LOS ANGELES -- I'm at the Nokia Theatre for the 2014 ESPYS on Wednesday night, celebrating the greatest moments in sports, including, yes, action sports. I spot Kevin Durant, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Russell Wilson and a blue-haired, red-lipsticked Julia Mancuso. Only at the ESPYS.
Durant, the U.S. men's national soccer team and Johnson receive the loudest cheers from fans. But when skateboarder Nyjah Huston saunters in, young fans nearly topple one another to snap shareable selfies, hollering out to the five-time X Games Skateboard Street gold medalist as he walks by.
Huston took home the award for best male action sports athlete, learning on the red carpet before the awards that he'd snagged the win. "Wow! So stoked. I'm shocked. I didn't even know," he told preshow host Cari Champion before the main event.
Before disappearing off the red carpet, Huston tweeted, "Thanks so much to all of you that voted! Couldn't have done without you guys."
Olympic gold medalist snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg also learned on the red carpet that he won best male U.S. Olympian. This year was indeed a breakout campaign for Kotsenburg, who clinched his spot on the Olympic team with a win at the final U.S. Grand Prix event in January, then surprised everybody -- himself most of all -- by taking the gold in Sochi, Russia.
"Even after winning the gold medal ... I couldn't believe it when I got the ESPY nomination," Kotsenburg said before the awards ceremony. "It's just been that kind of year, and I'm letting it take me where it takes me."
Snowboarder Jamie Anderson took home two wins: best female action sports athlete and best female U.S. Olympian, where she beat out halfpipe skier Maddie Bowman, ski racing phenom Mikaela Shiffrin, snowboarder Kaitlyn Farrington and figure skater Meryl Davis. Anderson, a four-time X Games gold medalist and the inaugural slopestyle Olympic gold medalist, took her wins with humility: "So thankful for the unbelievable year," she tweeted Wednesday night.
But let's go back to the beginning to see how we got here. It's Tuesday afternoon, 100 miles outside of Los Angeles, and my cellphone rings. "Want to go to a Carmelo Anthony party tonight?"
Yes. Yes, I do. Three hours later, there I am, at a party with Melo. I hang back, surveying the scene and waiting for the right moment to meet the newly re-signed Knick. When it happens, I thank him for re-upping with New York. Only at the ESPYS.
The next morning I tell this story to Kotsenburg and fellow Olympic nominee, skier Joss Christensen, over breakfast. The gold-medal twins order eggs Benedict on baked potatoes. In lieu of the Carmelo party the night before, they had checked out the ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue party, where fellow gold medalist Anderson was in attendance and featured on a cover. Kotsenburg says the tiny appetizers were tasty. Christensen nods in agreement. Chicken something or other, Kotsenburg says. Delicious.
The two Park City, Utah, natives and best friends have been traveling quite a bit together. A few days earlier, Christensen was fitted for his ESPYS suit at Freemans Sporting Club in New York. "It's the same place [Simon] Dumont and Torin [Yater-Wallace] get suits," Christensen says. He's happy with his purchase, but he says he may have spent too much on his shoes.
As the coffee gets refilled, Kotsenburg tells a story of accidentally pegging a High Cascade snowboard camper in the face during a recent dodgeball game. To make it up to the kid, Kotsenburg tossed him a GoPro, a move that caused a dozen or so campers to beg him to nail them in the face so they, too, could win the portable camera. Ah, summer camp.
Getting the check, we're joined by snowboarder and Winter Olympics announcer Todd Richards and Olympic gold medalist and fellow nominee Farrington for some more laughs.
Hours later, hair stylist Carly Campbell has left surfer Carissa Moore's room, having done up the best female action sports athlete nominee for the red carpet. I meet Campbell, a die-hard Cavaliers fan, carrying on a conversation about the return of LeBron James to her home state of Ohio. Campbell asks U.S. Olympic halfpipe skier Brita Sigourney, who is here as Christensen's date, how she'd like her hair done. Bowman is also here putting the finishing touches on her look. All the while Christensen contemplates whether to wear his Oakley watch (he does) and bring his gold medal to the show (he does not).
Once everyone is ready and looking dapper, they're off to the red carpet. Olympic ski halfpipe gold medalist David Wise and his wife are stuck in traffic, but fortunately they make it just in time to enter the theater as the show starts.
Legendary snowboarder Kelly Clark, who won an ESPY in 2002, happily said she's been nominated six times. "I love coming to events like this," Clark tells me. "There are so many incredible athletes that you get to cross paths with, hear their journeys, then get more inspired to pursue your own dreams."
On the red carpet, security guards keep the athletes moving into the venue. Soon, the show begins. Drake is a great host, and Michael Sam's acceptance speech of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award is an inspiring moment in sports history, as is ESPN commentator Stuart Scott's acceptance of the Jimmy V Perseverance Award.
"Our life's journey is really about the people that touch us," Scott says during the night's most heartfelt speech. I text Christensen, who's seated rows ahead of me, praising the power of the speeches. He replies with three clapping emojis.
Earlier in the night, Sam, through heartfelt tears, ended his speech by saying, "Great things can happen when you have the courage to be yourself."
With their easygoing nature, the X Games athletes in attendance surely embody Sam's sentiment of being true to oneself. They're here surrounded by mainstream sports stars, but something about being a surfer, skateboarder, skier or snowboarder makes them stand out from the rest. These are the athletes who move beyond predefined limits, bend rules and redefine what's possible. These are the men and women of action sports. And their lives, shock full of surprises that are hard to even imagine, come with many different kinds of awards.
Additional reporting by Colin Bane.