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He has hosted Justin Bieber at his private skate park and guest-starred opposite Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the TV show Ballers. Now Nyjah Huston is aiming to become an Olympic champion as skateboarding makes its debut in Tokyo.
Medals are on offer in two disciplines at the Ariake Urban Sports Park. In street, competitors skate on outdoor furniture and obstacles such as handrails, benches and stairs. Park features lofty tricks in steep-sided bowls.
A formidable competitor in a mellow sport, Huston is the favourite to take gold in street and add to a reputation and record haul of victories that has brought him wealth and celebrity status. With six world titles and 12 X Games wins, the trophy room in the 26-year-old’s ocean-facing Laguna Beach mansion is jammed.
Nor is there much room left on his skin, which is almost entirely covered in tattoos. Among the eclectic body art: the Grim Reaper, a lion’s skull, a pineapple, a ferret on a skateboard, a tombstone that reads “see ya soon”, and a waffle. “What can I say?” he told GQ. “I love waffles.”
He has taken a more focused approach to his career, practicing with obsessive discipline since the age of five, mastering tricks one by one. He had a sponsorship deal aged seven. By 10 he was winning notable contests; he turned professional at 11.
“I don’t know if any of us imagined we would ever be up here getting ready to skate in the Olympics,” he told reporters before heading to Tokyo. “But we’ve all been working for this from a young age, even before it was possible.”
Born in Davis, California, Huston was raised as a vegan by Rastafarian parents. “Our father got us into skating and built us many ramps around our yard. My parents bought an indoor skatepark in 2003 that was a perfect training facility for me,” he told NBC.
He partly grew up in Fiji and on a farm in Puerto Rico, where the family lived off the proceeds of marijuana sales, his mother, Kelle, told Jenkem magazine. “We purposely separated ourselves from society and basically lived as a mini cult,” she said.
It was not the ideal environment to develop his skills, so he returned to California to further his ambitions. “My success as a young athlete contributed to major disagreements between my parents and my mom had to make the ultimate decision to leave. Unfortunately, my father is no longer involved with us or my career,” he told NBC.
It’s easy to see why the organisers would welcome the participation of an athlete with 4.7 million followers on Instagram as they look to broaden the appeal of the Olympics and strive to attract a young audience.
Still, some purists might lament that a sport with counter-cultural roots and a rebellious spirit has joined the establishment and fret that the pressure to succeed in such a high-stakes competition may corrode skateboarding’s tranquil vibe.
But the incursion of big corporate money is hardly new – after all, Nike are among Huston’s sponsors and he promotes collections of shoes and sunglasses. He launched his own brand, Disorder Skateboards, last month, just in time for Tokyo. And the unparalleled reach of the Olympics offers opportunities for wider growth.
Skateboarding’s most famous name, Tony Hawk, is in Japan as a television analyst. “As a kid that was mostly lambasted for my interest in skateboarding, I never imagined it would be part of the Olympic Games. It’s surreal to now be in Tokyo bearing witness to this milestone in the most unprecedented circumstances,” the 53-year-old wrote.
“I know in the end it will help to grow skateboarding’s profile internationally, exposing our passion to an audience that has never seen it before or simply refused to embrace it. A whole new generation will get to experience skateboarding with genuine public support and meaningful opportunity.”
Canadian skater Micky Papa, aged 30, is competing in the men’s street contest, which takes place on Sunday; the women’s event is a day later, while the park competitions are on 4-5 August.
“I want to speak to any of the younger skaters who might be like, ‘Oh, the Olympics is wack’. I was listening to a business podcast the other day and they were talking about coffee shops. The main one is Starbucks, and that’s like the Olympics – everybody knows Starbucks and everybody knows the Olympics,” he told reporters this week.
“Now, Starbucks attracts so many people who get their first exposure to coffee culture there, but from there they can go on to explore other sides of the culture – your local corner store coffee shops or different ways of brewing coffee, which would be like real street skating or different kinds of contests, or other different parts of skateboarding culture that people would like to explore.
“Without that mainstream exposure we’ll always be small. I think what we have in skateboarding is so great that we should be able to share it with the entire world, and if this is the way we do it, then this is the way that we do it, because this is the biggest stage there is.” And there is no bigger presence than Huston; no one better at shaping grinds into glory.