If you predicted Nyjah Huston would lead the charge for USA Skateboarding in the World Skate qualification process for the Tokyo Olympics, congratulations. You (and everyone else) nailed it. With just three USA Skateboarding spots available for Men’s Skateboard Street in Tokyo, Nyjah is way out in front in the points race. But how many of you had Jake Ilardi at #2?
The lanky skater from Sarasota, Florida vaulted into USA Skateboarding’s top three after finishing 2nd at the Oi Stu Open in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in November, the last World Skate event before Coronavirus quarantine blew up the whole contest calendar. We caught up with him by phone from his folks’ place in Florida to ask about that #2 USA Skateboarding ranking, how he’s been spending his quarantine downtime, and what he makes of anyone’s chances at grabbing the very first Olympic Skateboarding gold medal away from Nyjah.
Let’s start with the World Skate rankings. You started this year ranked #2 in the U.S. behind Nyjah Huston and #7 overall in the Olympic qualifiers. Where’s your head at, wrapping your mind around those standings?
Honestly, it feels like a dream. Traveling the world skating, sometimes it feels like a game. Have you ever played Tony Hawk Pro Skater? I really feel like a dude from that game sometimes, rolling from one level to the next, stacking scores. It’s a dream. It feels insane. Is this real life?
Your 2nd place finish at Oi Stu Open behind Sora Shirai in January is what really pushed you into that World Skate rankings conversation and into the top three for Team USA. What went right down there?
That Oi Stu Open contest was super fun. It was my third time in Brazil and I just love Brazil. The açaí down there is amazing and I honestly think that had something to do with me doing so well! I ate a big açaí bowl and skated really well, and ended up making the finals. A couple of the top guys didn’t do so well in the final, but I was on point that day. I got the kickflip blunt on the second try, landed two solid runs, and that was it.
For the Olympics it’s only going to be three skaters per country, and making that Team USA cut was always going to be hectic even before the giant question marks we’re left with now that all of the 2020 events have been canceled. It must be a huge relief to be in that top-three group right now.
I don’t want to jinx anything but it would be nice if everything rolls over and we go into 2021 with the team based on the standings as they are now. At this point, nobody really knows what’s happening with anything.
Are you as surprised as anybody that you’re sitting in that #2 slot right now?
At first, I was super shocked. Then again, I’ve been skating my whole life and now I can see that all that hard work paid off. I’m definitely surprised, but I’ve been working hard for it.
Tell me about the decision to focus on the Street side of things in the lead up to the Olympics. You’re one of those all-terrain guys who might have been a contender for Park, too.
I love skating everything, and when I was younger I was always competing in both. I used to skate in the Florida Bowlriders Series, and I did the Free Flow Tour am bowl thing at Dew Tour. But for the last five years or so I’ve really made street skating my priority. In competition, I’ve always gravitated more towards Street contests. It would have been too crazy to try to qualify for the Olympics for both.
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Now that everything’s on hold, how have you been spending 2020? What’s your game plan?
A lot of street skating. Before the Coronavirus and everything I would kind of limit myself as to what I would try in the streets, just to stay ready for the next contest. Now I’m going crazy and stacking a lot of footage: you’re definitely going to see some more street footage from me in 2020 than ever before. I just dropped a Bones Bearings part, I’ve been working on a new Thrasher part, and I’ve got another part I’m working on but that’s a secret I can’t talk about yet. I’m down in Florida at the moment, just because I wanted to be around the family during all this break time, so that’s been nice, too.
At Dew Tour last year you finished 9th in the Semifinal, missing the cut for the Final by one spot. How do you deal with that just-off-the-bubble frustration when something is that close?
It was like a tenth of a point or something like that, too! So close. I’m definitely hard on myself when it comes to stuff like that. When you want to do well and you push yourself to make it to that next tier or whatever, it’s very frustrating to get so close and not quite make it. But at the end of the day it’s just another contest, and you always have the opportunity to get your headspace right and start fresh at the next one.
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Let me end by asking about our man Nyjah. He’s currently #1 in the World Skate rankings and one ahead of you for the USA Skateboarding rankings. People tend to think of him as unbeatable, and he did win two major contests on the Olympic qualifying circuit last year. But we also saw him finish 7th at Dew Tour and he had a couple of other results in the 7th and 8th place range. You finished ahead of him at the Oi Stu Open. What do you think it will take to beat him in Tokyo if he’s on? Or is gold a given if he doesn’t slip up?
I don’t want to step on any toes, but I do think he can be beat and I think a lot of people have the skills to step up to the plate with him. He’s the best of the best, don’t get me wrong, especially when it comes to the head game. When he’s on the outside looking in, he feeds off of that stuff. I feel like that’s when he thrives. Like, “Damn, I’m not in the top spot, I’m going to do whatever it takes to get there.” He’s the best in that headspace. But it’s skateboarding, things can go wrong for anybody and things can go right for anybody. It’s any given Sunday, you know? I do think it’s possible.