On the one hand, skateboarder Nyjah Huston is the quintessential counterculture sports star with a story even the best marketing team could not make up: He spent different parts of his childhood cut off from society, living off the land, perfecting his trade in a family-owned indoor skateboard park.
On the other, Huston is as typical a mainstream pitchman as can be: Already teeming with an air of rebellious authenticity, he is debuting a potentially disruptive skateboard brand that figures only to increase visibility for an ever-growing business built around his own personality.
Either way, Huston is ready for the Olympics, and the Olympics think they're ready for him.
As skateboarding makes its Olympic debut, part of that industry's quest to get younger and edgier, this 26-year-old gold medal favorite might very well be the most interesting athlete that the average fan, steeped in the history of legacy sports such as track, gymnastics and swimming, has never heard of heading into the Tokyo Games.
And where some in a sport that has lingered comfortably for decades in the shadows of the mainstream might be reluctant to move into the gargantuan maw of the Olympics, Huston is more than glad to latch onto this monster. After all, he chose this summer to launch his own brand, Disorder Skateboards — the sort of move he briefly toyed with back when he was 14 and one he could’ve made with a snap of his fingers at any time between then and now.
“It was always something that I feel like I needed to be patient on and I would know when it was the right time,” Huston said. “I want to actually have ownership of companies and a company of my own and this is the perfect way to do it with skateboards, and it was also the perfect timing of getting them out right before the Olympics.”
Huston's first foray into becoming a front man for his own brand came as a teenager, after moving back to California following a short time living in Puerto Rico. The move to the island was part of his parents' plan to unplug from mainstream society. They lived on a farm and grew their own food. It was a far cry from Northern California, where the family had leased a 15,000-square-foot skatepark where Nyjah and his three brothers and sister would practice.
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Huston was a skateboarding prodigy, buoyed by early appearances, and wins, at the X Games and other big events. His father, Adeyemi, managed his career and did everything, from filming Nyjah’s skating and editing the footage to driving the family motorhome from event to event. Asked how they subsisted during the years in Puerto Rico, Huston's mother, Kelle, said “skateboarding and weed — quite a combo,” in a 2014 interview with Jenkem Magazine. “We purposely separated ourselves from society and lived as a mini-cult.”
All of it was fine, or so it seemed, for Nyjah. But in his gut, he knew skateboarders did not get rich and famous by basing themselves out of Puerto Rico. And he never loved his first venture into creating his own skateboard brand.
“I started thinking about things more at 13 and 14. I just wanted some normal sponsors and I wanted to live in Cali," he said in an in-depth 2018 interview on The Nine Club with Chris Roberts podcast.
Huston's mom split from his dad — “As our children got older, I started to feel that the strict restrictions of our lifestyle were holding them back from progressing in life,” Kelle said — and moved the kids back to California.
Nyjah reconnected with his Element skateboard brand and started winning awards for videos and finding other new sponsors. He has been estranged from his dad ever since the move back to California. It's not a story he runs from. It is, in fact, part of the biography that he himself submitted to NBC for a Q&A on its Olympic website.
“He taught me how to be a skateboarder in the right way," Huston said in a recent interview with The Associated Press. "He knew there was more to life than just skateboarding. He pushed me. It wasn't always easy when I was a kid to skate big-ass rails that scared ... me. He helped make me a strong person. There are no hard feelings there.”
Predictably, Huston's move back to California did wonders not only for his sponsorships but for the competitive part of his career, as well. He has won 12 X Games titles and four world championships. He is worth, depending on the source, somewhere between $10 million and $15 million. He is not Tony Hawk, the most famous person in the sport and maybe the only one, to this point, to truly break into the mainstream.
But Hawk never won an Olympic gold medal, and now those are at stake for a sport that has never shied from competition but has always prided itself on having grown up on the streets and defined itself through its clothes, its gear and its edgy lifestyle.
“The big guys have to be here” at the competitions, said one of pro skateboarding's pioneers, Mike Vallely, at a recent Dew Tour stop in Iowa. “There's no middle class in skateboarding. These people are getting paid real money by real companies to exist in this space. There are a few ‘lifestyle’ guys still out there, but that's a shrinking part of the culture as far as being a professional and getting paid.”
Huston doesn't hide from that. And nobody in the current crop of pro skateboarders has tapped into the connection between lifestyle and competition better than this athlete-marketing genius who now lives in Laguna Beach. Last month, he sold out his first run of about 1,000 skateboards in a matter of hours. He has deals with Nike, Monster Energy and other brands. All that will still be there no matter what happens in the men's street contest on July 25, where Huston is a favorite to win skateboarding's first-ever Olympic gold medal but hardly the only contender.
And though his life will go on — quite successfully, in fact — whether he comes home with a gold or not, make no mistake: Winning has gone a long way toward building both the brand and the person.
“I love competing," Huston said. “I take it really seriously. You're not going to see me out there having too much fun. You're going to see me battling with these guys in the final. That gives me lots of joy.”