Brighton Zeuner poses with her gold medal at X Games Minneapolis on July 22, 2018 in Minneapolis.
Standing at the top of the skateboard ramp, 14-year-old Brighton Zeuner knows that as soon as she starts her run, she will feel free. Even with all the tricks and requirements and judging that are part of skateboarding, for her, it’s about freedom.
“I can be creative in it, and it’s kind of a personal thing,” she said. “There’s a lot of freedom in it. It’s a free feeling, just me and my skateboard.”
Zeuner has already made a name for herself in the skateboarding world.
A native of Encinitas, California, she has two X Games gold medals in skateboard park, with her first title in 2017 making her the youngest champion in X Games history at just over 13 years old. She has become a regular at the Vans Park Series events. She wins competitions with high-flying and twisting tricks and strong fundamentals as she moves over obstacles in the park. At the 2018 X Games, she already had the high score when she decided to try and up her score to win the gold, evoking memories of Shaun White’s winning snowboarding run in Vancouver.
With skateboarding making its Olympic debut in Tokyo next year, Zeuner is one of the brightest prospects for Team USA.
She was excited to find out that the sport she’s been doing since she was just 4 years old is now an Olympic sport.
“It was really cool because I knew there was going to be a lot of exposure for skateboarding,” she said. “It’s like a different platform for skating.”
In Tokyo, 20 men and 20 women will compete in skateboard park, with the same number competing in skateboard street events. As competitive skateboarding is a fairly new sport, comparatively speaking to, say, track and field, equality between genders has long been built into the culture, Zeuner said.
“When I started skating, the contests were all equal to the guys, all the prizes,” she said. “I’m coming up in the best time, and now there’s skateboarding in the Olympics. It’s really good for skateboarding.”
But the medals aren’t what is on her mind as she begins a run at an Olympic berth in skateboard park. Instead, she is thinking about how her sport helps her show off her creativity.
“The beauty of skateboarding is that you can be yourself in it,” she said. “You don’t have to copy and paste what other people are doing. Who you are, you can take that and put it into skateboarding. It’s not like you’re changing your identity to be a skateboarder. It’s you and the skateboard. It’s a lot of freedom and skating and being happy.”
Skateboarding affects how she sees herself outside of skating as well. When she’s not on her skateboard, she likes fashion and coming up with elaborate eye makeup.
“I get all my creativity and inspiration from skateboarding,” Zeuner said. “You can find yourself from skating. A lot of the times I’m creative is because of skateboarding.”
Being a teenager while being an elite athlete means Zeuner has to balance schoolwork with her competition. She has found a school that gives her flexibility as she tries to reach her goals in skateboarding.
“It’s five times a week, there’s a little homeschooling, but it’s cool because the teachers understand when you have to go and why,” she said. “They try to get you caught up before you leave because there’s no such thing as doing work when you’re at an event. They understand that.”
Zeuner competes with women who are older than her; women who she has looked up to since starting to compete.
“When I first started skating, I looked up to a lot of the girls who were from where I grew up,” said Zeuner, who lived in Arizona before moving to Southern California. “There’s a lot of really good girls there, Alana Smith. She was my biggest inspiration. I thought, ‘I want to skate like her.’ When I first met her, she was like a big sister. But now, I’m friends with all the girls. There’s a lot of love.”
Like Zeuner, Smith started competing in skateboarding at a young age. She was 12 for her first X Games appearance. Now 19, she’s part of a group of women Zeuner has a sense of camaraderie with. They may compete against each other, but they share a bond.
“Sometimes people like to pretend like there’s conflict, and it’s a waste of energy. That’s really not it,” Zeuner said. “I’m best friends with some of the girls. They’re really cool. I try not to pay attention if there’s drama or anything. You see the same girls at every competition.”
Zeuner’s focus is one of the reasons she is an athlete to watch as the Tokyo Games draw nearer.
Maggie Hendricks is based in Chicago and has covered Olympic sports for more than 10 years for USA Today and Yahoo Sports. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.