Olympics 2021: Skateboarder Zion Wright's journey from 114th in the world to the Tokyo Games

Two years ago, skateboarder Zion Wright was struggling with a knee injury and fell out of the top 100 in the rankings. Now he's about to compete for a medal in his sport's debut at the Olympics. Anthony Acosta / Red Bull Content Pool

SKATEBOARDER ZION WRIGHT is struggling to put together a run. It's November 2019, and he's in Rio de Janeiro for the final park contest of the season, 10 months after knee surgery. He hasn't made a final all year, and today's contest will be no different.

What was supposed to be a four- to six-week recovery has stretched on. His knee is still painful and unstable. He can't take the impact of the massive tricks he's built his name on since skate fans first saw him ollie off the roof of a house in a Florida skate video in his early teens. He's frustrated, falling in the rankings and beginning to question whether he will qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics eight months away.

Wright came onto the scene as a street skater, but since 2018 has competed in both street and park contests, a rarity in the sport's upper echelon. He had a breakout 2018 season in his new discipline, but throughout 2019 hasn't been able to replicate those performances.

"That was a rough year for me," Wright, 22, says in June. "It felt like nothing was working out. I was getting hurt, going to events and not doing well. I felt very out of order."

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Two years later, Wright is poised to become one of the first Olympic medalists in park skateboarding history. But his return to the top of the sport was anything but an overnight success. It took discipline, a change in lifestyle and a little help from his friends.

WRIGHT GOT HIS first skateboard at 4 and was a street skateboarding standout known for his creativity, power and innovative style when he launched onto the park scene and into the Olympic conversation.

"Zion was a street skater in everyone's mind, and not many skateboarders in the world can be at the top of street and park," says Mark McMorris, a two-time Winter Olympian in slopestyle snowboarding and one of Wright's close friends.

After moving to California at age 16 and turning pro at 17, Wright watched friends like park pro Alex Sorgente skate concrete bowls and big transition -- the area where the wall of a ramp transitions from flat to vertical -- and was intrigued.

"It was me seeing something new and different and being excited to get in the mix and see what I can do," Wright says. "That spark started for me watching Alex come to the skate park and skate transition super gnarly. Then it was like, OK, I see his skills and I want to be able to do the things he does."

Park skating is explosive and eye-catching. Skaters perform big spins and inverted tricks, as well as the more intricate, technical skills seen in street skating, while flying high above the coping or over large obstacles. Top park skaters tend to be more muscular and have experience skating quarterpipes and halfpipes or vert ramps.

Wright wanted to know if he could bring his creativity and explosiveness from street to park skating and compete with the best in both.

"He skates with a ton of power and has a different build from most skaters," McMorris says. "He's built like a running back and has a different approach and unique style. Everyone's favorite skateboarder loves Zion's skating. That's super rare. It is so hard to please everyone."

The International Olympic Committee had announced in 2016 that skateboarding would be added to the Tokyo Games, and by the summer of 2018, skateboarders interested in making their sport's first Olympic team were trying to separate themselves from the field.

Not every skater jumped at the chance. Unlike traditional sports, skateboarders -- especially street skaters -- can shun contests and make a living by releasing video parts that take up to a year to film. Many professional skaters who compete still view skateboarding not as a sport, but as a form of creative self-expression. They worried about becoming part of an event that suppresses individuality and requires uniforms.

Wright shared those concerns, but he also saw an advantage to having skaters like himself -- a true skater's skateboarder -- represent the sport on a global stage.

In August 2018, Wright was a rookie on the Vans Park Series pro tour and had earned a wild-card entry into the Huntington Beach stop, which was stacked with some of the most accomplished skaters in the discipline.

Wright led the contest after the semis, and the crowd, which included skate legends like Steve Caballero, buzzed about the 19-year-old street skater from Jupiter, Florida, who was skating with the power, speed and confidence of a park tour veteran. Wright's win that day over Pedro Barros, the most accomplished skater on tour, and rising street-and-park competitor Jagger Eaton, shocked Wright as much as anyone else.

"That contest was a big breakthrough for me," Wright says. "I didn't really know my ability. On that day, everything connected and it felt kinda natural."

JUST AS WRIGHT catapulted onto the park scene with that win, he was off his skateboard for longer than he liked. The weekend before that contest, he tweaked his left knee, and the pain wouldn't go away. In January 2019, he had surgery to repair a meniscus tear in his left knee and also had screws removed from his femur to mend a break he'd suffered several years earlier.

He returned to skating contests after four months -- an eternity for a guy used to being on his board every day. But at contest after contest that summer, he says, "I wasn't skating at my full potential. I wasn't the Zion I was when I won the Vans Park Series, in that type of shape and mindset," Wright says. "I was very clouded."

He talked with his dad, Mustafa, who taught him visualization techniques and always knows the right thing to say to "get my head right," Wright says. He also leaned on friends like McMorris, who has overcome extensive injuries to return to the top of his sport.

"I had lots of talks with Zion and told him to look for the small victories after an injury," McMorris says. "Every day, you're changing a little bit for the better, and it's good to remind yourself of that and not get too down on the fact that you can't do your sport."

Slowly, Wright began to feel stronger. He frequently stopped by McMorris' house in Encinitas to hang out, skate or surf. When he learned that skateboarding had been added to the Games, he asked McMorris what the Olympics were like for snowboarders, what to expect and how making the team could change his life.

"I get inspired from Mark, all the stuff he's been through and him overcoming that," Wright says. "That makes me know anything is possible. Even with the injuries, there is a future ahead of me. There was never a point where I gave up."

Wright had grown up training for skateboarding by skateboarding. He didn't have a regular workout routine, a set schedule or a diet geared toward performance. So in early 2020, he decided to take his recovery -- and his fitness -- to the next level.

IT'S FEBRUARY 2020, and Wright is 15 miles into a 20-mile ride on an e-bike around Lake Minnehaha in Clermont, Florida, with motocross star Ken Roczen, a rider known for being one of the most regimented, fit and focused athletes in his sport, and Roczen's brother-in-law and trainer, Blake Savage.

For more than a week, Wright has been at Roczen's house in Clermont, working out on Roczen and Savage's program. Wright and Roczen had met several times through their agent, as well as their sponsor Red Bull, and "immediately connected," Roczen says. "He's not a square guy. We both like to have fun."

So when Roczen's agent asked him if he'd spend a couple of weeks sharing his fitness routine with Wright, Roczen didn't hesitate, even though he was leading the 2020 Supercross standings and in no position to deviate from his schedule. "I wanted to help him out," says Roczen, who overcame two devastating arm injuries many thought would end his career.

Roczen asked Savage to optimize a program to help Wright deal with his ongoing knee injury and teach him movement patterns and lifestyle changes to help with his skating.

"Us motocross guys are pretty disciplined with our workouts, and our nutrition and hydration are dialed-in," Roczen says. "Skaters live a little bit of a looser program. They go to bed super late and sleep in, so it was showing him, in a fun way, how to up your game and strengthen your mind and body."

When asked what he took from his time in Clermont, Wright is as efficient with his words as he is with his skateboard: "Discipline."

ONE MONTH LATER, when the COVID-19 pandemic shuts down the sports world, Wright returns to Florida and buys his first home near where he grew up in Broward County. "It was like all right, I got a fresh start, a new beginning, a new home. I felt reborn again," Wright says.

With the public skate parks closed, Wright skates the streets he knows. In June, he lands awkwardly while skating a local spot and feels a familiar pop in his right knee. He has another surgery to repair a meniscus tear.

In early February 2021, Wright drives back to California with the goal of giving his all to make the U.S. team for the rescheduled Tokyo Olympics. His knee is still inflamed and painful, and he starts working with a trainer twice a day, four days a week. He skates with purpose. He pays attention to his nutrition and hydration.

"A lot of what we do is outside of the gym," says Wright's performance enhancement specialist, Rob Yang. "We found he was sensitive to eggs, to wheat, to some dairy products. That is where the lightbulb went off and he realized the other 10 to 12 hours a day, he was eating foods that are counterproductive to recovering from his injury and skate sessions and workouts.

"I would meet him at a skate park and make sure, from a conditioning standpoint, that when he was in the last 10 seconds of a 45-second run, he could pull out a 540 or a huge trick that required a lot of energy when his legs were burning and he was gassed."

Around April 2021, Wright takes a weekend trip and arrives home late on a Monday night. He misses Monday's workout and wakes up tired the next morning. "The old Zion would have been like, 'I'm going to call in and cancel,'" Wright says. But that morning, he doesn't. He drags himself out of bed and shows up at the gym on time.

"It was like a breakthrough moment for me," he says. "I was like, 'OK, I'm locked in and putting all of this together, putting my mind to doing the things I set out to do. I'm waking up and on my routine. I'm going to see if I can put my mind to working hard toward a goal, and then go and get it."

WRIGHT IS STANDING on the deck of the park course at May's Dew Tour in Des Moines, Iowa. Heimana Reynolds, 23, the top-ranked skater in the world and a gold medal favorite in Tokyo, and Cory Juneau, ranked second in the world, have already locked their spots on the U.S. park team. Wright, ranked 114th in the world and 16th in the U.S., is battling for the only spot left.

"Last chance for Zion Wright," a TV commentator says as Wright drops into the course to take his final run. He immediately launches a huge double-grab backside 540, a trick he hadn't landed in practice. For 45 seconds, Wright skates with the intensity, technicality and creativity he's known for, as well as the maturity, focus and fitness he's gained in the past two years. He catches a kickflip indy grab high above the coping as time expires and rides away clean. He skates to the other side of the course, sails his board up and over the coping and into the crowd and lets out a howl.

"That was my release," Wright says. "In that moment, as I kicked my board out, I was rewinding in my mind, going back and forth between so many thoughts and emotions. I thought about all the stuff I'd been through over the years. That was skating giving me all the love back that I give to it. This skateboard doesn't know how much love and passion and emotion go into it. But that's the beauty of skateboarding, right?"

Wright runs onto the deck and is engulfed in a tangle of hugs. One perfect run and he is the third U.S. park skateboarder to qualify to the Tokyo Games, where he will compete on Aug. 4. Wright is proud to be one of 12 U.S. riders who will showcase skateboarding to the world, and if he skates like he did in Des Moines, he could land on the podium once again.

But no matter how he finishes, Wright believes his hard work has already paid off.

"Me securing that spot on the Olympic team wasn't the big highlight for me," Wright says. "The highlight was knowing that all this stuff I've been doing has actually been paying off. It's not just talk when people tell you that you can accomplish your goals. It's just a matter of you doing it."