Don't call it a comeback
LOS ANGELES -- Nyjah Huston, the best contest street skateboarder in the world and maybe in history, entered the marquee event of Saturday's X Games docket as the undeniable favorite.
Finally healthy after a rib injury interrupted his X Games winning streak in June and kept him from competing in Munich, Huston qualified No. 1 on Friday and looked like his usual self in practice Saturday afternoon, calmly sticking trick after trick on a sweltering day downtown.
People like to talk about how every skateboarder on the Street League roster is capable of winning on the right day, but over the past two years, barring a royal miscue, Huston has become all but unbeatable.
So you could feel a twinge of unease in the crowd when Brazilian Luan Oliveira not only topped Huston in the first portion of Saturday's X Games final (Flow), but did it again in the second (Control). Going into the third and deciding stanza, the Impact section, Huston trailed Oliveira by four-tenths of a point. Not an insurmountable deficit, but a deficit nonetheless.
Then the 18-year-old with the wide receiver's build went to work. The laser gaze that has become Huston's trademark on course -- he looks like a cheetah homing in on an antelope -- suddenly took over, and he stuck his first four tricks. Oliveira, whose reward for holding the lead was to skate directly after Huston, fell on three of his four attempts during the same period.
When Huston landed that fourth trick, a kickflip frontside noseslide that scored an 8.8, his total score jumped to 52.1. The next closest skater -- Chris Cole, who won gold in Munich in Huston's absence -- stood at 37.4.
"It's over!" exclaimed Huston's childhood friend, Edgar Barrera, who was watching on crutches after he broke his femur three weeks ago.
And so it was. Satisfied that the favorite had done what everyone expected him to do, Huston's five teenage buddies turned their attention to their smartphones.
Huston would increase his score once more with a 9.2 on his final trick -- a kickflip backside tailslide that he landed like his shoes were drawn to his skateboard deck by magnets -- to finish with 53 points. Chris Cole took silver, a distant 8.4 points back, and Oliveira held on for bronze with a 44.2.
Huston -- who has a tradition of taking his friends out for dinner "somewhere fancy," Barrera said, after his wins -- skated down the sideline high-fiving fans and relishing the moment. The feeling is becoming ever more familiar, but he refuted any notion that his result was a foregone conclusion.
"It definitely wasn't easy, and that's always the best feeling, when you actually come out with the win and there were people really close to you and they also [had] a chance to win," Huston said.
Part of Huston's appeal as an athlete is that while his performances might suggest otherwise, his celebrations remind you he's human. When he lands a particularly difficult trick, you often see him exhale and pat his stomach or pump his fists. Nothing is guaranteed in his mind, even if his rivals are running out of hope.
"He's just so comfortable on his board, man," said Torey Pudwill, who finished seventh Saturday. "Any time you see him skating, you can tell he's comfortable with the obstacle 100 percent. He doesn't get those nerves that everyone else gets. I don't know what's going on with that kid."
"He's just not scared," said Sean Malto, who edged out Huston for the 2011 Street League championship and watched this year's final from the stands. "And when you skate scary stuff and you don't have that fear of falling super hard, it's tough to get past somebody like that, you know? I think of the consequences sometimes, and I don't think he thinks of those things.
"I think everyone wants to win," Malto continued, "and when there's someone that is just dominating, it's kind of hard. Obviously he's the man to beat. And when you're the man to beat, there comes a little resentment, you know? I don't think anyone's mad at him personally; it's just like, 'Damn, Nyjah's that good.'"
Ryan Decenzo, who finished fourth Saturday, said Huston's technical mastery of flip-in tricks to the course's biggest rail separated him from everyone else.
"That's a gnarly obstacle, so nobody else wants to try those kinds of tricks on it, because if you screw up you're going to flip on your head and it's going to be a brutal plan," Decenzo said.
Gary Johnson, one of Huston's buddies in the crowd, insisted he has never seen Huston rattled. To wit, after Saturday's contest, with his mom and his friends and interviewers from three countries all suddenly tugging on his time, Huston simply kept calm and carried on. It was marvelous to watch and listen to, even though he's an athlete who has been in the spotlight since he was 6.
If you believe Huston, perhaps his greatest talent isn't fearlessness but simply getting past the same dread that stifles his rivals. Or at least justifying the reward, as he did to perfection in the final.
"Every single flip-in trick on the out bar was so scary," Huston said. "I mean, one little mistake and you could seriously get hurt.
"But it's worth it."