"I'm not a pro skateboarder, I just compete in the pro division. So I guess you can call me, maybe, a world champion skateboarder? That seems right."
This is 12-year-old Brighton Zeuner's answer when I ask how I should refer to her. We're on the phone following her Voices of the Future panel – her first ever – at the recent espnW Summit in Dana Point, California.
On stage at the espnW Summit, which was livestreamed via WatchESPN, she shuffles towards her seat for the panel – a love seat that will also hold the other two panelists, Olympic hurdler Sydney McLaughlin and Olympic cycling silver medalist Chloe Dygert. Her center-parted California-blonde hair swings to the rhythm of her shuffle steps. Her mouth smiles wide, revealing braces. She's carrying her skateboard, which she holds in front of her like a protective shield throughout the panel.
She is fresh off her win at the 2016 Vans Park Series World Championship in August, after making history as the youngest female athlete to ever compete at the X-Games this past summer. "World Champion Skateboarder" is as apt a description as there is for Zeuner.
On her board, Zeuner competes with adult women. Women who, just a few short years ago, she looked up to but she now considers her peers – and friends. "I feel like they kind of treat me like a younger sister. We skate together and I love hanging out with them," Zeuner explains. Is there any competition? "When girls are bringing new things to the table, like new tricks, it definitely gets a little bit competitive," she says, before adding, "But that's normal!"
Zeuner loves skateboarding because she says it makes her feel free. "I felt the passion for it when I started skateboarding, and every day I still feel that same spark," she says. She skates like someone twice her age, but when she's not competing or pulling tricks, she's a normal 12-year-old girl: nervous, funny and endearing.
She has a favorite emoji (the smirky face one, "but only if my mom is coming home with Chik-Fil-A"), and when asked what her go-to karaoke song is, her well-known love for Nicki Minaj makes an appearance. "Definitely a fun one, if you're out with the girls or whatever, is "A Moment For Life" by Nicki Minaj," she tells the panel moderator, before entertaining the crowd by rapping the entire first verse of the song. "I just love her. She's empowering and has good flow," Zeuner says of Minaj.
Zeuner knows all about empowerment, because she's the epitome of it. She'd have to be to find the kind of success she has experienced at such a young age. She's "not much of a trainer," Zeuner says of her routine, but she's up everyday before school skating on the ramp in her backyard in Encinitas, CA, and she heads to her local skatepark in the afternoon. She goes to school three days per week and homeschools two to help manage her training schedule, which she says depends on what contest she has coming up and what terrain she'll have to skate. Mostly, though, "I just have fun and work on new stuff."
Despite the cache of tricks Zeuner's got up her sleeve, she says her favorite is still the 50-50 grind, which involves grinding on a rail with both trucks on the edge. Or, even more basic, "I just love dropping in and going really fast, going around the bowl." Tricks that, for Zeuner, are at the heart of what skateboarding is about, that let her feel the wind in her hair and just enjoy the sport for what it is – that feeling of freedom it gives her.
And despite how easy she makes it look, not every trick comes naturally. "You have to put a lot of time into them," she explains. Some of them took her as long as two months to master, like the invert. It's a trick where you plant your hand and it holds your body upside down,” almost like a handstand on the lip of the bowl. "That was mentally scary for me," she says. She admits that watching her skate and fall can be scary for her parents. But Zeuner has advice for other parents of kids who skate, which one can assume her own parents have heeded: "Trust your kids. Sometimes you have to fall to get good."
Though skateboarding is often thought of as a sport dominated by men, Zeuner assures me that at her local skatepark, "there are more girls than boys now." For her, that's the best part – getting to skate with all the other girls who are revolutionizing and changing the face of the sport. "There are all different types and ages of women and girls skating now. It's so cool."
When one is a world champion at 12 – a championship she celebrated by "drinking Sprite and chilling, taking a bath" – where is there to go next? For Zeuner, she's been handed a new goal to set her sights on: Tokyo 2020. For the first time in the history of the Olympics, skateboarding will be a sport at the Games. Skateboarding has long been relegated to the alternative X-Games, but making it an Olympic sport gives it a legitimacy that athletes have known it deserved all along. Zeuner hopes to make history by making her Olympic debut, along with skateboarding, in Tokyo. "It's a huge deal for skateboarding as a sport," she asserts.
As for what she wants the world to know about her, that one's easy: "Just that I love skateboarding."
As if there was any doubt.