• Kyodo

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Having won four qualifying tournaments to date, including the world championships in September, the maiden Olympic gold medal in women’s park looks well within the grasp of 13-year-old skateboarder Misugu Okamoto.

Likely to be Japan’s youngest athlete at the Tokyo Games at age 14, Okamoto is flying high at the top of the qualification standings after topping the podium in the park event at last year’s Dew Tour and International Skateboarding Open.

The most recent qualifying win for youngster came at the Oi Stu Open in Rio de Janeiro in November, when she became the first female to land an in-competition kickflip Indy.

The trick is a variation on the Indy air, with the skateboarder flipping the board on its horizontal axis before grabbing it with a hand and placing it under the feet before landing.

Okamoto’s uncanny ability to maintain speed into takeoff allows her to get an amount of air comparable to her male counterparts and in turn gives her plenty of time to complete and land the challenging trick.

“I want to win a lot of different competitions and always be at the top,” said Okamoto, who decided to leave home in December 2018, months before her graduation from elementary school, to live with a family of pro skaters.

Okamoto now resides with the Sasaoka brothers in the city of Gifu, and that incredibly brave decision for a sixth-grader is paying dividends.

On a typical day, Okamoto picks up some food provided by the trio’s grandmother on her return from junior high school, then immediately heads to the skate park in Ama, Aichi Prefecture, about 35 km from her original home in Takahama to the south.

At the park, Coach Kento, the eldest Sasaoka brother, distributes a list of high-level tricks which Okamoto, a fast learner who studies keenly what overseas skaters are laying down, practices until 9 p.m. six days a week. She only takes a break on Mondays, when the park is closed.

The youngest of the brothers, 20-year-old Kensuke, is eyeing an Olympic berth himself and also takes part in the sessions. They push each other to reach new heights, and to land new tricks, taking both ahead in leaps and bounds.

Okamoto ventured into kickflip Indy territory last summer after some shrewd calculation from her U.S.-based coach, Rei Takahashi. He foresees her trademark McTwist backside 540, a rarity in the women’s field, being executed by most skaters during the upcoming world championships in May in London, so they needed something more.

After consulting with Kento, the team decided to work on adding the killer new trick. Okamoto had little problem adding the grab to her standard kickflip while watching Kensuke, who says it is his favorite trick, land it every day.

“It took about two weeks for me to do it in training,” said Okamoto, who was all smiles in September when she landed the trick to big cheers in a demonstration following her world championships victory.

The teen gets little breathing room at her new home, driven hard by Kento, who stresses that “other skaters will catch up unless you keep adding new tricks.”

Takahashi is equally serious, giving Okamoto a grade of just “70 out of 100” even for the run that won her the world title.

With the latter keeping close tabs from Los Angeles on the latest and greatest tricks added by the world’s best, and quickly contacting Kento to come up with a plan when he sees one, Okamoto’s path to gold appears to be in safe hands.

The coaches have good reason to maintain their close watch as one spot behind Okamoto in the world rankings is 17-year-old compatriot Sakura Yosozumi. A big talent herself, Yosozumi won the national and world championship titles, as well as Asian Games gold, in 2018.

Britain’s world No. 3 Sky Brown, an 11-year-old sensation born to an English father and Japanese mother and raised in Japan, has also reportedly been landing the kickflip Indy in training.

It will, nevertheless, take a lot to dethrone Okamoto, who has proven a willingness and ability to push women’s skateboarding forward since taking the sport up at age 8.

“I want to do my best to continue working on building a run from the list of tricks my coaches provide,” Okamoto said, “and to ensure I can lay it down mistake-free.”

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