Justin Seers: First X Games gold medalist
Twenty Years, 20 Firsts celebrates the 20-year legacy of the X Games in action sports with a collection of 20 of the most iconic first-trick moments in X Games history. The fan-vote component for the top X moment concluded with Elena Hight coming out on top just after X Games Austin, but the "World Of X Games" 20 Firsts show will count down the top 20 moments July 19 on ABC.
Justin Seers rarely talks about the pinnacle of his youth. Few people in his life these days know about it. The proof is stashed in a drawer upstairs in his home in Melbourne, Australia, where he works as a fiber-optic cable technician, long removed from his time as a world-class barefoot water skier.
There have been 863 gold medals awarded since the X Games launched (as the Extreme Games) in Providence, R.I., 20 years ago. Seers was the first gold medalist in any sport, a surprise winner in Barefoot Jumping. He beat four-time world champion Ron Scarpa in a head-to-head final, soaring 88 feet on an overcast day at Roger Williams Park.
Though the memory is half a lifetime old, he still carries it with him, fresh as a peach in summer.
"It feels like yesterday that it actually happened," he says.
Barefoot Jumping was basically a distance contest. Skiers performed tricks leading up to a ramp then rocketed off it at 44 mph into a superman position before punching through the water. They had to stand up out of their landing for the jump to count.
The discipline lasted only three years in the X Games, and Seers never won another medal. He skied in a couple of world championships before retiring in 2000 at age 25, worn down by endless travel and paltry paychecks. He is 40 now, slightly balding, 15 pounds heavier than he was at age 20.
During a recent Skype interview from Melbourne, Seers held up the trophy he won in 1995.
"I'm not sure if there are many of these left," he said. "This was the original one."
His X Games journey, like that of every athlete at the inaugural event, began with an invitation he received in the mail. He and 15 other barefooters flew into Providence not knowing what to expect. They stayed in the dorms at Brown University. Scarpa was the favorite, along with fellow American Mike Seipel.
The competition took place over three days, with the 16-man field being whittled to eight and then two. During the head-to-head showdown between Seers and Scarpa, ESPN suddenly stopped the competition. Organizers told the two athletes that their third and final jumps would be broadcast live.
"It was unbelievable," Seers said. "We had to sit around for 10 to 15 minutes. The crowd just went crazy. It was an awesome feeling."
Seers fell on his massive final jump but held on for the win when Scarpa's finale fell short of Seers' previous mark. The format -- tricks performed leading up to the jump gave the competitors bonus points -- was new to the sport, but it caught on in subsequent events around the world.
Seers received a check for $5,500 ($8,441 in today's inflation-adjusted dollars) in addition to his trophy and gold medal -- big money for barefoot jumping back then. He and his fellow barefooters spent the next week partying, doing the odd radio interview and watching the other events, which featured everyone from windsurfing legend Björn Dunkerbeck to skateboarder Tony Hawk. When he flew home from the U.S. two months later, Seers had a couple hundred dollars to his name.
Twenty years later, Seers still believes he could jump like he did in 1995.
"You don't lose the ability, I don't think," he said. "What you do lose is obviously your fitness and your strength. It'd take me a little to get into it, but I'd certainly have a crack."
His X Games victory afforded him a level of respect and confidence that carried him through the remainder of his career.
"I rode this high for a long time," he said. "It gave me this belief in every other event. I just knew I was capable of winning any tournament from that point on.
"If I hadn't won the X Games, I wouldn't have been satisfied with the way I finished the sport. I won half a dozen Australian titles, but that's not an international event. It's different when you beat the best guys in the world."
Seers is engaged to be married now and remains a social barefooter on weekends. He still watches the X Games on television, reminiscing quietly and privately about his moment on top of the world two decades ago.
"I've probably got a thousand medals in my drawer," he said, "but certainly the X Games gold medal comes out and gets dusted off a bit more than the others."