You don’t become one of the world’s top skateboarders without taking a few tumbles. But Aori Nishimura knew this fall was different. It was back in 2017 and Nishimura was skateboarding in Los Angeles when she landed a trick badly, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee.
It was a devastating blow. Just three months earlier Nishimura, then 16, had won gold in the X-Games in Minneapolis. Now it seemed the wheels had come off just as her dream of stardom was picking up speed. “Skateboarding—it is my life,” Nishimura tells TIME at a skatepark in her hometown of Tokyo. “I was terrified that my career was over.”
Nishimura underwent reconstructive ligament surgery and spent the next six months in LA in painstaking rehabilitation. The boredom of days focused around the treatment table was amplified by not knowing the language nor many people. But her dedication eventually paid off and she returned to competition hungry to make up for lost time. In January, Nishimura won gold at the Street League Skateboarding championships in Rio de Janeiro, landing a physics-defying “lipslide” trick in a blur of dyed blond hair and cargo pants. Still just 18, she’s on course to represent Japan when the Olympics arrive in her homeland next summer, the first year that skateboarding will be part of the Games.
“It will be my first time to participate in [a big tournament] representing Japan, so I am very excited,” says Nishimura. “The Olympics is a great opportunity for [the world] to learn what an amazing place Japan is.”
Nishimura credits much of her success to her supportive family. She got her first taste of skating at the age of seven, after picking up her father’s board that was lying around the house. Her 20-year-old sister Kotone also skates professionally, and the impetus to keep up with her older sibling ultimately helped Nishimura reach the apex of the sport. Little wonder Nishimura says family is her greatest inspiration. “They have always been right by my side supporting me.”
Not all in Japan are so fortunate. Young people typically face a mountain of pressure to do well at school, join a top university and be recruited by a big firm. Pursuits outside of this unyielding career path are rarely encouraged. Those who struggle academically, or wilt under the pressure, find themselves on society’s margins and can suffer deep trauma.
Nishimura says she regularly receives messages on social media from fans around the country saying that they admire her for turning her passion into a real career. “I feel I could be an example of how to pursue one’s own path and goals,” she says. “Because when you overcome life’s challenges there’s fun and joy to come.”