Nyjah Huston reacts after finishing second place in the men's skateboard street at X Games Minneapolis 2019 on Aug. 3, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Not many athletes hoping to qualify for their first Olympic Games have more than 3 million followers on Instagram and their own signature Nike shoe.
Nyjah Huston has both, along with a popular YouTube channel and another 2 million followers on Facebook. He has also appeared in a video game with Tony Hawk and acted opposite Dwayne Johnson in an episode of HBO’s “Ballers.”
All that comes with being one of the most recognizable skateboarders in the world at age 24. Huston began competing in professional tournaments as a kid, and he has become so popular he might have a hard time blending into the crowd at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.
Skateboarding will be making its Olympic debut next summer. While Huston earned his 12th gold medal at last week’s X Games in Minneapolis, he has never had an opportunity to add the Olympic gold medal to his collection — until now.
“Of course, I’ve thought about it. Of course, that is definitely one of my ultimate goals in life,” Huston said. “But at the same time I try not to think about it too much and put too much pressure on myself because when it comes down to it I approach all these contests the same. I’m always going out there giving it my all and doing the best I possibly can to win."
Huston has gone from a young skateboarding prodigy with long dreadlocks to the shorthaired, heavily tattooed king of street skateboarding. He’s one of the most decorated athletes in X Games history with 18 career medals, and he accepted the ESPY for Best Male Action Sports Athlete in July.
Huston missed a chance to earn another X Games gold medal in men’s street skateboarding when he fell on his final run in Minneapolis. He came up one point short of winner Yuto Horigome from Japan. The next day, though, Huston topped Horigome to win gold in the best street trick competition.
Huston isn’t old by any means. He’s still in his early 20s, but since he has been competing in the X Games since age 11, he feels like an older skater on tour.
“I think starting this year I started feeling that way because it’s really only me and like Shane O’Neill (of Australia) that have been out there for that many years and are still competing at a winning level,” Huston said. “So yeah, it’s crazy. It’s been a long journey, but I’m stoked that I am still young and do still have some more years left in me.”
USA Skateboarding named Huston to its first-ever national team earlier this year. He’ll have an opportunity to qualify for the Tokyo Games based on his results at events this year and during the 2020 qualifying season. After the first three events, Huston is ranked No. 1 in the men’s street Olympic World Skateboarding Ranking.
Huston gained a love for skateboarding from his father, who raised the family as strict Rastafarians. However, just as Huston’s pro career was blossoming, his father moved the family to a farm in the mountains of Puerto Rico.
Huston’s mother, Kelle, later packed up her other children and left for California, and Nyjah was eventually reunited with her.
“It kind of feels like I’ve lived two separate lives over my lifetime,” Huston said. “I’m thankful for the way I was raised, and I think it definitely helped me to get to where I’m at right now. There was obviously some hard times with my dad being really hard on me and really strict and really always pushing me so hard. I mean it was hard moments, but I’m thankful for it all because I was able to get through that and it only made me strong.”
Huston said he hasn’t spoken to his father in “a lot of years,” so he has no idea if his father is aware of his success.
“I can’t say for sure, but I would probably think (he knows),” Huston said.
Huston’s trophy case in his Southern California home is filled with trophies and medals he has won over the years. Always looking forward, he’s so competitive and has such a love for skateboarding that he’s already envisioning some tricks he could break out in Tokyo.
However, Huston said skateboarding is different from a sport like track and field where, he said, the fastest athletes who trained the hardest typically win. Skateboarding is so technical, Huston said, that even the best skateboarders have off days when they struggle to land tricks.
“I’m sure the (Olympic) course is going to be great. I heard it’s going to be a lot bigger than your normal X Games street league course,” Huston said. “There’s probably going to be plenty of options out there and hopefully some big rails for your boy to get down on. But yeah, I’m excited.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.