The Impossible Rise of Nyjah Huston

Born into a strict Rastafarian family and raised in isolation, Huston's skating journey continues at the Super Crown World Championship

Nyjah Huston at his home in San Juan Capistrano, California Credit: Eric Hendrikx

Nyjah Huston is arguably the most consistent and dominant competitive street skater in the world – and he's been that way almost since birth.

Growing up in a Rastafarian family, Huston took up skateboarding with his brothers at age four. It was an activity that his father – who skated as a teen – chose for him, and one he quickly excelled at. In 2004, the Huston family purchased a skate park in their hometown of Davis, California, where Nyjah spent every single day mimicking his older brothers and becoming prolific in his newfound passion. By age seven, Huston was recognizable by his long dreadlocks and advanced abilities on his skateboard. At age ten, Huston won first place at the Tampa Am, competing against guys twice his age and size. By age 11, he was skating X Games, sponsored by Element Skateboards and supporting his family.

"I was just trying not to get run over," he laughs.

But in 2006, his life took a dramatic turn when his father abruptly moved the family to Puerto Rico, where they lived on a farm in the mountains – a 26-acre property purchased with Nyjah's earnings. The Huston family lived under strict conditions, being home-schooled by their mother, adhering to a stringent vegan diet and spending their days working on the farm. Over the next few years, the Hustons lived off the grid, and Nyjah became increasingly disconnected from his sponsors and skate events – at risk of being dropped for his lack of appearances and participation.

The family lived in seclusion until Nyjah's mother, Kelle, decided to make a change. While her husband and Nyjah went to Barcelona for a contest, Kelle packed up and moved with her other four children back to California. Huston remained with his father in Puerto Rico for nearly two years until 2010, when a judge ordered Nyjah to be placed in his mother's custody. The newly freed family eventually took up residence in Orange County, a move that breathed life back into Nyjah's career. But his struggle wasn't over. Nyjah's earnings had been misappropriated by his father, leaving the family flat broke.

In August 2010, Nyjah was invited to compete in the first ever Street League skate competition in Glendale, Arizona. His mother knew she needed to get Nyjah onto the circuit, but didn't have enough money to fund the trip. On a prayer, she drove to Arizona anyway. And her prayer was answered, when Street League founder Rob Dyrdek offered to foot the bill for their hotel during the competition, well aware that Nyjah had the talent and drive to win – and he did. Nyjah took first place and won $150,000. "That was the most important and best feeling I've ever had in a contest. It saved our lives," Huston says.

With a new lease on life and a revived career, Huston thrived. By 2013, he had won more prize money than any skater in history. In 2014, Huston swept the year, taking first place at Tampa Pro, X Games and all four Street League competitions, including the Super Crown championship. Now, he's back to defend his title at the 2015 Super Crown, set for October 4 in Chicago.

Just before leaving for the Windy City, Nyjah invited Rolling Stone to his San Juan Capistrano home to talk about this year's contest, growing up in isolation and fending off his toughest competition in years.

How do you feel going into the Super Crown this weekend?
I feel really good about it. It's going to be gnarly. It's a sick contest because it's only the top eight dudes from the year. There are no qualifiers, which is definitely a plus. Qualifying in Street League is not easy at all. And the championship is cool because you get to go out there on the course and skate with only a few guys. That allows you to really concentrate on the gnarliest tricks that you are going to need for the finals.

I've been going over renderings of the course design and working on some tricks I might want to try on it. From what I can tell by the design and from past Super Crown contests, there are bigger obstacles out there. The main stair set and handrail are usually bigger at Super Crown. I like skating big stuff and I think it only makes it more exciting for the crowd and everyone watching on television. Bigger stairs are also good because the competitors don't have to do the gnarliest tricks to be able to score high points. If it were up to me, there would always be a 12- or 13-stair set and rail so that people could do tricks, like kickflip back lip or kickflip back smith, instead of having to do a switch flip back lip.

You've been skating in Street League since it began in 2010. How has the format and competition evolved over the years?
I'm honestly not the biggest fan of the new format this year. They changed it a lot. They shortened and simplified the entire contest, making it more like a best trick contest, rather than a competition based on consistency. It's weird, because Street League started out where every single trick you did counted toward your score. So every time you fell, it would hurt your score. That caused all the riders to do easier tricks and be more consistent to win. But everyone wanted to see gnarlier stuff. The third and fourth years of the contest were perfect. You could take risks and fall once or twice, and still had the opportunity get yourself back up in the rankings. I feel like they're still looking for that perfect balance.

Last year, you predicted that Luan Oliveira was going to be your greatest competition this year. And you were right. Do you feel like it's down to you or him in the Super Crown Championship?
Yeah, I honestly can't believe that Luan didn't win a contest sooner than he did. I don't think his winning two contests this year is a surprise to anyone at all, because I've seen so many opportunities for him to win in the past; where he was within one trick from winning. But it's like that for a lot of guys. Shane O'Neill won a contest the first year of Street League, and hasn't won since – and that dude is one of the best skaters ever. The bottom line is, it's hard to win in Street League. You have to land a lot of tricks in the moment, with tons of pressure from the crowd and the stress of performing for live television. There's also a huge purse on the line. It's not easy to land tricks under those circumstances, and I feel like that's something that Luan has learned to deal with really well.

I would say with me winning one contest this year and Luan winning two, it's definitely a head-to-head thing. It's funny because I think all the kids out there think that we are rivals. But the reality is that we are all just bros having fun shredding with each other. Obviously each of us wants to win and we are going to try our best to do that. But if we see someone doing well, we're going to be stoked for him.

You grew up in a family of skateboarders and had your own skate park?
Yeah, I started skating when I was about four years old. My dad got me into it, along with my older brothers. We all shredded together every day and had an awesome time. I was the youngest and always trying to get up to their level. My oldest brother was two years older than me, and a really awesome skater. We skated the same contests and all that. Then, when I was around eight, my family opened our own skate park. When kids ask me how I got to be so good and such a young age, that's my main answer. Any kid who loves skating as much as I did and has a perfect indoor skate park to skate every day, I'm pretty sure they're going to get pretty good at it, as long as they have the drive. I skated there every day until I was 11.

Is that when your family moved to Puerto Rico?
Yeah, and to this day, I still don't really understand why my dad moved us all there. It felt super random. I would say my dad wanted to keep his kids isolated from social influences like going to school and making friends. We had just started to get into girls and partying a little. But kids have to grow up someday. We actually lived in a normal neighborhood for the first year and then my dad bought this farm up in the mountains.

He built me a few things to skate, thank God. He built a little three-foot mini ramp inside one of the farmhouses – it was pretty sick. Then he built this covered deck thing with a gap and a few little ledges. I had some stuff to skate there, but it was a completely different lifestyle than we had been used to in Davis.

What was your life like in the mountains?
We didn't have friends. It was just our family. We were probably 30 minutes from the nearest town, and everything was very simple. We were way up in the mountains and sometimes we had no electricity or water. My brothers and I would go down to a stream to collect water for our house. We lived like that for a few years, and then my parents separated and divorced. I eventually moved back to California with my mom, my little brother and sister and one of my older brothers. Since then, I haven't really had much contact with my dad, but I'm still very thankful for everything he did for me. He was very strict, but that helped me stay disciplined and get to where I'm at today.

Did living in Puerto Rico inspire you to start Let It Flow, which provides clean water solutions for communities around the world?
My mom and I started Let It Flow a few years ago. We came up with the idea together, after visiting places where people don't have access to clean water. We've completed a lot of projects where we've built and repaired broken water wells. A huge percentage of wells in poor countries are just broken and need to be repaired. When they build the wells, they never give the people the parts, tools or training to repair them. So if something goes wrong, the wells get abandoned. And those wells provide clean water for thousands of people. It's a really cool thing and a good feeling to be able to help so many people. Everyone deserves to have clean water.

Where is the majority of your work taking place?
Mostly in Africa. At the end of last year, we did our first big trip to Ethiopia. Tony Hawk and some of my Asphalt Yacht Club teammates came out. We all helped repair broken wells. It was awesome to see water coming out of those wells and the joy it brought to the village or community. It really makes you appreciate life so much more.

We also did some skating around the city. Ethiopia is beautiful. The people are so positive. Our guide in the city was also caretaker of about 40 orphans. All those kids love skateboarding, but they don't have the means or a decent park. They had the shittiest ramps you could imagine and the worst pavement to ride on. So we got California Skateparks out there and we built them a proper concrete skate ramp. All those kids were so stoked and psyched. It's so cool to see how happy you can make a bunch of kids with something so simple as a skateboard and some smooth concrete to ride on.