The Unbreakable Nyjah Huston
Nyjah Huston doesn't give much thought to his bones, the 206 collagen-and-calcium pieces that form one of the greatest, most consistent street skaters the sport has seen. But others do.
"People always ask how many bones I've broken," says Huston, 22, who looks to add to his eight gold medals at X Games Minneapolis (July 13-16). "They ask because I skate big stairs and rails, and I've been known to take gnarly slams. Almost every skateboarder has broken at least one bone." But not Huston. "None," he says. "I've never broken a bone."
Huston does have a way of making the most technical tricks down terrifyingly steep rails look effortless, and he rarely falls, even at the most high-pressure moments. But when he does, those slams are often spectacular and cringeworthy. Take one clip from his 2012 Element video "Rise & Shine," at an 18-stair in La Jolla, California. Huston rolls up to the rail and ollies, but he doesn't get enough pop. His back truck catches the top of the rail, and his board stalls as he launches, headfirst, toward the concrete 15 feet below. His right arm takes the majority of the impact, and his body crumples on top of it.
"I don't know how I didn't break my wrist," he says. "I didn't even sprain it." Instead, he rests for a few minutes, walks back up the stairs and lays down a backside Smith grind.
What makes Huston so unbreakable? He credits the strict no-soda, vegan diet he followed as a child. That may be a factor, but a likelier reason is the confidence his upbringing -- and his lack of broken bones -- has created.
Huston has spent more time on a board than anyone his age: At 5, he was already skating many hours a day under his father's watchful eye; by 8, he was jumping down big stair sets, perfecting his biomechanics, air awareness and ability to take a fall. The years of experience go a long way in explaining his catlike ability to avoid catastrophe. They've also created a positive feedback loop: try a trick, land or slam, walk away uninjured, try it again, repeat until successful.
"Skating is so mental, and Nyjah is always at 100 percent commitment," Street League skater Tommy Fynn says. "He never second-guesses himself. When you do, that's when you get hurt."
After a major injury, an athlete can respond two ways. "If he's healthy, optimistic and has good social support, it can be an inoculation to the fear of breaking bones," says Michael Gervais, a psychologist who works with elite action sports athletes. "If he has a predisposition to pessimism and doubt or a low tolerance of pain, it can be traumatic." Even for the very best.
"Once you break a bone, you question so many things you take for granted," says legendary vert skater Tony Hawk, who remained unbroken until he was 29. "If you approach something with any shred of doubt, the worst-case scenario will come true. You've already put it in motion. That injury took me a long time to get over."
Huston says he isn't about to start doubting himself: "Let's hope it stays that way."
Follow Nyjah on Instagram.