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Teens Sweep the Medals, Show Unique Culture of Park Skateboarding at Olympics

Averaging just shy of 15 years old, the women's park competitors showcased true camaraderie in Tokyo.

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TOKYO — Just before her last skateboarding run of the day, 13-year-old Sky Brown, of Great Britain, received a pep talk from an unlikely source: Sakura Yosozumi, of Japan, the 19-year-old she was hoping to unseat.

“You got it, Sky!” Yosozumi said. “We know you’re gonna make it! Go!”

Brown had fallen during her first two runs. She had lost confidence. Yosozumi’s words, Brown said, “really made me feel better.”

Brown’s third run netted her bronze. Yosozumi hung on for gold. Silver went to Japanese 12-year-old Kokona Hiraki. Afterward, they seemed almost as thrilled for one another as for themselves.

“Being on the podium together, it’s so fun!” Brown said. “It’s crazy!”

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All eight finalists looked more like teammates than competitors. There were at least as many hugs as runs. And the event ended with a scene you would not expect to see at, say, a soccer game: When 15-year-old Misugu Okamoto, of Japan—competing last and trying to hold off Brown—fell on her final run to finish fourth, she looked heartbroken. Then 21-year-old Australian Poppy Olsen, who placed fifth, and 17-year-old American Bryce Wettstein, who came in sixth, hoisted Okamoto onto their shoulders and paraded her around until her face lit up.

“I think what's so special about skateboarding is that there’s a little healthy competition, and also it just varies—the podium’s different every time—and everyone's so supportive,” said 17-year-old Brighton Zeuner, of the U.S., who finished 12th and missed the final. She added, “I think we’re just realizing that we are athletes.”

Indeed, many skateboarders see themselves as artists. Just ask Wettstein, the philosopher of the park, who brought a ukulele to the introductions. (She said she liked to have it close by because “sometimes you start to float like a helium balloon, and the ukulele pulls you into who you are again.”)

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Skateboarding is much more than a sport, she said, because “you never know what someone will bring out on what part of the course, because this canvas, it's overlaid in so many different ways. Everybody can paint it in some different way even if they have the same set of bristles. It depends on how they find a new way to shape shift, because, we're all given that. I think that's what I'm always fascinated by, is how grateful I am to have a skateboard. Like, it's your best friend. It seems like she's always talking to you, almost, but you have to be really close to hear her.”

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Most of the skateboarders have known one another since before they could cross the street without holding a parent’s hand. They have grown up together. They are still growing up together. Wednesday’s medalists averaged just shy of 15 years old; the average age of last week’s women’s street medalists was 14.

“To see evolution happen to people, in so many ways, you see it through the eyes of others,” Wettstein said. “These people I love are my mirrors to me. And when I look at them, I just see all of us. And sometimes it's just them, they're the tokens, they’re the pieces of insight that I can look at, and finally understand and see and not be scared anymore. It seems like with them, I am me.”

She roots for her competitors, she said, because “when I root for them I root for myself, because they’re part of me. Without them, I wouldn’t be a whole person.” (At one point she also used the word phenotype, which was probably a first for a post-event interview.)

Some skateboarders wondered before the Olympics whether positioning their passion at the highest level of sport would change it. It hasn’t, said Brown. “I don’t think we really are competitive,” she said. “I think [the Games] actually brought us closer together.”

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Zeuner said the best part of the week has been hanging out with the other skateboarders in the Olympic Village. She hopes to qualify for the Paris Games, not because she wants to medal but because she wants to spend time together without COVID-19 restrictions.

Whether because of the age of the participants or the culture they perpetuate, skateboarding doesn’t seem to have become a full sport just yet. A reporter asked Brown what Thomas Bach, the head of the IOC, had said to her after she finished. Brown wrinkled her nose. “Who?”

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