t really want to show the accident – well, my dad didn’t. But even if you’re just walking you can fall. So I thought it was good to show that sometimes you fall. But I also wanted to show me getting up.”
Brown scrunches up her face when I ask how long it took before she got back on her skateboard. “Probably two weeks. Maybe more. My dad and my brother were still skating but they wouldn’t go to the skatepark because they felt bad for me. They were skating on flat ground and so I did that. I did a kick-flip with my cast on and it felt amazing.”
Did she feel any fear? “No. But I was trying to be careful. I didn’t want to fall on my arm but, other than that, no fear.”
It’s easy to warm to Brown but few 12-year-olds post inspirational messages on social media or do Zoom interviews at five in the morning. Doesn’t she wish she could live a normal life? “I basically am a normal kid,” Brown says. “I just do sports.”
It’s a pretty good answer and I know that Brown loves the creativity and freedom of skateboarding. She is also enthusiastic about inspiring other young girls to fulfil themselves. “I feel like sometimes girls don’t have that freedom,” she says. “You can be pretty. You can pick litter up. You can be really girly. But sometimes there’s a scary side to that. You’ve just got to be yourself.”
On the wall above her bed a small frame contains the words Be You. “I saw it in a store and liked it,” Brown says of that statement of independence.
Her favourite skatepark is at Venice Beach because, she says: “I can see the waves. I can smell the ocean. And there’re people watching you, so it makes you go harder.”
But only a few girls skate at the park. “Maybe another two some days,” she says. “It’s getting better because before I used to see zero. But we need more. I get lots of girls contacting me because they now feel they can do sports too. They can do the same as boys.”
Brown is featured in marketing campaigns alongside powerful sportswomen like Serena Williams and Megan Rapinoe but perhaps her real impact emerges in personal ways. She tells me about her friend Kako Yoshida – who is a professional surfer now. When they first met in Japan, Yoshida was too frightened to skateboard while Brown, despite being so much younger, was at home on a board in and out of the water. “I was about four, she was about 10 and I taught her how to skate. She was really scared in the beginning. But I told her she could do it and she just kept on growing, getting better and braver. She’s really cool and now one of the best surfers in Japan. She skates pretty good too.”
Brown is proudest of the charity work she did in Cambodia with the Skateistan skateboarding project. Skateistan is supported by the Laureus Foundation which encourages the power of sport to combat violence against women and girls while eliminating gender discrimination. “I think Cambodia’s the most under-privileged country in Asia,” Brown says. “I went there to see Skateistan, which is a skate school that helps kids in unprivileged places get an education. It was scary. There was lots of guns and trash everywhere. I saw these girls picking up trash every morning. It was sad as well. But I made lots of good friends and been there a couple of times.”
Were the girls in Cambodia amazed by her stunts? “Yeah. They’ve never seen a skateboard before. It was cool to show them a couple of tricks and they were trying to get on the board. I did the same in Cuba and they were having so much fun. That’s why I want to help.”
Brown will become even more widely known when the 2020 Olympic Games are finally held in Tokyo next summer. She would have been trying to win a medal this week if the Games had not been postponed. “It was shocking. I felt like my dreams were fading. But people’s lives are way more important than dreams. Hopefully, fingers crossed, next year will be good.”
There have been wildly overheated suggestions that Brown could help “save” the Olympics by attracting a completely new generation. It’s more accurate to measure how Brown has begun to understand the Olympics’ wider significance. “I’ve learned it’s amazing and that people all over the world watch it.”
Is an Olympic gold medal her main aim? “Yes. I’m going to try my best to get it. But every contest I go for more than the gold medal. I want to push the limits and do my hard tricks.”
Brown and her family usually spend six months of the year each in Japan and the US. This means her links to the UK are tenuous but the light touch of GB Skateboarding swayed Brown’s decision to represent her father’s country. Stuart Brown was reassured that no undue pressure would be placed on his daughter.
She responds enthusiastically when I ask her what she thinks of Britain. “I love the accent. I love England. The food’s good. You have pretty good skateparks too. People were nice and sometimes it’s nice to be in the cold if you’re in the car.”
There’s no need to seek warmth in the car on a Californian morning. “I’ve been surfing so much as it’s been hot,” Brown says. “As soon as we finish talking I gotta wake Ocean up so he can come surfing.”
Sky and Ocean are planning to form a band. “We would love that,” she says. “I’m playing guitar and singing and my brother’s playing drums. We’re really close but sometimes we do fight. I don’t want us to be the perfect brother and sister.”
That sounds reassuringly normal in these abnormal Covid times. She would love to return to Japan because “I really miss my friends there, my school, the food. We want to go back but right now it’s not looking too good. I’m not scared but I am trying to be careful. I keep my mask on and wash my hands, and try not to get it. But life’s short, so we don’t have to stay locked in for ever. We have to have fun too.”
Laureus Sport for Good is a global charity that supports children and young people by using sport to end violence, discrimination, and disadvantage