Pro skateboarder Brighton Zeuner is a regular teenage girl — she enjoys hanging out with friends, goes thrifting in her spare time, writes song lyrics, and even plays music in a band with her brother — but she’s in a league of her own. Just one day after her 13th birthday, Zeuner became the youngest gold medalist in X Games history when she took first place in the 2017 Women's Skateboard Park competition, beating out opponents over a decade her senior. Now, at 16, she’s on track to be one of the first skateboarders in the sport’s history heading to the Olympics in summer 2021. “I never ever thought I would be able to skateboard and [make that] what I do for a living,” Zeuner tells Elite Daily. “That’s a pretty cool position to be in.”
Even without the Olympics, Zeuner already has a lot of achievements under her belt. She started competing professionally in 2016 at age 11, skating at Vans Pool Party, Vans U.S. Open, and becoming the youngest female athlete to ever compete at the X Games. She ended her 2016 season by taking the top spot at the first-ever Vans Park Series World Championships in Malmö, Sweden. In 2017, she won gold at the X Games, and in 2018, she did it again. And in March 2019, she became one of 16 athletes on the first-ever USA National Skateboarding Team. In 2021, she’s a favorite to represent the United States at the Tokyo Olympics, competing in the Women’s Park event and showing the world her tricks on halfpipes, quarter pipes, stairs, ramps, and rails. “I never thought skateboarding would be in the Olympics when I first started,” she says. “It's just crazy to think about. My grandma thought it was really cool.”
Zeuner first started skating at age 6, when her brother got a skateboard as a Christmas gift. Zeuner was instantly obsessed. At night, she’d spend hours playing around with the board on the carpet, learning to keep her balance and footing. “I was really drawn to it,” she says. “It was a lot more creative than anything I’d ever done.” Her family supported her interest: Her dad and brother would take her to parks and her mom encouraged her to practice. “I used to get really nervous going to parks when people [were] a lot better than me. I was too insecure to slide to the bowl and just kick-turn around,” she says. The insecurity didn’t last long: At age 8, Zeuner qualified for the 2012/2013 King of the Groms, a nationwide skating championship held in Minneapolis. She rode in the mini-ramp contest, where she competed as one of two girls against a division of 100 boys, and “beat their asses,” according to her dad, Brandon Zeuner. Her skills earned her fourth place.
In 2013, the Zeuner family was looking for a lifestyle change, and moved from Scottsdale, Arizona to Encinitas, California, one of the birthplaces of modern skateboarding in the mid ‘70s. It’s “where all the best skaters are,” according to Zeuner. The spot is a skateboarding hub for young riders, filled with parks and pros — perfect for cultivating Zeuner’s burgeoning skill. Later that year, with the help of pro skater Jeff Grosso, her parents constructed an ‘80s-style vert ramp (otherwise known as a halfpipe) in the backyard of their family home. The smaller ramp mimicked larger structures Zeuner would encounter at competitions, giving her a low-stakes avenue to polish her technique. Soon, living legends like Tony Hawk, Lance Mountain, Christian Hosoi, and Jeff Pearlman were stopping by to check out the homemade, competition-style ramp. Zeuner would skate right alongside them, picking up tips and tricks from the best in the game. “I met some of the best pro skaters ever,” she states, noting how they motivated her to improve.
Everyone is hungry to go to the Olympics, and I would put a lot of pressure on myself.
As of 2021, Zeuner is backed by several sponsors, including Red Bull, Independent, Mob Grip, Frog Skateboards, and Vans, to name a few. She’s used her skating success to explore other interests, like fashion, and is thinking about how to branch out more. “I always wanted to design stuff, and I'm sponsored by Vans, and I got the opportunity to [create] a colorway and design a shoe,” she adds. “It's really cool to mix skateboarding [with] other opportunities.”
But as an athlete in her teens, Zeuner can sometimes feel buried by mounting expectations, including her own. “I was really hard on myself,” she says, explaining how she would constantly compare herself to other skaters. “Everyone is hungry to go to the Olympics, and I would put a lot of pressure on myself,” she adds. “People expect me to win.”
It's overwhelming, she says, "just balancing a normal teenage girl life, traveling, competing, being out of the states for nine days, [and] having a social life." While she admits there have been times where she saw skating as more of a job than a passion, she knows she never wants to quit. She makes the effort to prioritize her mental health and love of the sport above the desire to win. “It’s really important to just love what you do and know why you do it,” Zeuner says. “Don't compete if there's too much stress. It's not natural, and you're putting too much pressure on yourself. Try to take a few steps back and have fun.”
And yeah, Zeuner has experienced her share of sexism in skateboarding. The public, she says, will sometimes spin up false rivalries between her and other young female athletes. But the reality is that competitions are fun and welcoming despite the pressure. “There’s no mean girls on the deck,” she says. “We’re actually all friends. There’s no rivalry, honestly. It’s just healthy competition.”
I think in about four years, there’s going to be way more girl skateboarders.
While skateboarding is ahead of the gender equality curve as compared to some other sports — the X Games, for example, began offering men and women equal prize bags in 2008, following a campaign by prominent female skateboarders — that doesn't mean things are perfect. "[Prizes] would be like $500 for the girls and $2,000 for the guys, when I first started," Zeuner says of some of her early competitions. And women can have fewer opportunities to shine: In 2011, the X Games canceled its Women’s Skateboard Vert event, citing the lack of “a solid year-round infrastructure, a growing participant base, an established annual competition schedule, rising youth talent pools, ample access to courses, low barriers of entry into the sport, and myriad other factors.”
With skateboarding inaugurated as an Olympic sport, Zeuner’s looking forward to seeing more global support for women and femmes in skateboarding. “It’s an opportunity for skateboarders to travel and do what they love,” she says. “I think in about four years, there’s going to be way more girl skateboarders.”
Even now, she’s noticed a huge difference in qualifying contests. “There’s so many more girls [competing], so many girls I’ve never seen,” she explains. When she first started competition skating, she would only see around 20 to 30 girls at qualifying rounds. Now, she sees upwards of 60 at each competition. “It’s crazy,” she says. “I met a lot of cool girls there.”
When it comes to advice for young women and femme skateboarders with dreams of conquering the Olympic Games, Zeuner thinks of what her mom told her when she first started. “Everyone started somewhere, and no one's judging you,” she repeats. “We’re all just at a skate park doing what we all love to do.” At the end of the day, she says, it’s not about “who’s the best or who’s the most badass.”
“Skateboarding,” Zeuner says, “is just a thing people like to do for fun.”
To learn more about all the Olympic hopefuls, visit TeamUSA.org. Watch the Tokyo Olympics this summer on NBC.
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