The presence of several teenagers in skateboarding, especially among women, is helping the sport's Olympic goal of getting more youth into the Games.
Youth was served to a global audience Monday when two 13-year-old skateboarders fought to the final trick to determine the winner of the women's street competition.
Alexis Sablone, the 34-year-old skater from Brooklyn, had the best view. She had been in contention for a medal, a bit to her surprise, and now watched as girls less than half her age competed to win at the Olympics.
"I was like, 'We're finally here,'" Sablone said after finishing fourth. "Female skateboarders have reached critical mass. There's enough now that there will be prodigies. And they're here."
In front of her, Rayssa Leal of Brazil, an energetic teenager with flowing hair and a broad smile, looked to become the youngest female gold medalist in Summer Games history.
Momiji Nishiya of Japan, who is just a few months older than Leal, looked to echo the winning performance of Yuto Horigome in the men's competition at the same park a day earlier.
Leal went first. She needed a big landing to slip past Nishiya on the scoreboard. She flew through the air, twisted her board below her, slid down a rail and spilled onto the concrete in disappointment. A silver medal and a hug from her mother awaited her exit.
The gold belonged to Nishiya, who landed her final three tricks for big scores, all of them necessary to claim victory. She is close to being the youngest gold medalist; that distinction belongs to Marjorie Gestring, a diver who won at age 13 years and 268 days at the 1936 Berlin Games. Nishiya is closer to her 14th birthday.
It was a contest infused with generational cross currents, jolting the Olympics with the kind of youthful spirit that it wanted.
"They've gotten cool points," Sablone said.
These Olympics have become a showcase for youth, especially women, and especially in skateboarding. The youngest Olympic athlete was 12-year-old Hend Zaza of Syria, who lost her opening match in table tennis.
But the next five youngest athletes at the Tokyo Games are female skateboarders. Other sports are sprinkled with young athletes, particularly swimming and diving, but nowhere else is the talent pool of youth as deep as it is in skateboarding.
Four of the eight women in the street final were 16 or younger. Funa Nakayama of Japan, 16, skated to bronze. When you added the ages of the medallists, it came to 42, and somewhere market researchers got excited and stodgy people took notice.
It is all part of a bigger plan, as skateboarding's debut in the Olympics came with a mandate: There would be no age restriction, nothing to prevent the youngest viewers from seeing something of themselves in the images beamed through their screens.
The thrust is particularly true for girls, as the women's side of Olympic skateboarding, still trying to catch up to the men in money, attention and acceptance, is filled with highflying teenagers.
There may be an even bigger burst next week, when skateboarding's park competition is held with athletes dropping into a concrete bowl and springing, twisting and flying from its edges.
Kokona Hiraki of Japan is 12 (she will turn 13 a few weeks after the Olympics), but two bigger favourites are Sky Brown of Britain, 13, and Misugu Okamoto of Japan, 15.
Brown, especially, appears ready for launch. She is the effervescent daughter of a British father and Japanese mother, who grew up mostly in Japan and now lives mostly in California. Her smile will earn her fans in at least three countries.
"I want to be able to inspire girls," she said in an interview in May. "Because I feel like people from all around the world are watching the Olympics, and that's a good place to inspire people."
That is the shift that Sablone was talking about. Already, here at Ariake Urban Sports Park, a new generation of girls recognised that it might inspire another. Medals are won. Role models are made. The cycle is set to repeat. Skateboarding is rolling.
Sablone stood in the shadows as the national anthem of Japan played and three girls stood atop a podium, their images beamed around the world.
She is an architect with degrees from Columbia and MIT, one of the great skateboard talents who competed on the side, more as a hobby than a career. She reached her first X Games in 2009, not long after the top two finishers in Monday's event were born. She was already 23 then — 10 years older than Nishiya and Leal are now.
She has watched women's skateboarding go from sideshow curiosity to the Olympics. She has helped smooth the way for the types of skaters who just beat her in the biggest contest, who were wearing medals that might have been hers in any previous year, and there was a tone of satisfaction in that.
"I'm 34 and I'm jumping on my skateboard, and there's an incredible 13-year-old that's beating me right now," she said of the final. "I've seen skateboarding through so many phases, and this is a historic moment. I'm just glad that I was able to overlap with this. I'm a lot older than they are, but I'm not too old to get fourth, so I think that's pretty good."
The eight-skater final did not include some of skateboarding's biggest stars, including Pamela Rosa, 22, and Leticia Bufoni, 28, both of Brazil.
Bufoni is one of the most recognised skaters in the world, and she won her sixth X Games gold medal this month in California. But her scores in the preliminary round left her in ninth place, one spot out of the final, squeezed out mostly by young women who want to be like her.
Leal was one of them. When she was 7, she was featured on a Brazilian television show. She cried when Bufoni appeared on stage to greet her.
Bufoni spent the finals in the grandstand, empty of fans, rooting for Leal. The two spent most of the past few months together, and Bufoni wanted to give her some advice before the final: Have fun. You are too young to have pressure.
Sablone was 12 years older than the next oldest competitor in the final. She was in fourth place going to her final trick, but her big finish ended in a spill. Upending on the concrete was not an uncommon result, as the finalists landed only 14 of their 40 trick attempts. Nishiya was the only one to land her last.
"Years ago, that would have been enough to win," Sablone said. "It's just that there are so many talented skaters now. It's a different time."
It felt like a win.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: John Branch
Photographs by: Alexandra Garcia
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