Bob Burnquist's Brazil
It's an unusually clear April morning in Southern California and Bob Burnquist is roaming his Vista property, trying to identify something uniquely Brazilian about his home. "There's acai in the freezer," he jokes to the group of filmers and video producers he has in tow. He lists a few Brazilian food items he brought back from his recent trip to Sao Paulo to attend the Laureus World Sports Awards. And one type of tree on his property is native to Brazil, he says, although he can't remember exactly what type of tree. "I call them Brazilian spiny trees," he says. Someone suggests a shot of the yellow Robinson R22 helicopter he leases with a friend. It's parked closely enough to his green megaramp to evoke a Brazilian flag. Is that why he chose a yellow chopper? "No," Burnquist admits. "Yellow was the first color that came available."
This is a tougher assignment than he expected. Despite the fact that nearly every aspect of his life is marked with a distinctly Brazilian influence, from the way in which he thinks about food to the attitude he has on a skateboard, Burnquist can't seem to locate a meaningful, tangible connection between his two homes. Then he realizes he's looking in the wrong place.
"Wait. You're already looking at the most Brazilian thing you'll find on my property," he says, "Me."
Since the moment the now 36-year-old Burnquist arrived in the States, he has been intrinsically tied to the country in which he was raised. It is rare to hear him introduced at an event or delve more than a couple sentences into his bio without hearing or reading the words, "first Brazilian to ..." Although he was not the first Brazilian skater to arrive on the contest scene, he was the first to break through and win, his first major title coming at the 1995 Slam City Jam and his most recent in Skateboard Big Air at the 2012 X Games. The dash between those years is filled with 22 X Games medals, nine of them gold, and highlights like becoming the first skater to complete the loop switch and land a 900 on the MegaRamp, and becoming a father twice over, to daughters Lotus and Jasmyn.
During that time, Burnquist became the most successful and recognizable of the now long list of skateboarders to hail from the Land of Happiness. At a contest in the States, it is common to see him surrounded by a crowd of multicultural fans as he signs autographs and answers questions while slipping seamlessly between Portuguese and English, both of which he speaks with no hint of an accent. He delivers his social media in both languages, depending on where he is at the moment. His Twitter feed is a virtual timeline of travel between his two homes.
"I think in both languages, depending on what I'm thinking about," he says. "I dream in both and I live speaking both. It's an art. And it's important for Brazilian skaters to learn English. It's important no matter where you're from."
As a teen, Burnquist's unique ability to communicate with sponsors, fans and fellow skaters is largely why he was able to make such an easy transition to life in the U.S. when he moved to the States in 1995.
That year, he also competed in the first X Games -- called the Extreme Games back then -- and is one of only four athletes who has competed in every X Games since. He has been around long enough to remember competing for Team Brazil at the one-off X Games Global Challenge in San Antonio in 2003 and was a part of the 2003, 2004 and 2008 Latin X Games in Brazil.
But in two weeks, Burnquist will return to his home country to compete in the first summer event of the new six-event global X Games showcase in Foz do Iguaçu, Brazil, a city located on the Paraguay-Argentina-Brazil border and home to the famed Iguaçu waterfalls, one of the "new seven wonders of the world."
"Brazilians are so excited about this," Burnquist says. "The Latin X Games were a mostly South American event, but now fans will get to see all the best guys they've been watching on TV compete live and in person. There will be so much energy. Brazilians are excited about sports and they aren't afraid to show their love."
And over the past decade, their love for skateboarding has grown exponentially. Growing up, Burnquist says if he saw another kid pushing a skateboard down the street, he and his friends would call out to him. "Because we probably knew him," he says. There were that few skateboarders on the streets of Sao Paulo in the 1980s.
"Back then, skateboarding was underground in Brazil and Brazil was underground in the skate scene, so being a Brazilian skater was like being in the underground of the underground," he says. "It's not like that anymore."
Today, skateboarding is one of the fastest-growing sports in Brazil, with participation in the millions. Opportunities for Brazilian skaters, whether they skate vert or street, compete or strictly film video parts, have grown since Burnquist picked up his first local sponsor at the age of 14. And more girls are picking up the sport.
"When I started skating, I didn't have a lot of girl friends who skated, but I had a lot of boys to skate with," says Leticia Bufoni, the 2012 X Games silver medalist in women's Skateboard Street. "Now there's like 30 girls I can skate with in Sao Paulo."
There are also more events, more parks being built and more television coverage. The show "X Center" -- a takeoff on "SportsCenter" dedicated to action sports -- is a daily happening on ESPN Brasil."Skateboarding is on the map beside soccer and MMA," Burnquist says. "More kids are skating than playing soccer. There are opportunities for sponsorships from companies outside of skateboarding and there is attention from the masses. It's at a whole new level. Soccer is such an excitement in Brazil and to see skateboarding even close to that level of popularity is pretty cool."
In Foz, skate-crazed fans will have much to cheer about. Nearly half the 11-man Skateboard Big Air field hails from Brazil, as well as four athletes in Skateboard Vert. It is possible that a Brazilian athlete could win every skateboard event, from Burnquist and Lincoln Ueda in Big Air to Sandro Dias and Rony Gomes in Vert to Luan Oliveira in Street League to two-time gold medalist Pedro Barros in Park and Bufoni in women's Street.
The feeling and skating of everyone in Brazil has that all-out mentality. Whether you're from Sao Paulo, Curitiba or Rio, we're all a big family.Bob Burnquist
"A sweep," Burnquist says, "that'd be pretty heavy."
Heavy -- or perhaps more appropriately, "forte" in Portuguese -- might also be a good word to describe the personality of the Brazilian skateboarder. Both Burnquist and Barros say no matter where in the country they call home, Brazilian skaters are defined by a uniquely Brazilian determination and resilience and a never-quit attitude, as well as the humble ability to embrace every person they meet at the skate park and invite them home for dinner.
"The guys in Brazil want it so much," Burnquist says. "We have this 'Let's do it no matter what's going on out there' attitude and that translates into the style in Brazilian skateboarding. Even though we're on different terrain or in different situations growing up, the feeling is all the same. Even though I grew up in Sao Paulo with pavement, it was hard to find spots to skate. The traffic is crazy. And even though Pedro had a ramp at his house, it wasn't a good ramp. The feeling and skating of everyone in Brazil has that all-out mentality. Whether you're from Sao Paulo, Curitiba or Rio, we're all a big family."
And Brazilians skate with appreciation. Burnquist remembers that when he was a kid, the import tax and shipping costs were so high that products from the U.S. rarely made their way to Brazil. For that reason, Skatelite-covered ramps are still next to impossible to find.
"We had to create our own boards, our own trucks," Burnquist says.
Now, when he skates top-of-the-line equipment he likely had a hand in developing, he remembers what it was like to skate homemade boards and soggy wooden ramps. He remembers dodging traffic to skate dangerous street spots when he drops into the ramp in his own backyard. There, the only traffic he navigates is the few friends he invited over to skate that day.
"The way I feel about how I skate, I know what it was to live in Brazil and not have much to skate and to skate on OK product," Burnquist says. "Now that we have it all, we know what it was like to not to have it and don't take it for granted. I pinch myself every day. I skateboard for a living and I was born and raised in Brazil."
Adds Barros, 18, who grew up on the island of Florianopolis eight hours south of Sao Paulo, "I remember having one board that I skated for an entire year. Now I have stacks of boards. I love that I can give them away to my friends and the kids in my neighborhood and pay back some of what I'm given."
In many ways, Burnquist has been doing the same for years. Since moving to the States, he has returned to Brazil as often as possible, bringing contests and demos. The MegaRamp events in Sao Paulo and Rio draw huge, passionate crowds and are ratings-grabbers on TV. And it doesn't hurt that, more often than not, those contests end with Burnquist standing atop the podium.
"Brazilians enjoy when Brazilians are doing well," he says. "It happened with [Ayrton] Senna in Formula One and Guga [Gustavo Kuerten] in tennis and Anderson Silva in MMA. I was doing so well in MegaRamp that I was able to bring a lot of attention to skateboarding."
And possibly a lot of pressure on himself to win the first X Games Big Air event in Foz come April 18.
"When I get to Brazil, I'm healthy and there to skate, and the judges will put me wherever they want to put me," Burnquist says. "But however it ends up going down, the fact that the X Games is in Brazil and we're all there, it's already a win for Brazilians. We are already celebrating that we have this huge event and attention. It's 2013 and look at where we've come."
Burnquist has come full circle.