Brighton Zeuner believes she’ll eventually want to stop skateboarding. But that won’t happen until she’s older, so old that she can’t even picture it.
“Like, way older, you know?” Zeuner says.
But here’s the thing: Zeuner is only 12 — she turns 13 Friday. There could be miles of pavement and innumerable tricks on her board before she’s “way older.” It’s dizzying to consider the potential opportunities in front of her.
A year after finishing fourth in the women’s park skateboarding, just missing out on becoming the youngest to medal in an X Games, Zeuner has a chance to be the youngest to win an event when the X Games come to Minneapolis Thursday through Sunday. And skateboarding is becoming an Olympic sport in 2020, just after Zeuner turns 16, the minimum age for Olympic eligibility.
Teenagers often compete at a high level in skateboarding, a sport that presents some advantages to small, flexible athletes. But Zeuner’s accomplishments — youngest female X Games competitor ever, Vans Park Series world champion — remain exceptional. Combine that with the bubbly personality of a girl whose Instagram has photos of her with a friend’s cat and a trip to Disney World sprinkled among skating pictures, and Zeuner, a Californian, has a unique platform.
“She rips, so it’s totally deserving,” said Mimi Knoop, a five-time X Games medalist and founder of the Women’s Skateboarding Alliance, which co-produces many of the top female skateboarding events, including the X Games.
Brighton’s brother, Jack, is the one who got into skating first. His dad took him to buy a helmet for bicycle riding, and Jack said he wanted a board instead. Brighton’s passion developed once she graduated from the group lessons at camps when she was around 8 years old, two years after she began skating.
Their parents, Brandon and Bridget Zeuner, eventually built a 10-foot vert ramp in their backyard. It’s smaller than the ones used in competitions, which Brighton wouldn’t have been able to successfully use at the time.
”We didn’t realize we were recreating the skateboard scene of the ’80s,” Brandon said.
Old pros, such as Jeff Grosso, who is now a friend of the family, began showing up in the Zeuners’ backyard to skate on this smaller-scale ramp. It’s the sort that was popular in Southern California when skating was more underground, in the 1970s and ’80s.
Grosso said skating legends, including Tony Hawk and Lance Mountain, have skated the ramp. Some stayed for dinner.
“If you want to get good, go skateboard with a bunch of guys and girls who are much better than you, and you’ll get good real quick,” Grosso said. “Either that, or you’ll bleed a lot.”
Grosso has learned from Brighton, too. She introduced him to Nicki Minaj music videos.
Brighton’s mentors all said no amount of cuts or falls stop her from trying a trick until she executes it. Her favorite trick these days is called Ollie Backside 360. Even more special is what Neal Hendrix, who cast Brighton for the YouTube-based reality show “Camp Woodward,” called her “contest IQ.”
Brighton knows how many points she needs to score in a single skate. She doesn’t take unnecessary risks, and she pushes herself when she needs to.
“The focus and the drive, that determination, it’s only when she puts the helmet on,” Hendrix said. “The rest of the time, she’s just a bubbly kid playing around.”
A rising star
She fields autograph requests after competitions. She’s planning to compete in China. Skateboarding already has taken her to Sweden, her favorite place.
A small circle of trusted advisers for Brighton has formed: It includes Grosso, Hawk, manager Ryan Clements and Vans team manager Jamie Hart. As skating becomes mainstream and more business opportunities present themselves to young, marketable skaters, Grosso said, burnout becomes a greater concern.
“It’s refreshing in the way that they’re mindful she’s 12,” Grosso said. “She’s got to do her schoolwork, and she’s got house chores, and if she’s acting like a moron, her parents put her in check. She’s grounded, and she’s not allowed to go to the skatepark like she wants to.”
When Brighton’s skating career became more serious, Bridget and Brandon talked to other parents who said she would have to skate six to 10 hours each day. But the Zeuners don’t believe that.
After Brighton returned from her X Games qualifier in Boise, Idaho, in June, she went to the skatepark — but only to meet her friends. She likes to draw and swim to relax. She enjoys cooking with her dad and watching Tasty videos on Instagram.
Knoop said what derails the careers of other young, talented skaters is that their parents are more invested in their success than they are. Pressure outweighs satisfaction.
That’s the not the case with Brighton. Creativity attracted her to the sport, and she’s pushing herself toward success.
When Hendrix tells Brandon about a change he thinks Brighton needs to make, the father tells Hendrix to talk directly to Brighton. The skater doesn’t like instructions from her dad, and Brandon doesn’t force it.
Asked about the pressure his daughter might feel, Brandon tried to distance her from the possibility of the Olympics, even as he admitted it’d be a “fantastic” thing.
“Today, we’re here,” he said. “We’re present.”
Then it was Brighton’s turn to talk, and she spoke as if the Olympics were a certainty. She mentions how the timing of the games perfectly lines up with when she will become Olympic-eligible, and she says she’s been looking forward to the moment, which is still three years — or almost a quarter of Brighton Zeuner’s life — away.