As the qualification season for the Tokyo Olympics was drawing to a close, Team USA
Both disciplines made their debut at this year’s Games, and they have also been included on the program for Paris 2024. But anyone who doesn’t skateboard themselves or follow it closely may not realize just how difficult it is to excel in both specialties. Eaton describes it as the difference between baseball and football.
For a recent example, think of snowboarding GOAT Shaun White’s attempt to qualify in the Olympics not only in halfpipe, his clear specialty, but also in slopestyle, a vastly different discipline. He ultimately pulled out of the Sochi 2014 slopestyle event to focus on halfpipe, finishing just off the podium in fourth.
“It’s very hard to make both teams, and that is the goal. The goal is to win two Olympic gold medals,” Eaton told me in Des Moines, Iowa, in May before Dew Tour.
For Eaton to have qualified for the Olympics in both specialties, he would have had to land on the podium in the men’s park final at Dew Tour, which he wasn’t able to do. However, he was ranked No. 4 in the world in street and his next stop was the street skateboarding world championship in Rome in June, where he finished in fourth and did clinch his berth to Tokyo in the street discipline.
For a skateboarder who a month before had been visualizing competing in both park and street at the Olympics in July, suddenly, after Rome, Eaton’s whole two-plus-year journey to Tokyo was in jeopardy. That’s because, unknown to many at the time, Eaton was dealing with two fractures in his ankle, as well as two torn ligaments, at the world championship. If you go back and watch the video of his run, sure enough, you can see him limp away following his final trick.
Missing the chance to qualify for the Olympics in park…the broken ankle in Rome…there was a lot of uncertainty surrounding Eaton’s lead-up to the Tokyo Olympics. Which makes the fact that he landed third on the podium to become the first-ever U.S. Olympic medalist in skateboarding even sweeter.
“None of it has sank in at all yet,” Eaton said by phone on Wednesday. He was back stateside and in L.A. embarking on his whirlwind press tour, one of the rewards a U.S. Olympic medalist gets to reap.
“I’m on this high right now, and I’m just so thankful for my team, so blessed everyone around me is feeling the high that I feel,” Eaton continued. “It was such a group effort to make this happen.”
Eaton and I had talked about the issues he’d been having with his ankle at Dew Tour. He recounts everything that transpired since. “I’m the type of athlete that puts a lot of pressure on myself. This lead-up, you know; we talked in Iowa about how bad my ankle was, missing park, then going to Rome, breaking my ankle in Rome, doing so much…” Eaton trails off, considering. The hardships have not been inconsequential. After Rome, he spent two days in LA getting MRIs and tissue work. The prospect of surgery was discussed.
“But the scary thing about it is I would do it all over again,” Eaton said. “I’m just more hungry and I’m just really excited for Paris. I just have to thank my team for getting me there. I showed up to the Olympic games healthy, which I don’t think a lot of people could say. That’s dedicated to my team; I don’t know how we did it.”
The question, of course, begs to be asked: Will Eaton attempt to qualify for both park and street at the Paris Olympics?
“You bet,” Eaton said with a laugh. “I’ll be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in 2024.”
Especially given his recent ankle injury, it’s possible being focused only on the street event is part of what helped land Eaton on the podium. That’s not to say he doesn’t think he could have medaled in both; Eaton puts a lot of pressure on himself, but he has a lot of confidence, too.
“The goal never went away; the goal is to win two golds in both events,” Eaton said. He was eyeing the park course while he was in Tokyo, and he even got to drop in and skate it a little—which gave him even more motivation to get to Paris.
“At the same time,” Eaton said, “I take one battle at a time, one trick at a time, one challenge at a time. If I were to compete in both events, I’d still be there getting ready for park and dialing my body back in, taking some deep breaths, and soaking it all in. It’s such an amazing opportunity to even be able to have skated both those parks and to be one of the only skaters in the world who got the opportunity to do that.”
Once street became the ticket, however, Eaton threw himself into it headfirst. His typical strategy going in to each contest is to have nine to 10 run tricks dialed and two to three best tricks. (The Olympics, and many street contest, use a 2-5-4 format; two 45-second runs followed by five attempts at a best trick, with the top four scores being counted.)
“That’s exactly what you saw up there; those were tricks I’ve been working in runs and those were the best tricks I’ve been working in the park for over three years now,” Eaton said. “That was the plan and the strategy and I feel like the execution on those tricks was way better than they were in Rome. If you go back and look at that backside flip nosegrind in Rome, I was holding on for dear life.”
Of course, he had to get to know the Olympic street course—and he had to optimize his performance in the sweltering Tokyo heat, with temperatures during the final climbing above 90 with 70 percent humidity.
“I’m from Arizona, so that heat I’m pretty used to, growing up in 114 degree heat,” Eaton said. “You burn in Arizona, but in Japan you’re out there melting, so it’s just a little bit different,” he added with a laugh.
“But I think the thing that surprised me most about the Olympic Games course was the big section—that 12 stair handrail was no joke,” Eaton said. “Honestly, I’m kind of of glad I’m not skating it anymore.” Aside from the Hollywood 16 (a set of 16 stairs with a central rail), it was by far the biggest handrail Eaton has ever skated in a contest setting. “It was really gnarly,” he added.
Eaton came out swinging from the get-go; while the other competitors appeared to be feeling out the course and just attempting to land something to get points on the board, Eaton put down his best stuff from the jump.
On his first two runs, all went to plan: Eaton put down his backside lipslide, backside tailslide, kickflip, backside 360 ollie over the rail, blunt flip on the quarterpipe, switch front crooked grind down the rail, half-cab front blunt, kickflip front board and switch backside lipslide. The switch tricks (opposite footing from normal stance, so, in Eaton’s case, goofy instead of regular) are much more difficult and rewarded accordingly.
The scores for Eaton’s first two runs were 8.20 and 9.05, respectively. The only other skater to score nine-plus points on a run was Nyjah Huston.
For Eaton’s best tricks, he landed his switch backside 180 nosegrind and his backside flip nosegrind for scores of 8.70 and 9.40. He wasn’t able to land his other three attempts, but it didn’t matter; Eaton had already secured bronze-medal position before his final trick with a chance to move up to silver.
He didn’t land it. He did land on the podium.
So too did his Cariuma teammate Kelvin Hoefler, who earned silver. Cariuma, the three-year-old sustainable shoe brand that formed a skate team in 2020, could claim three of the eight skateboarders in the final and two of the three medalists—more than legacy brands like Nike SB
“Jagger is one of those very rare cases where you find really unique technical skills, good heart, positive energy and an unstoppable drive,” said Cariuma co-founder Fernando Porto. “Oh, this kid’s drive! If you look at every single step of his journey toward getting this medal, it’s just unbelievable.
“Having Cariuma get two out of the three spots on the podium that day shows that we are not only supporting great humans, but incredible athletes,” Porto added. “Skateboarding is and should always be about the skater!”
“I’ve just been so thankful to be a part of that brand,” Eaton said. “Their commitment to sustainability and the environment, being able to give back, riding for a brand like that makes me want to be a better athlete. And Kelvin is a force to be reckoned with. He’s been killing contests forever, and to stand on that podium with him was epic.”
Sponsor support is so crucial for Team USA athletes; the U.S. is one of the only nations in the world that does not federally fund the national team. Skateboarders’ sponsors pay for their travel around the world, support their training, provide them with equipment and even support their coaches. Eaton’s physical coach Brandon Glade and skate coach Neal Mims travel with Eaton to contests; in this case, they were instrumental in helping him recover from his ankle injury in Rome fast enough to skate in Tokyo.
“If it wasn’t for my team and everyone getting me healthy for this tournament, I wouldn’t have been able to skate in the competition,” Eaton said. “Red Bull has done everything for me in this whole journey, from helping me get Neal to each contest, getting me the doctors and physicians I need to be healthy for each contest, constantly supporting me…I’ll never be able to thank Red Bull enough for what they’ve done for me.”
He’ll never be able to thank his parents enough, either, for what they’ve done to support his career. He can certainly try—Dad, Geoff, gets the board from Tokyo, and Mom, Shelly, gets his gold medal. “I feel like my mom is gonna take better care of it,” Eaton said with a laugh. “I don’t have a house yet to put it anywhere.”
Geoff runs Arizona’s KTR Family Action Sports Center, one of the nation’s first dedicated skateboarding training facilities. Eaton’s parents used to run a gymnastics gym, but when Eaton showed more interest in skateboarding from a young age, they built a skate ramp for him and it progressed from there.
“They’ve done everything for me,” Eaton said.
From when he first showed up in Tokyo on Monday night and in practice Tuesday through Saturday, there was a “no-stress vibe,” Eaton said. USA Skateboarding and World Skate, the world governing body for roller sports, were calming presences. And even though his family wasn’t able to make the trip to Tokyo with him, he leaned heavily on teammates Huston and Jake Ilardi.
“It’s always hard, especially being by yourself, in that atmosphere, but honestly I can say now that I leaned on my team, I leaned on Nyjah and Jake for inspiration and comfort,” Eaton said. “We took each other under each other’s wings, and we did everything together—we went and ate together, we kicked it in the room together, we listened to music and vibed out together. It was just a really cool team vibe between us three. We’re actually still on a group text right now, still saying, ‘I miss y’all, this is crazy.’”
Eaton also used music to get himself in the zone before his runs—to set the record straight, the artist he was listening to in the final was Playboi Carti, as well as some country music between runs to ground himself. Television viewers may have seen Eaton appearing to nod along with the music before taking off on his run—that was actually part of his mental prep.
“That’s what you call flipping the switch,” Eaton said. “A lot of athletes that do that, if you look at any of LeBron’s interviews, he says flip the switch, and that’s what you do. You accept your position, you know what you’re gonna do, you visualize your run, you step forward, and you bite the dog back. Because that dog’s hunting right after you in that contest, your nerves are running, but you turn around and bite the dog. And that’s what I do right before a run. I get into it, and I know what I gotta do.”
You can’t argue with results, and Eaton’s speak for themselves. In a final that seemed to find many of the world’s top street skaters struggling with their mental game, Eaton got into the headspace he needed to walk away with a medal.
The only moment at the Olympics that felt really overwhelming? Arriving at the Olympic Village. “It was just really accepting that we’re all Olympians,” Eaton said.
It still hasn’t quite sunk in.