Badass teenagers are safeguarding skateboarding's counterculture even as they become Olympic medalists

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TOKYO – The first medalist press conference in Olympic women’s skateboard history was a little awkward. The winners seemed alternatively bored, and shy, and like they couldn’t be bothered. At least one chewed gum behind her mask. Their nails were multi-colored or adored with emoji-like faces. They gave one word answers, doubled down, and then giggled nervously amongst themselves when the adults seemed exasperated. They rubbed their faces, fiddled with their medals, their flowers, the sports drink placed prominently and intentionally on the podium. In other words, they acted like total teens.

Because they are.

The top two spots on the podium for the first women’s skateboarding event in Olympic history are a combined 26 years old. Eight years younger than the fourth-place finisher. If one stood on the other’s shoulders they might be 10 feet tall.

Add in the bronze medalist and you get all the way to 42 — nearly the average age of the U.S. equestrian jumping team, for comparison’s sake.

Momiji Nishiya, from Osaka, Japan, won the event with a 15.26 score despite falling on her first two individual tricks. (The bottom three scores from two 45-second runs and four tricks are dropped). Just behind her with a score of 14.64 was Brazilian Rayssa Leal, who, at just a few months younger than Nishiya, would have been the youngest woman ever to win a gold medal of any kind. Sixteen-year-old Funa Nakayama, also of Japan, took bronze.

And just like every teen ever, even after making history for their youth, they didn’t want to be made to feel like little kids.

“I think it has nothing to do with age,” Nishiya said.

Japan's Momiji Nishiya (right) and Brazil's Rayssa Leal won gold and silver, respectively, in the women's street final of Olympic skateboarding on Monday. And they're a combined 26 years old. (Photo by LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images)
Japan's Momiji Nishiya (right) and Brazil's Rayssa Leal won gold and silver, respectively, in the women's street final of Olympic skateboarding on Monday. And they're a combined 26 years old. (Photo by LIONEL BONAVENTURE/AFP via Getty Images)

But the older generation was more willing to engage to put it all into some perspective. Older, here, is relative.

“Thirteen years old, that's crazy,” said Keet Oldenbeuving of the Netherlands, who is all of 16. “And they're the best ones too. The future of our sport is bright.”

Although the absence of fans at Ariake Urban Sports Park drained the event of palpable stakes, it lent the event a convivial energy. You know, like a day at the skatepark. In between runs, athletes waiting for their turn lounged around the perimeter of the course with their boards and brand-name sneakers, cheering for each other and exchanging chagrined smiles after tumbles. In person and on the broadcast, you could hear the skaters groan and whoop and talk amongst themselves. After her final trick in the preliminaries (a good score that pushed her into the finals), the Philippines’ Margielyn Didal could be heard asking her coach, “Are you crying?”

“No dude, it’s just dusty in here,” he replied.

Even though three Japanese skaters made it to the finals — and elicited applause from the local media for the feats — the limited crowd seemed especially animated by Leal, the lone Brazilian representative despite their status as pre-competition favorites to potentially sweep the podium. She wore her long hair loose, with cargo pants and braces.

What she lacks in years, she makes up for in Instagram followers. Her 2.3 million fans on the platform certainly put her in the upper echelon of all Olympians.

It’s a reflection of her Gen-Z status — as well as her origin story in the sport. Leal rose to viral fame when Tony Hawk shared a video of a then-7-year-old heel flipping off the stairs in a bright blue princess dress and a pair of wings, earning her the nickname “Little Fairy” and setting her on a path to the Olympics.

"She is a prodigy. She's exceptional. It's wild to see. And Momiji too. They're exceptional,” said Alexis Sablone, the only U.S. rider to advance to the finals, who finished fourth despite posting the single highest trick score of the day.

"For a long time there were way fewer females doing this. It's taken until now to get enough people to pay attention, to get enough eyes on it, to inspire girls around the world to start skating. So you can get that freak of nature I'd say, you can get someone like Rayssa who is exceptional. It's wild to see.

“I'm sure by (the Paris Olympics in 2024) I really won't believe what I'm seeing there. I look forward to watching it from the sideline somewhere."

That’ll be just the second time skateboarding is contested in the Olympics. The inclusion has been a source of ambivalence in the skateboarding community since it was announced in 2016 that the counterculture lifestyle would be appearing alongside more conventional sports in Tokyo. But the all-teenage podium seems to indicate that the next generation of top skateboarders are embracing the opportunity to compete on this stage — and use it as an opportunity to evangelize.

Asked what it will be like to see her friends back in school after medaling as an Olympian, Leal talked about wanting to have a big party.

But also: “Now I can convince all my friends to skateboard everywhere with me”

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