As other skateboarders paused to catch their breath, South African Olympic hopeful Brandon Valjalo moved ahead and sped down the next ramp, slid along a rail and spun into the air.
Landing gracefully on his feet, the 22-year-old was visibly dissatisfied with his technique and went back for another round.
A low, late afternoon sun shone over the church-sponsored skate park in Johannesburg’s suburb of Sandton.
Young athletes, some shirtless, launched themselves skyward, spinning and slamming the concrete as a small crowd cheered from behind a meshed fence.
Valjalo, wavy blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, was the main attraction.
He is just two events from representing South Africa at the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games, where skateboarding is to feature for the first time as a medal sport.
Qualification, paused for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is set to resume in May.
Spots are guaranteed for the world’s top 20 — a far distance from Valjalo’s 49th place.
However, the skateboarder is still “pretty confident” that he is to make the Olympics roster.
As No. 1 in Africa, he is likely to qualify as the continent’s representative, regardless of his global ranking.
Valjalo first stood on a board at the age of three, when he found his brother’s old skateboard in the garage.
At nine years old, he developed a passion for the renegade sport that has thrived on US and European sidewalks since the 1960s.
Skateboarding is “the freedom of doing anything that you want,” Valjalo said. “Every day you forget that you are doing it, because you love it.”
Valjalo entered his first professional competition in 2013, aged 14, and won a championship a year later.
With trophy after trophy, Valjalo worked his way up to winning the African championships in 2017, which earned him invitations to compete against the European elite.
Representing South Africa at the Olympics would be an honor, said the athlete, who looks up to basketball star LeBron James and soccer player Cristiano Ronaldo.
“Ever since I was a young kid, I wanted to reach the pinnacle of competitive skateboarding,” he said. “It is a dream come true.”
Skateboarders disagree on whether the discipline should be treated as a competitive sport or left to the street, where it first originated.
However, Valjalo said that “artistic” street boarding and competitions are equally important, adding that the Olympics would give the sport more visibility.
The Games would also erase the image of skateboarders as “outcasts that love to go to parks and smoke weed,” Valjalo said, and give it a stamp of approval “as a real job.”
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