How I Lost My Mind: X Games Athletes And Their First Big Breaks

There’s nothing normal about the athletes of the X Games. A normal person does not look at a ramp seven stories tall and think, “I should definitely ride down that.” A normal person does not willfully hang upside-down from a motorcycle. Last weekend in Austin, ESPN’s most recent edition of their action sports festival united the best skaters, riders, and drivers the world has to offer, and they’ll be the first to tell you that they’re wired a bit differently.

So, how do you even work up the courage to start going big? When and where does an action sports career begin? I asked nine X Games athletes how they broke in to their respective fields.

Alana Smith, age 14
Women’s Skateboard Street

“I was skating in my driveway, and I started doing tricks. I didn’t even know what I was doing. I looked it up, and I realized that they were actual tricks. I started going to Kids That Rip school, and started getting into the classes and everything. The teachers were saying to my parents that I was progressing way faster than any of the other kids… I think from there, my parents were like, ‘Let’s just put everything into this if she really wants to do it.'”

Tom Schaar, age 15
Skateboard Big Air

“I always kind of struggled with Big Air in the beginning. I was really scared of it. After the first time I made the gap, I realized, ‘Oh, this is so fun, I just want to keep skating it.’ And then you start doing harder and harder tricks, going higher and higher, and I kind of realized I didn’t suck at it… I mean, I landed the 1080. That was my big trick, I guess.”

Morgan Wade, age 31
BMX Big Air

“When I was in college in 2002, I went to a contest in Florida called Roots Jam. I came back from that contest with a second-place win in the pro class and a decent-sized check. That was kind of the turning point for me, where I was like, ‘Oh wait, I’m actually pretty good at this.’ Then, after about a year of doing comps, I came home from a long weekend… I had about 10 to 15 grand in checks and an invite to the 2003 X Games. That was the point where I was like, ‘You know what, I’m going to take a break from school and continue with this.’ That was my light bulb moment.”

Mike Brown, age 43
Men’s Enduro X

“Back when I first started pro motocross… I was in Gainesville, Fla., probably in 1990, I guess. I’ve got the holeshot against all the top guys, and no one had heard of me. Doing that race, I think that’s what dragged me into where I’m at now.”

Nyjah Huston, age 20
Men’s Skateboard Street

“The main moment in the beginning of my career was winning Tampa Am, which is the biggest amateur contest there is. I don’t know how, but somehow I won it at 10 years old. I was twice as small as all the other guys out there. After that, I was like, ‘Damn.’ I couldn’t believe I made that happen. So then I ended up skating my first X Games when I was 11, and by that time I just couldn’t believe that I was out there skating with all the guys I looked up to.”

Jamie Bestwick, age 43
BMX Vert

“I’d say it was 2000, in San Francisco… Up to that point, I’d only gone at a bronze medal, and it seemed like all my efforts were just falling by the wayside. Dave Mirra was the consummate champion at the time, and he just seemed unstoppable. Back in 2000, we just locked horns, and it was on. Dave brought his best day, I brought my best day. But I had an ace in my back pocket, a trick [the turndown flair] that never been done before. That seemed to be the defining moment… that’s usually one of my filler tricks now.”

Rusty Wallace, age 58
Off-Road Trucks

“My big moments were some of my first victories. Back in the day, when I had my first break, I got in and won my first race. I said, ‘Wow, I’m in. I love this.’ And then, I just couldn’t think of anything else except motorsports. That’s the only thing that was on my mind. It wasn’t school, it wasn’t other things, it wasn’t stick-and-ball, none of that. It was just racing cars, and that was it.”

Dennis Enarson, age 24
BMX Park

“When I was 13, I rode, I raced… but then, my mom and some of my buddies all got together because we all saw the Clairemont skatepark online… I was like, ‘I gotta go back to that park as much as possible.’ I fell in love with the park itself and that kind of riding. It had a mix of everything; it was a perfect place where I could just burn my energy; my mom could drop me off; it was awesome. I pretty much grew up there for years and years, every day… I still ride it. I’m going to go home and go ride there.”

Travis Pastrana, age 31
Off-Road Trucks

“For every kid, when they start doing any sport, they know they’re going to be the next Michael Phelps, Jeremy McGrath, Mat Hoffman, or Tony Hawk. For me, my reality never set in… At every moment in my life, I knew what I was going to be, and that I was going to be here [at X Games].”