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Friday, August 24, 2012
P-Rod steps into competitive mode

By Joel Rice

P-Rod prepares to take a run at Street League stop three in Glendale, Ariz.

In anticipation of Street League's Championship on Sunday, recently sat down with Paul Rodriguez, who bested Chris Cole and Nyjah Huston at the League's third stop in Glendale, Ariz. It's been quite a summer for the 27-year-old. (His SLS victory came hot on the heels of an X Games gold.) Rodriguez, a most humble and yet astute interviewee, offers sophisticated commentary on the psychology of skateboarding competition, and astute remarks on the emotional make-up of pros like Huston and Cole as well as his unabated love of skateboarding. Perhaps one of the most polite of the top-ranked professional skateboarders, the Northridge, Calif. resident exudes unfeigned gratitude. Rodriguez also speaks with keen discrimination and candor about what many called a contest "slump" and what he learned from Muhammad Ali. By law, I am required to say congratulations on winning the X Games and Street League this summer.
Rodriguez: Thank you very much.

How does it feel?
To be honest with you, it almost feels like this is the most exciting time I've had in my career. I've been lucky enough to have a very exciting career. X Games meant a lot to me because it is the biggest stage we have, as far as views and publicity. So the sponsors get really happy with that one. But Street League is, to me, the most difficult one to do. So to win the biggest stage and the most difficult one together was like the perfect combination. And I am so grateful for that.

What else did you do to celebrate?
Really, just the night of, I went out and had a few drinks with friends and family. But other than that celebrating is just coming home and going back to skating. To me that's my vacation. Skating my park. Skating the streets. Whatever. To me, I am still that same 12-year-old kid. I can't go without it. It's my lifestyle. We go skate. All my friends -- Torey Pudwill, all the guys I grew up skating in the Valley with -- it's just what we do. Skate every day. We never stopped.

Do you hit the clubs?
I'll go here and there. I realized it's just the same thing over and over. Loud music. Drinks. Loud music. Drinks. I am definitely not opposed to having fun. I don't lead a militant lifestyle. It's not even a conscious decision, like, "I must skate, because it is my job." It is just something I have a desire to do.

That's inspiring. So despite all the responsibilities that accrue to skating, that revolve around it, it's still just a pure thing for you.
Yeah. A few years back, I did notice myself feeling the strains and the pressures. The stress of, "Oh, I got to perform for this and that." But at one point it just clicked. My dad told me, "What got you there, will keep you there." And what got me where I am is just skating with my friends everyday and just loving it. In theory, if I only focus on that, everything else will stay in place.

Switch B/S tailslide on his way to first place at Street League stop three in Glendale, Ariz.

Having won gold in the X Games just a few weeks before Street League's third stop in Glendale, were you a little more relaxed? Was that part of your victory? My impression was you seemed more at ease. Or is it always stressful?
I wouldn't say stressed, because that has a negative connotation to it. But I am definitely always nervous. Very nervous. But I like to look at contests as really separate from one another. X Games -- I was fortunate to win that. Street League was a whole new situation. One at a time. But recently, in this past year or so, I just mentally have been able to have a more relaxed way about myself.

What accounts, do you think, for this more relaxed frame of mind?
I don't know if it's just getting to a certain age, or just having being in the game for ten years. I have been fortunate enough to have won major events before so, it's not something like, "I have to win to prove myself." Of course I want to win. I am a competitor. Absolutely. But at the end of the day, I'm grateful to be in there skating with the best of the best. I caught myself, when we were standing there at Street League in the finals [at Glendale, Ariz.]. And I looked across at the company I'm with and I'm like, "This is incredible." Here's Chris Cole, just standing right there. Look at that. Bastien Salabanzi. Just right there. Nyjah Huston is standing right there. And I'm one of these guys standing right there with them. I just trip out on that. Because kids at home are just dreaming about it. And I was that kid at home, dreaming about skating with the top dudes. I sometimes got to pinch myself, like, "Wow. This is real."

One narrative posits -- and pardon me if this is a media invention -- that physically you've been in fine form, but sometimes mentally you haven't been in sync with contests. What was that about?
Definitely. That's a tough question. It wasn't lack of skating. Things like competition really come down to your state of mind. It's all about that, dude. You could skate all day, every day. But if you get to the contest -- and mentally you fall apart -- it doesn't matter how much you practice. But for some reason, I can't quite put my finger on it. I am just in a real good mental space right now.

If it could be said you were in "a slump," what got you out of it?
A lot of prayer took care of it, that's for sure. Having more faith in myself. You know what else helped a lot? Analyzing other sports and other conventional athletes. Every athlete has gone through slumps, gone through times where they're just not being themselves. And that really kind helped put it in perspective. Like, "Alright. This is just my turn for that." It's just an internal struggle and not letting that [doubt] win. Weather that storm. You're going to come back stronger. I think that's key.

You can look at anybody. Even Kobe [Bryant]. People will say, "Oh, I don't know if he can do it anymore." Then he'll come back and win four games in a row, forty points in a row. "Oh, Kobe's back." Even Jordan, when he left to play baseball for a year. He came back and he won three more. Muhammed Ali. His wasn't necessarily a slump. He just got exiled from boxing, in his prime years. That must have been rough. It takes a strong mind to keep your confidence during that time of not being allowed to box.

I try and draw strength from these guys. I watch documentaries on these guys. I read books on these guys. I just try to develop the mindset that these guys have. Because their physical ability is amazing. But what's really going to put them over the edge is their mental ability. I think that that's why Nyjah [Huston] does so well.

Obviously he has a great physical capability as well.
Oh, yeah. No one is discounting the physical skills. But you got to understand everybody in Street League is on the same level. But not everyone is on the same mental level. And as someone who can speak from experience, the mental edge is the key element. And he's got it. He don't fold. He don't buckle. Nothing. It's all mental.

I asked Nyjah, "What do you do to prepare?" He just said, "I just try and focus really, really hard." And he sounded just like a 17-year-old.
But in that simple statement is something very profound. That's it. In that moment you have all these doubtful, crazy thoughts. Or you just narrow in. I've heard of mothers lifting cars for their children. In a moment of great pressure, you either fall apart or you become better, you know what I mean? And he [Huston] obviously becomes better.

Do you ever wake up in a cold sweat worried about Nyjah Huston and Chris Cole?
Never. I love those guys to death. Those guys are amazing skateboarders. I am grateful to even be in the company of those guys. I am grateful to even have this question asked of me.

No worry creeps in there?
There's nothing to fear. These guys are amazing skaters. But they're also human just like me. It's not really about beating them, or them beating me. It's more like you got to beat yourself. It's all mental. If I'm mentally beating the negative side of me -- if the positive side is stronger, if I'm on my good game -- I don't want this to sound funny, but it's going to be hard from somebody to take me out my zone. If Nyjah's on top of his mental game, it's going to be hard to beat him. Same thing with Chris. Really it's a battle with yourself. If you're landing your own tricks, you're going to be in that hunt. It's all about who's going to fall apart first and miss that trick first.

If Nyjah makes his trick, that's not making me lose. It's if I don't make my trick to match his, I lose. So it's all about me just focusing on what I can do, and doing what I can do to keep up. It's not like he can interfere. It's not like a traditional sport, where Kobe is trying to make a basket and he's got a guy blocking, defending the basket. Nyjah's not going to be blocking me. [Laughs.] Again, it's helped been studying those conventional athletes. It's all good when everything is all good. But what do you do when everything is not all good?

Maybe that's also what happened this summer, this year. It's finally all clicking. Maybe I'm finally becoming a competitor.

--Paul Rodriguez

Can crying like a baby help?
I am not going to say I never felt like that before. People say, "Hey, it's just skating. Take it easy." Yeah, it is. That doesn't mean you don't have a passion to win. And it's easy for someone to say who hasn't been in that situation. So, you know anyone one of those guys that you see at the top -- or around the top -- if they say they don't care, they're straight lying. It definitely stings a bit when you don't perform the way you want to. It stings.

You mentioned the first skate videos you ever saw were H-Street. When you first saw those early videos did you ever think there'd be such a competitive side to all this?
No. That's another thing about me. I am not a natural born competitor. I've really had to learn to be a competitor. I've really had to learn to have a killer instinct. Guys like Sheckler, he's a natural born competitor. He will fight to the death, Nyjah. Same thing. Chris Cole, I just think he so incredibly gifted on a skateboard, that he didn't necessarily have to have that competitive instinct because he's just so good he just does it. Me? I'm kind of in between. I just grew up wanting to make skateboard video parts. But skateboarding kind of evolved where competition is also an important element these days. And I really had to kind of turn myself into a competitor. Maybe that's also what happened this summer, this year. It's finally all clicking. Maybe I'm finally becoming a competitor.