All Drake McElroy knew was that some hotshot Kiwi kid would be coming to Red Bull's California compound. McElroy, a freestyle motocross instructor for Red Bull, had no idea who 17-year-old Levi Sherwood was. "I had never even heard the name before," Drake admits. "I suck at paying attention sometimes."
But Drake doesn't suck at gauging talent, and when Sherwood arrived in California back in March, McElroy knew immediately that the teen was special. "Mat Rebeaud showed me some footage of Levi and he looked good, but you never know from watching something on a computer," McElroy says. "When he got here, he jumped on a new, bone stock bike, fired it up and immediately greased all of the jumps. It was impressive."
It didn't take long for others in the action sports world to learn who Sherwood was: a shocking win at the '09 season-opening Red Bull X-Fighters event in Mexico City in late March made sure of that. Of course, some in the freestyle community had known about the young ripper for years.
From Grom to Champ
Sherwood grew up in North Palmerston, New Zealand, with a family of dirtbike riders. His father, David, raced for years and even campaigned in the United States, and Levi's older brothers got bikes at an early age. Levi wasn't far behind. "Riding was a family thing," Levi says. "I got my first 50cc when I was four. My dad would take me to the shop and I'd sit on it, but it seemed like forever before I finally got it."
Racing followed almost immediately, and by age eight Sherwood was competing around New Zealand on an 80cc. But he had a new love before the age of 10: freestyle. Not many kids are hitting ramps by age nine, but Sherwood did. "A friend of the boys built a ramp," dad David remembers, "and the moment Levi saw his brothers doing it, he had to try. I was a little worried at first, but he just had a talent for it. And he was already racing motocross, which is just as dangerous."
No doubt. Levi frequently crashed his 80cc while competing, and he was accustomed to watching his brothers deal with injuries. Soon, racing took a backseat to young Sherwood's new passion, and it wasn't long before he began attempting simple tricks on his 80. "I was so stoked when I learned heel-clickers," he says with a laugh.
I just wanted to see the show I was more excited to hang and meet all the Metal Mulisha guys. Riding was a bonus.
-- Levi Sherwood
He learned a lot more than that in a short period of time. When he was just 12, the Crusty Tour came to Auckland. The show was promoted by a family acquaintance, who asked the grom if he'd like a bit part in the production. "I didn't want to turn it down," Sherwood says. "I just wanted to see the show -- I was more excited to hang and meet all the Metal Mulisha guys. Riding was a bonus."
Performing seat grabs and barhops in front of 23,000 rabid fans didn't faze Sherwood, so Crusty officials invited him to tour Australia, too. Dislocating his hip in a Crusty crash didn't dim his enthusiasm, and the next year he was back touring.
Among those on the '05 tour was Adam Jones. "Levi was just a normal kid and really humble, but he was 13 years old doing KODs," Jones recalls. Yes, that's rare.
Sherwood's Crusty parts quickly increased. Friends with fellow Kiwi Nick Franklin, Sherwood drove the four hours to Franklin's freestyle course and began throwing backflips into Nick's foam pit. By age 15, Levi was landing them to dirt. Less than two years later, Franklin told athlete manager Russ Stratton about Sherwood. Another Stratton client, Rebeaud, noticed the teen at about the same time.
"I saw a clip of Levi on the Internet, and he had such cool style and huge extension," Rebeaud says. "I called Russ and told him he had to check this guy out."
Stratton called Sherwood in January '09, and it wasn't long before Sherwood was traveling to the United States for the first time. "It was really cool to practice with Levi [at Red Bull's compound] because that young energy is so fun," says Rebeaud. "He was really good at camp."
Rebeaud certainly wasn't the only one who noticed Sherwood's skill. "Mike Mason and I were really impressed with him this spring," says Jones. "There was a huge difference in his riding -- I think he's growing up and settling down."
"Levi is a rad kid," Mason says. "He's not a little punk, he's super respectful, fun to ride with and has awesome style. He seems smart on a bike, and I think he's going to be a strong rider for many years."
Still, no one could've expected what came next: When Jeremy Stenberg dropped off the Red Bull X-Fighters Mexico City roster, Sherwood was asked to take his place after just a few days of riding at the Red Bull compound. "I wasn't sure at first if it was a good idea, but then I thought I'd be silly not to do it," Sherwood says. "I was pretty nervous leading up to it."
Levi is a rad kid. He's not a little punk, he's super respectful, fun to ride with and has awesome style. He seems smart on a bike, and I think he's going to be a strong rider for many years.
-- Mike Mason
Nervous? Yes. Flustered? Nope. Mellow and laidback, Sherwood is remarkably composed, especially for a 17-year-old. Riding his typical four-stroke in Mexico City, Levi's bike was consistent and predictable despite the high altitude. Sherwood was consistent, too, despite the fact that the event was his first major comp.
Solid in qualifying, Sherwood met Andre Villa in the quarterfinals -- and beat him. Sherwood then edged new friend and freestyle superstar Rebeaud in the semis. "Honestly, I was surprised I beat Mat," he says. "That's when I knew had a chance to win."
And he did, topping Eigo Sato in the final as the sold-out stadium went crazy. "It all happened so fast," Sherwood remembers. "From the semifinal to the final was a quick turnaround, and then I was basically blinded by champagne. By the time I popped the top -- like, 'Oh, that's how you do it' -- I was pretty much doused."
Sherwood's dad was in the crowd, too. "Levi's got a level head, and if he isn't comfortable with something, he won't do it," says David, explaining Levi's decision to accept the X-Fighters invitation. "We didn't have any expectations. I thought he might do okay, but I never thought he'd win."
Sherwood became the youngest winner of an X-Fighters event and was instantly the new FMX "it" kid. The temporary visit to Southern California became a seasonal move, and Sherwood struggled some with the transition. "I woke up wondering where I was sometimes," he says. "And the U.S. is massive -- going from one side of Los Angeles to the other is like driving across the entire North Island of New Zealand."
Unfortunately, he was beset by injuries just as he was getting adjusted and beginning to enjoy SoCal. A tweaked right knee that required a scope kept him off the bike for weeks, and a broken left wrist suffered during a backflip crash at the Madrid X-Fighters comp kept him out of X Games. He didn't begin riding again in earnest until mid-August, but he came back strong, taking a surprising second at X-Fighters London to Nate Adams despite riding with a torn ACL.
Sherwood finally had the troublesome right knee surgically repaired in late August. "I've had a bad knee since I was 13, and it was time to fix it," he says, taking a philosophical approach to the injuries. "They suck, obviously, but you know they're coming and I try to block it out. I've grown up with injuries; you just have to deal with them."
Levi will spend the next few months recovering in New Zealand, and he doesn't plan to be back on the bike until February. "Actually, I think the injuries helped me some," he says. "I had been getting a little burned out, and now I'm just excited to have fun on my dirtbike again."
Meanwhile, praise for his sick, extended style and calm manner continues to mount. "He's about the first real talent people are pumped on who's worthy of the hype," says Jones. "It's hard to say what the future holds because there are plenty of guys who learn fast and then fade away, but I don't think he's one of those guys; I think he'll stick with it."
"Levi was really cool at [Red Bull's] camp," adds McElroy. "There's some heavy, goal-oriented stuff there, and he was good with all of it. Whatever he wants to do, he can. He's got all the skills."