MUNICH -- The first skateboarder to land the elusive 1080 likes to draw pictures of skate ramps. He exists on cheese pizza and plays Scrabble with his mother. He won't hang a poster of himself on his bedroom wall because that would be "show-offy." His orthodontist insists he wear a mouth guard when he skates, but the doctor at least put the Red Bull logo on the front. That's his sponsor.
Tom Schaar is 13 and a professional skateboarder. He's barely 5 feet tall and his curly blond hair pours from the sides of his flat-billed cap. Some of his teachers give him homework to take on the road. He does it on long plane flights. He likes Mr. Nelson, his seventh-grade history teacher, and got good grades in his class. After the 1080 in March 2012, he and his dad celebrated with sushi at a strip mall. The Black Keys are his favorite band, and he doesn't own any cologne. Yet.
This morning, he and his mom are having breakfast in their trendy Munich hotel, waiting for the shuttle to take him to the X Games venue a few miles away. They flew here straight from an event in Maryland, where he got chased by some of his more exuberant fans.
"Oh my God," Regan Schaar says, laughing, "the girls were following these guys around. It was funny."
"Groupies or fans?" a Red Bull staffer asks.
"Groupies," he says.
After Tom landed the trick, he rose out of the insider swamp of hardcore action sports fans and waded into the mainstream: a trip to "The Ellen DeGeneres Show." DeGeneres introduced him to the crowd, and he looked tiny in her big red chair.
"Congratulations!" she gushed when the audience stopped applauding. She paused a breath, with a veteran comic's timing.
"What's a 1080?" she asked.
That's the only appropriate first question. Skateboard tricks are endless, and most of their names convey zero information to an unschooled viewer. As an added bonus, they are hard for a grown man to say with a straight face: Caballerial, Ollie, McTwist, and on and on.
Only one trick is the holy grail: the 1080, three revolutions in the air. Famous Olympic snowboarder Shaun White made it his mission to land the trick on a skateboard, once attempting it 29 times in Vert Best Trick at a single X Games, failing each time. For years he tried and failed. His athleticism earned him two Olympic gold medals and untold millions but he couldn't land a 1080. It seemed impossible.
Then, a year ago, three skaters did it within 48 days on MegaRamps. All of them -- Schaar, 16-year-old Mitchie Brusco and 15-year-old Jono Schwan -- had been working on it in private, like the group of men all trying to break the four-minute mile. This week at the X Games, someone will almost certainly attempt it."We'll probably end up seeing a 1080," Tom says. "Maybe if I'm feeling really good, I might spin one."
The explanation for the 1080 going from impossible to likely is actually pretty simple.
"That," Brusco says, pointing up at the towering MegaRamp.
He's killing time with his mom between the two skateboarding ramps -- vert and Mega. Olympic Park's grassy natural amphitheater surrounds them. Speakers set up in the water play hip-hop, metal and rock 'n' roll.
The MegaRamp looks like an alien spaceship to the uninitiated. There's a huge video board on the side and an elevator taking skaters to the top, 88 feet in the air. Inside there's a skeleton made of metal tubing and brackets. Brusco was 5 when it was invented. Tom was 3. The traditional skate ramp, the halfpipe, is known as a vert ramp. It's the one you picture in your head when you think about skateboarding. It's what Tony Hawk skated. It's where White tried and failed to nail his 1080. It is the ramp preferred by purists, since attaining height is a result of self-generated speed, which is the result of technique and precision. On a skateboarding message board thread about the 1080, one fan summed up this old-school attitude succinctly: "The MegaRamp is f---ing cheating."
The Mega is six times as tall as the vert ramp (which stands 13-foot-6). A long ramp leads to an accelerating jump, which leads to a quarterpipe, where the trick is attempted. It's easier, more dangerous and much better television.
"It's given people the opportunity to go really high," Brusco explains before politely excusing himself for the riders' meeting. "On this, you have a 90-foot roll-in. You can go 13-14 feet, pop out more than you do on a vert ramp, and still land on a ramp in a place where you can roll away. Once Tom Schaar did it, I think it opened people's minds."Nobody has ever landed a 1080 on a vert ramp. White came closest. Hawk stuck a 900 but that was 14 years ago. Other professional skateboarders banged their boards on the ramp in respect as he made attempt after attempt. Hundreds of thousands watched him, the pressure building, and on his 11th attempt, he landed it. People carried him off the ramp in their arms. Hawk has gotten so famous -- the one person at the X Games your mother would recognize, the ultimate test of fame -- that it's easy to forget much of his fame flows from conquering the 900.
A circus swirls around him in Munich, where he is working for ESPN. He signs a board with a drawing of Bart Simpson's skull on it. For reasons passing understanding, a German television station gets him to putt a golf ball from a magic mushroom beneath a toy dinosaur. While the crew sets up the finishing touches on the strange acid-trip mini-golf, Hawk says that someone could tame the 1080 on a vert, just as he tamed the 900. He's just not sure the younger generation cares about anything but soaring through the air on the Mega.
"I've seen people get really close," he says. "I think it is possible. But it's a struggle. You've got to spin way faster. To be honest, I don't think they're that interested in it. It's way more impressive up high."
ESPN took vert out of the X Games several years ago, but the howling protests forced the decision to be reversed. It isn't the event of the future, but for now, the young kids still skate it, even if a little begrudgingly. Tom tried a vert 1080 at his local skate park not long ago with some buddies, and he didn't come close. To do it, he estimates he'd need to fly six or seven feet above the lip, or roughly twice as high as he flies now. Even the best skateboarders in the world think doing three turns is at the far edge of the envelope.
"1080, if that's even possible," Tom says, "would be the max."
"What's that?" his mom asks."10 on the vert," he says.
"I think Tom can do it someday," she says proudly.
"I doubt it," he says.
"It will be Tom, Jono or Mitchie," she says. "Or Shaun White."
"I don't even think he skates," Tom says.
"If he did start skating again," she says.
As Hawk warms up for a skating demonstration, Tom and his mom hang out by the vert ramp, and he takes practice runs, getting ready for Thursday's competition. His mom wants him to try a 900, the trick that once defied the greatest skateboarder alive. Tom is the eighth person to land one.
"Nein," he says.
"Nine. Get it? It's a pun."
"Just try it," she says.
"I don't want to," he says.
His mentor, Jeff Jewett, is standing with them.
"Get your head into it and go get it," he says.
Jewett, best known as a ramp guru, helped Tom land the 1080 on the MegaRamp and believes he will land it on vert, too.
"The next generation always outdoes the one before," he says.
The thing pushing Tom, and his peers, is the ethos that gave birth to skateboarding and fuels its growth: doing something you've never done before. The X Games make for compelling televised drama, but the heart of the sport lives on the edge of what's possible, from Tony Alva flying out of a California swimming pool into the air for the first time, to Tony Hawk landing his 900, to Tom Schaar standing at the top of a nine-story ramp with high-definition cameras zooming in close.
Tom's mom watches closely to make sure the 1080 doesn't derail him.
In another life, she worked in Hollywood, dealing with Disney stars and their parents. She saw that some moms let their kids run wild, and others protected theirs. Working with the show "Blossom," she saw how Mayim Bialik's parents made sure their daughter got rest, a chance to be a child, and an education. Recently, Regan found some old "Blossom" memorabilia while cleaning out her house and sent them to Mayim with a note saying what a great example her parents had been. She knows Tom feels the pressure of his potential.
"He did that," she says, "and everybody expects it. He almost doesn't want to do it. He was relieved that Mitchie did it. He wants to be known as more than the kid who did the 1080."
She watches him practice on the MegaRamp, his tiny outline 300 feet away. She has never gone to the top. That's his space. "Tom would freak out if he saw me up there," she says.
He's growing up. Not long ago, he slept for like 15 straight hours in a Comfort Inn. When he awoke, she sensed something different. Moms notice everything. They stood back to back in the mirror, and sure enough, he'd grown.
"I'm taller than you!" he said, thrilled.He's ready for skateboard season to be over so he can surf. The school promises to work with him better in eighth grade, making the travel easier. The money is good and he could make a great deal more, spending his life doing something he fell in love with while watching his older brother at the skate park. The 1080 could change his world like the 900 changed Hawk's, but that seems a long way away.
"I hope he goes to college," Regan says.
She's at the bottom. Up at the top, Tom stands with his skateboard -- a custom Element with Independent 215 trucks -- looking out over the city of Munich. He's waiting his turn, calm, until he takes a careful first push and roars off down the ramp.
One more very strange thing happens to Hawk.
A German still photographer and his assistants arrange a makeshift set. The conceit is that they'll show Tony a series of odd questions and then he'll make a pose that explains his answer, which they'll photograph for a visual essay. Tony is used to this drill, not flummoxed by even the weirdest requests. Once he played chess while answering questions and attempting to ignore the sexy bikini models trying to distract him. Being a mime for a few minutes is nothing. They ask if men over 40 should skate with their shirts off. He rolls his up and looks down at his stomach. They ask if someone can be too old to skate. He hunches over, holding an imaginary cane.
Tom walks past him, climbing the steps of the vert ramp. Mitchie follows, and he stands against the rail, looking down at the most famous skateboarder in the world, maybe looking into the future. Tom comes back around, and as he jogs up the metal stairs, he looks, too. The German photographer holds up the next question: "You were the first man to do a 900. What were your thoughts when you heard a 12-year-old did a 1080?"
Hawk opens his mouth in shock, and he raises his hands up to the side of his face, holding the pose until the photographer is done.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.