When Japanese freestyle motocross star Taka Higashino first moved from Osaka to Southern California six years ago, money was so tight that he ate sandwiches of mayonnaise on white bread for every meal. Transitioning to life in the United States wasn't just nutritionally challenging -- it was rough on every level: Higashino didn't speak English, didn't know anyone, and SoCal was a complete culture shock.
But he'd been inspired and encouraged by Japanese freestyle motocross rider Eigo Sato to try to make a name for himself in the sport, and during his loneliest, most what-the-hell-am-I-doing-here moments, he'd call on Sato for support. "He ask what's going on, how going, give me advice just as a friend," Higashino says. "He knew my feelings. He'd tell me, 'Just try hard.' "
Higashino hung in there, kept wowing people with his fearless riding style, and soon, contest invitations and top-10 finishes followed. Last year, he scored his biggest breakthrough to date at X Games Los Angeles, winning a gold medal in Moto X Freestyle (the first Japanese rider to do so). Sato, who'd been competing in Red Bull X-Fighters and doggedly promoting FMX back in Japan, was overjoyed for Higashino, and they planned to join forces to raise the sport's profile in their home country.
But before they could realize that dream together, Sato, 34, died Feb. 28 after under-rotating a backflip while practicing in Iwaki City, Japan. Higashino was devastated. In the immediate aftermath, the 28-year-old wrote on Instagram, "Eigo Sato, you teach me everything, you push me all time. You always by my side … you're my hero and best friend. I'm gonna miss you."
Sato's loss stunned the FMX community just a month after snowmobiler Caleb Moore died from injuries sustained in a crash at X Games Aspen. Another FMX rider, Tyrone Gilks, died in March while training for a long-distance jump. Though every freestyler knows the gravity of the risks each loss of a friend and competitor hits closer and closer to home. Sato was the fourth high-level FMX rider to die from injuries sustained while training in the past four years, and talking about his passing put a damper on Higashino's normally happy-go-lucky personality at a recent stop on the Nuclear Cowboyz tour. But he did open up about some of the conflicted emotions he's had about FMX lately.
"This sport is pretty dangerous right now," says Higashino, who will be competing in Moto X Freestyle next week at X Games Foz do Iguaçu. "I feel like I want to quit sometimes. Eigo died. Before that my friend [Jeremy] Lusk died. It's died, died, died. I feel, really?" Higashino says he has made the same under-rotation mistake, and he recognizes the fine line where accidents are part of FMX but can sometimes be fatal.
Now in his fourth year riding with Nuclear Cowboyz -- a futuristic fantasy show featuring 12 FMX riders throwing high-octane tricks in rapid-fire succession amid pyrotechnical and laser effects -- Higashino has found comfort in being surrounded by guys who knew and loved the good-natured Sato. As much fun as the Nuclear Cowboyz riders have on tour together, these days, the quiet moments are sometimes heavy with thoughts of Sato and Moore, whose younger brother Colten rides quads for Nuclear Cowboyz and has survived serious injuries at X Games winter events, including X Games Aspen.
Though each death seems to generate a new spotlight on the freestyle disciplines, the dangers remain the same. FMX has always been more of a love-driven than money-driven sport because the financial rewards fall well short of the risks these guys take.
"You never choose how you're gonna die, but you choose how you're gonna live," says Red Bull X-Fighters rider Javier Villegas, who also was close friends with Sato. "Am I going to sit at a desk 9 to 5? It's not my style. I don't want to wait for death to pick me up. I want to go and defy death to try to catch me."
Of course, it's one thing to say you're prepared for the worst that might happen, and another thing altogether to look loved ones in the eye and say it.
"I had that talk with my family and told them not to be sad if it happens to me," four-time X Games Step Up gold medalist Matt Buyten said. "Your parents don't want to hear that. It sucks to have that conversation. It's gnarly. You get choked up talking about it. But we all take that on."
X Games medalist and FMX innovator Ronnie Faisst, who leads the Nuclear Cowboyz in pre-show prayers, says that dealing with fear is a serious mental game.
"You keep hearing about guys dying, and it gets in your head," he says. "I'm like, 'Damn, what happened to just breaking legs?' I didn't ride the day I heard about Eigo, but the next day I did, and it was like, 'Man. I'm kinda nervous.' Growing up, I never used to think, 'Oh, I could die riding my bike.' Recently, I guess every one of us has thought about it. But if you worry about getting hurt, it'll steal the whole fun out of what you do."
Underneath the gloom on the subject of fallen comrades, the Nuclear Cowboyz expressed mixed feelings about ESPN's recent cancellation of Moto X Best Trick. Sentiments ranged from "I won't miss it because it was out of control," to "they should've reeled it in, not canceled it."
Higashino, the 2012 X Games silver medalist and 2010 bronze medalist in Moto X Best Trick, was firmly in the latter camp, and he sighed and gazed at the floor as he discussed it. "It sucks. [Canceling] Best Trick [is] pretty hard," he says, adding that he wonders if riders will try innovative, boundary-pushing tricks without the incentive of trying to win X Games Best Trick gold. "I try to enjoy [it]. Just no pressure, just riding. Riding is fun, almost always."
Growing up in Osaka, Higashino rode BMX bikes until his dad, a fireman, let him try out a dirt bike. Though he was just 8 years old, after that he never gave any other sport a second thought. As a teen, his dedication grew, and when he began leaning toward freestyle motocross, his parents worried for his safety but didn't stand in his way.
Higashino obsessively watched YouTube videos of riders such as Faisst and Jeremy "Twitch" Stenberg, and envisioned himself winning X Games gold. When he revealed his ambition to a friend of his father's, the response he got helped set his course. "He was like, if you want to win X Games, what are you doing in Japan?" Higashino remembers. "But [that's] scary to [leave home] and I didn't have money."
Now he laughs looking back at the $700 car he bought that he barely had enough money to put gas in when he first came to the United States. Or how skinny he got from his mayo sandwich diet. Higashino sucks his cheeks inward to demonstrate how dramatically different he looked after the first year, and then bugs his eyes out to show his parents' reaction when he returned home for a visit.
But remembering how intimidating it was to be in a strange country and just show up by himself at popular riding spots with his dirt bike -- not being able to understand anyone -- still brings those butterflies back. "Riding little bit make me nervous," he says. "Then nobody speak Japanese and this make [me] more nervous. So, riding tricks scary, then soon as finished riding? Still scary."
His ability to adapt was key. He did the best he could with a Japanese-to-English dictionary and used makeshift hand signals, like miming revving a throttle, to communicate. Often after he'd finish a run, Higashino would hear one particular word over and over again. "They would say, 'Sick! Sick!' " he remembers, "But I didn't know what means. So I ask, and my friend says, 'Ah, this is good!' "
He eventually found himself riding with the guys he'd once studied on YouTube. His high trick difficulty level impressed Stenberg, who began taking Higashino out to private sessions and later invited the Japanese rider to live with him in Temecula, Calif. Soon Higashino was "playground famous" in SoCal FMX circles, scoring some sponsor attention and making a little extra money doing shows. His frugality, sacrifice and focus -- no expensive phone calls home to Japan, no alcohol and no frills on anything, began to pay dividends. He won the Red Bull X-Ray and Dew Tour FMX comps, plus bronze for X Games Best Trick in 2010 and the ASA World Championships of Freestyle Motocross in 2011 before his breakthrough year in Freestyle and Best Trick at X Games Los Angeles 2012. Needless to say, his daily menu was immediately upgraded with routine visits to a Japanese grocery store in San Diego.
Ask anybody on the Nuclear Cowboyz squad to describe Higashino's personality and a smile reliably appears before the answer. Higashino is 5-foot-5 and 138 pounds, but his charisma and relentless pursuit of his dream have made him a little larger than life among his fellow riders. One thing that commands total respect -- even from those who are more rivals than friends -- is his work ethic.
"There's probably three or four dudes in this sport who work as hard as him," says Mike Mason, a Nuclear Cowboyz teammate and X Games Los Angeles 2012 Speed & Style gold medalist. "And Taka still probably works harder. His tricks are gnarly and he'll do every one four or five times in practice. Every single practice."
And afterward, he watches film of his practices. Higashino, who's best known for pioneering the Rock Solid Backflip, energetically motions with his hands like a kid describing a roller-coaster ride when talking about tricks. He says the scarier the move -- like the Double Grab, Stripper or Darkside Flips -- the more he has to do them to feel comfortable. Even one day off of his bike can alter his crucial mind-body synchronization and lead to mistakes.
"If I ride every day then [everything feels] like slow motion," he says. "I have a timing for every trick. [If] I don't ride, I forget this timing. So, ride every day make me dangerous but [with] more safety. I have to control. Three times do scary trick and three times made it? I feel like I got it."
Though Higashino is more at ease with life in the U.S., and with his growing stature in FMX, he acknowledges he hasn't settled on a new top goal yet, though he'll certainly want to defend his Freestyle title this summer at X Games Los Angeles. He's checked off a couple of bigger life goals, though. He got married in August after he proposed to Soline Tascal, 21, a photographer from Toulouse, France, at last year's X Games. He has secured a green card, drives a pretty nice Toyota Tacoma, and accomplished another proud moment last month when he bought a house in Murrieta, Calif. -- and paid cash for it.
As much as Higashino has achieved in FMX, thoughts of Sato are never far from his mind. He recently attended a memorial event in Temecula to honor Sato and raise money for his wife and two children. Though Higashino wasn't entirely ready to talk about his mentor, it was obvious the loss has had a monumental and still-unfolding impact on him. Higashino didn't make any "win one for the Gipper" promises for future X Games, but he will be doing what he says his mentor would have wanted: riding his heart out.
"I know Eigo and Eigo doesn't want to stop this sport," he says. "I still want to make freestyle in Japan big, but X Games cancel Best Trick so this is going bad. I hope it [is] put back soon, maybe next year. It's dangerous, but riders know it's dangerous."
Higashino takes a deep breath, then continues: "I ask myself, am I sure I can spend all of my life doing this if I can die next week? I think, hmm. I don't know. If I take it easy, I think [it's] more dangerous. I push harder then I focus more. If it happens, it happens.
"[The] positive after Eigo is, more focus. Not going [out to] party and no sleeping, then go riding. No way. Just focus for riding, more respect. It's hard. I want to ride for Eigo more hard. But I need more time."