When the International Olympic Committee decided to admit skateboarding without setting age requirements, the game changed for a lot of young girls.
Kendra Long, an elite skateboarder who recently celebrated her 14th birthday, does a lot of fancy tricks at the small skateboard park that lives in her family's driveway in this rural patch of southeast Texas. There are varials, board slides, fakie full cab flips. Kendra is 5-foot-6, with long blonde hair that swirls around her face when she twists and drifts and spins and soars. The neighbours' horses sometimes amble up to the fence to watch.
Not so long ago, Kendra had ambitions that mirrored those of the typical budding competitor in extreme sports: Add to her portfolio of skills and improve enough to compete in some events, maybe at the X Games or on the Dew Tour.
But the calculus changed for Kendra and many of her peers when the International Olympic Committee announced in 2016 that skateboarding would make its debut at the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. Not only that, there would be no minimum age requirement — as there is in gymnastics, for example. The decision opened the door for even preteens to potentially compete on the sports world's biggest stage.
While adult athletes tend to dominate men's skateboarding, a cluster of girls have been excelling on the women's side. The IOC's decision instantly altered many of their lives. Young athletes like Kendra are now hopscotching the globe for qualifying competitions and, in the best of circumstances, getting their families to finance an expensive dream.
"I was just doing it for fun," she said recently. "And I'm still doing it for fun. But it does feel more serious now."
She is not alone. There is no buzzier skateboarder on the planet at the moment than Rayssa Leal, an 11-year-old from Brazil who rose to prominence after videos of her doing tricks in a tutu went viral online. She now has a cluster of sponsors, more than 480,000 followers on Instagram and medal aspirations for Tokyo.
"She's so good," Kendra said.
In July, at an elite event in Los Angeles, Rayssa and Kendra competed alongside far more experienced pros like Alexis Sablone, a 33-year-old Barnard College graduate who has helped design her own shoe for Converse, and Annie Guglia, a 29-year-old Canadian who came out of retirement when she learned that skateboarding would be in the Olympics.
Rayssa was so small by comparison that it looked as if she were riding a surfboard. But she whizzed around the course, flipping her board with flair. She finished to a standing ovation and was hugging her first-place trophy when officials sent her to doping control.
Kendra, who placed 10th, was a few weeks from entering the eighth grade.
"This young generation is going to push women's skateboarding so much further than we've seen," Guglia said. "It actually makes me proud to say, 'Yeah, an 11-year-old beat me.'"
The Olympics will include two types of skateboarding events: street skateboarding, in which tricks are executed on a variety of apparatus, like ledges and rails, and park skateboarding, which uses a huge hollowed-out bowl for aerial manoeuvres.
A few months ago, at the Park Skateboarding World Championships in São Paulo, the youth movement was on full display. Misugu Okamoto, 13, of Japan, won the title, while Sky Brown, an 11-year-old Olympic hopeful for Britain, finished third.
Some have suggested that smaller (and, often by extension, younger) skateboarders have an advantage because of a low centre of mass, which might make it easier for them to stay on the board or to twist and turn through the air. But Yung Tae Kim, a physicist who has studied the science of skateboarding, dismissed that theory in a telephone interview.
"I think skaters are just starting younger," said Kim, who noted that Tony Hawk, one of the greatest skateboarders ever, is 6-3. "I think you're seeing a lot of parents who are getting their kids on skateboards when they're 2 or 3. And it turns out that when you do that, you can get really, really good — really, really fast."
Kendra ranks 30th in the world and seventh among Americans in street skateboarding, according to the latest Olympic qualifying rankings. Only three Americans in her event will go to Tokyo, yet the mere prospect of the Olympics freaks her out. She sees a gap between herself and the best in the world. In her mind, the 2024 Summer Games in Paris are a more realistic goal.
"Oh, it's too soon," she said. "I need to learn more stuff. I want to get really good."
She still has time. Qualifying events are scheduled through May, with point totals determining the selections for the US squad.
Kendra also has supportive parents who recognise that she has uncommon opportunities.
"I don't think she wants to acknowledge that she has a chance," said Donald Long, who works in the health care industry. "It would be too much pressure."
Her mother, Natalie, says Kendra is a perfectionist.
"If she lands a trick and her foot isn't quite right, she'll say, 'That was trash.' And she'll do it again," said Natalie Long, who works as a dietician.
The whole endeavour is surreal for the Longs: the travel, the possibilities, the odd talent that their daughter came to possess. Vidor, a small city of rolling pastures and stifling humidity that was hit hard by flooding in September, is not a skateboarding hotbed.
"When I used to tell people that I skated, they'd be like, 'Oh, you Rollerblade?'" Kendra said.
Her curious journey began about seven years ago when her father spent $5 on a used Santa Cruz skateboard at a thrift shop. The board reminded him of the ones he used to ride as a boy growing up outside Houston. He figured his two young sons might take an interest. Instead, it was his 6-year-old daughter who hopped on and refused to get off.
At the time, Kendra was a freshly minted second-degree black belt in karate with energy to burn. (Her nickname in karate was "The Machine.") Her mother had considered putting her in gymnastics, but Kendra quickly gravitated to skateboarding. It took her about a month to learn how to Ollie, doing a hands-free hop on the board. Before long, she tackled more advanced tricks by studying clips online. She eventually began to enter contests in Texas — and did well, often against older boys.
She entered her first international competition in September 2018, at the Empire Open in Montreal, and placed fourth overall. She was 12. The result landed her on the world tour for Street League Skateboarding, which puts on many of the events that serve as Olympic qualifiers.
"She's still super young, obviously," Josh Friedberg, the chief executive officer for USA Skateboarding, said of Kendra in a telephone interview. "But with Paris on the horizon after Tokyo, there's the chance of a real decadeslong story for her."
Yet the Olympics come with their own set of challenges and costs, especially for the emerging members of skateboarding's upper crust. For Kendra and her family, that has meant roving the globe for competitions: to London, Rio de Janeiro, Los Angeles (three times).
Kendra now has sponsors like Nike Skateboarding, which sends her a fresh batch of sneakers every three months, and Autonomy, which supplies her boards. But she does not receive endorsement money — not yet, anyway — leaving her parents to foot the bill. Her trips to competitions cost between US$4,000 and US$8,000 ($6,200 and $12,500).
"The Olympic dream is not free!" Natalie Long said.
A few months ago, Kendra went with her mother to China for the International Skateboarding Open, which was not a career highlight. After crashing in training, she returned home with a busted thumb. She had been planning to compete at another event in Brazil, but she was exhausted and pulled out at the behest of her parents. She rebounded in October by placing fifth at the national championships. The next few months are important. Kendra said she was already looking ahead to competitions in Australia and China (again).
"We want her to be in tiptop shape," Donald Long said.
Even as Kendra pursues lofty goals, her parents say they want to strike a balance. It bothers her mother, for example, that Kendra missed 41 days of school last year.
"I don't want her to regret missing Friday night football games or hanging out with friends," Natalie Long said. "I don't want her to resent skateboarding. It has to stay fun."
So Kendra supplements her life on four wheels by running cross-country and track, with her sights set on breaking Vidor Junior High School's record in the mile this spring. She is the president of her school's chapter of National Junior Honor Society. She throws an ugly sweater party for her friends at Christmas. She loves Netflix.
And even when she skates, there are unmistakable signs of youth: The grip tape on a board that she used at a recent competition featured Patrick, the chubby starfish from SpongeBob SquarePants.
But while skateboarding is not always her priority, she sometimes probably wishes it were. As the sun set the day after she returned from China, she came to a sad realisation.
"I have so much homework," she said.
Written by: Scott Cacciola
Photographs by: Tamir Kalifa and Ryan Young
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES