Though Thursday's Street League practice session at the Citizens Business Bank Arena here in Ontario, Calif. offered much to marvel at -- Paul Rodriguez's massive 360 flips followed by fleet-footed frontside blunts, Mark Appleyard's stylish nosegrinds on the quarterpipe, Tom Asta's kickflip backside nosegrind backside 180 out -- a reporter's eye was drawn again and again to two particular skaters: Bastien Salabanzi and Nyjah Huston.
Thus far, the pair has dominated industry discussion about 2012's Street League series. After all, the 27-year-old Salabanzi nearly bested 17-year-old Huston last month in Kansas City, further encouraging pundits to view Street League through the prism of their burgeoning professional rivalry.
Despite the fact that both are unmistakably fierce competitors the two skaters are, in many ways, a study in contrasts. Huston often skates as though he has a little left in Zen-like reserve. Bastien Salabanzi -- even in what, for many, are mellow Street League practice sessions -- tends to give it his all. When Salabanzi lands a trick, he lands it with conviction.
That was the case during Thursday's practice session. Perhaps one way to prognosticate about Street League results, one way to gauge a given skater's commitment to victory, is to look at the amount of sweat on his t-shirt. During Thursday's practice session, Salabanzi's t-shirt was positively soaked. Many professional skateboarders cultivate a studied nonchalance, a "no sweat" attitude; Salabanzi is not one of them.
From a distance Huston appeared to have perspired little. It would seem that the arena's cool laboratory atmosphere was his natural element.
Huston breezed through a bank-to-rail cab backside noseblunt, eliciting well-deserved cheers from the select group of skaters and assorted skateboard industry decision-makers in attendance.
This reinforced the notion that Street League is still Nyjah Huston's to lose. It's hard not to interpret Street League as the perfect venue in which to study the breadth and depths of his talents.
What is the secret to Nyjah's Huston's greatness?
"He practices constantly. All he has ever done is skate," said Ethan Loy, a member of Element's flow team, who observed the action from the VIP floor seating. "He's always on the grind."
"I have no clue. I don't know," said Real pro Ishod Wair, with a laugh. "If I knew, wouldn't I be doing the same thing?"
"Nyjah's 17 years old, you know?" said Sean Malto, 22, who earned the first place spot at Street League's 2011 championship and looked relaxed, even grandfatherly, in a baby-blue Nike t-shirt and button up black sweater. "All that's on his mind is skateboarding. He's just the best at it, right now. For me, I do three decent tricks and then go for a hard trick. And he does five hard tricks. So when he's on, he's unstoppable. It's all about being comfortable. He's comfortable on a skateboard."
HUSTON REMAINS GRACEFUL, YET GNARLY, UNDER PRESSURE
As for Huston himself?
Perhaps not surprisingly he spent most of the practice session doing what he does best: skating. Whereas others often use the sessions to socialize, the teenager was, as usual, a study in focus. At about 3:30 p.m. this reporter placed an interview request with a very affable public-relations professional handling Street League ops, who then relayed the request to the manager of DC's skate team, who then relayed the message to Huston. At around 5:30, a reporter tentatively checked on the status of that request.
(Full disclosure: I really wish I could do caballerial backside noseblunts. This is in no way a criticism of the professional skater or his management or his caballerial backside noseblunts. If you could do caballerial backside noseblunts like that, would you be eager to stop a skateboard session on an impeccably designed course simply to talk to a harried reporter who cannot do backside noseblunts?)
If anything's wrong, I feel I have to fix it before the contest. Dude, anything. The smallest little things in the world.
At around 6:00 Huston skated over.
"What's my mindset during the contest? I don't know. I guess concentrate really hard," said Huston. "That's basically all there is to it. Try to stay focused and not think about it too much. I wouldn't say I train that much. I probably just skate a little more then I normally would."
Not that Huston is without worry.
"I get kind of weird about stuff," said Huston of his contest regimen. "If anything's wrong, I feel I have to fix it before the contest. Dude, anything. The smallest little things in the world. My set up. If my wheel has a tiny little bump on it, or my board has a tiny little chip in it. I think it's all good. I got to break in some shoes, but that's all."