Heading into next week's X Games 17 Skateboard Street comp, one young skater has proved he's the man to beat. Nyjah Huston is still buzzing from his historic 2011 Street League three-peat, and he's determined to carry that momentum straight to the top of what he considers the most important contest of the year.
"If I could chose any contest to win, it would be X Games for sure," the 16-year-old told ESPN recently. "A gold medal would be really good for my career. It's a big goal for me right now, and I'm definitely going to go out there and give it my all."
Like the saying goes, "You gotta want it." And Huston certainly has that focus in his favor right now. But he knows he's going to need it.
With the exception of X Games, Street League's exclusive contracts prohibit street leaguers from skating major contests outside the tour. This means that this year's X Games will be the only televised, big-bucks skate contest where the Street League 24 get a chance to compete against non-street leaguers. For all intents and purposes, X Games is the only event of the year where fans can find all the best competitive skaters on the planet in one place.
"I haven't skated a contest with all the other guys in a while," says Huston, who won silver medals at the past two X Games. "I think it's good for skateboarding that X Games is still around to give us [Street League guys] a chance to compete against everybody else."
Huston, who got back on Element skateboards around the first of the year and is now working on an iTunes video part set for an October drop, says his biggest competition comes from fellow street leaguers Chris Cole, Shane O'Neill, Ryan Sheckler, Paul Rodriguez and Chaz Ortiz.
"But anything can happen," he says. "Like at Tampa Pro this year, [Dennis] Busenitz won. That was a big surprise."
It was the second Tampa Pro victory for San Francisco's Busenitz. (His first was in 2005.) Busenitz also placed runner-up at this year's Maloof Money Cup New York installment and at the Copenhagen Pro. 2011 has so far marked a competitive roll for Busenitz, but he keeps it in perspective. A true skater's skater, the Real skateboards team rider has a different outlook on the X Games and on competition in general.
"Maybe it's a generational thing," he told ESPN, "but the skaters I grew up with dreamed about getting a trick at Hubba Hideout, not winning the X Games."
As for this year's X Games featuring the cream of the crop, "it's not really important for me to pit myself against the best guys," explained the 29-year-old father of two. "Honestly, I would feel kind of foolish to pass up on the chance at some of that money. The courses are getting better, and I enjoy seeing others skate. It's like a fancy demo. The contests are fun and the money's fun, too."
Speaking of fun money, Greg Lutzka's gamble to leave Street League paid off big with a $160,000 first-place check at the Maloof Money Cup NYC earlier this year, where he edged out Busenitz.
"It's just a personal preference for the way I skate," Lutzka, 26, said of his decision to leave Street League. "I like the jam format a lot better; it suits my style. And I proved it in New York."
The three-time Tampa Pro champ, who recently got picked up by Rockstar Energy, has also won two X Games street skate competitions held in Mexico.
"But I've never won an X Games in the U.S." Lutzka said. "That would be a dream come true. Even getting top three at X Games is a pretty big achievement."
Through his handlers, Sheckler -- the X Games Skateboard Street defending gold medalist -- declined to be interviewed for this article.
"He's focused and keeping thoughts on contests to himself," responded Sheckler's manager, Steve Astephen of the Wasserman Media Group.
Lutzka certainly counts Sheckler as one to watch this year, but the biggest force to be reckoned with, he says, is that young kid who just clipped his famous dreadlocks: "I think Nyjah is pretty hungry right now."