TOKYO — Jagger Eaton was born and bred to win an Olympic medal. But he didn't expect it to happen like this.
He grew up in a gymnastics-crazed family, where handsprings and round-offs had been both a love and a way to make a living. His grandfather, Stormy, ran a training facility and was an assistant coach on the U.S. women's gymnastics team. His dad, Geoff, qualified for three U.S. championships. His mom, Shelly, was a seven-time all-American.
Surely, then, when Jagger made it to the Olympics, he would be flipping on rings and swinging around a high bar. Right?
"Christmas Day, when I was 4 years old, my dad got me a skateboard," Eaton said. "And it changed my life forever."
Sixteen years later, it was that skateboard that left Eaton standing on a podium Sunday, as the national anthem played behind him. On the first day of Olympic skateboarding competition, the 20-year-old Arizona native won bronze in the men's street discipline at Ariake Urban Sports Park, pulling out his phone shortly thereafter to FaceTime his father.
"I just started yelling," Eaton said. "I don't know really (what I said). I don't know if I made out words. I just started yelling. I was so hyped."
Meanwhile, Yuto Horigome, the son of a Tokyo taxi driver, won gold at a venue just a few minutes away from the neighborhood where he grew up. Kelvin Hoefler, a 27-year-old from Brazil, took the silver.
The U.S. had long been expected to win an Olympic medal in the men's street event, but few expected that American to be Eaton. Nyjah Huston, a six-time world champion with 4.7 million Instagram followers, entered the competition as a heavy favorite but wiped out on four of his five trick attempts, effectively dooming himself to a 7th-place finish.
"I've never felt so much pressure, from like representing your country, too," Huston said. "So all the people back home, all the homies, everyone in the USA that was rooting for me -- I’m sorry. I know I definitely let some people down. And I have no problem admitting that. But I’m human, you know?"
Instead, the story for Team USA became Eaton, who only barely secured his spot on the Olympic team but will return home after giving Team USA its first Olympic medal in a sport it helped popularize. Skateboarding's roots date back more than 50 years, to Southern California, where it was originally a land-based alternative to surfing.
"To take home the first skateboarding medal for Team USA," Eaton said with a smile, "I'm just very stoked right now."
Spoken like a true skater, no?
Yet don't let Eaton's lingo allow you to make him into some sort of skateboarding caricature – rebellious and mellow, spraying graffiti and skating to hang out, rather than chase Olympic dreams. This is someone whose music playlist during competition Sunday featured both Playboi Carti and Florida Georgia Line. And his journey to get to this point, is quintessentially Olympic.
Though Eaton started out skating in his family's gymnastics gym, prompting a lot of strange looks from visitors, his father later constructed an indoor skatepark inside that same facility, calling it Kids That Rip. Eaton committed himself to a regimented training program, unusual for his sport, and made his X Games debut when he was just 11. He went on to win for medals in the iconic extreme sports event, most recently in 2019.
Eaton is a rare breed in competitive skateboarding because he switches easily between its two disciplines: park and street. In fact, he was on track to qualify for Tokyo in park until May, when a seventh-place finish in a Dew Tour event in Iowa dropped him out of the third and final Olympic qualifying spot for Team USA.
"When I didn't make the park team, I was defeated. I was really burnt out and tired," he said. "It was really my coaches who got me to Rome."
Rome was the World Street Championships – a hail mary of sorts, where a strong performance in a different discipline could maybe push Eaton back into the Olympic picture. He competed with an ankle injury but landed a big trick on his final attempt to finish fourth – just good enough to get him to Tokyo.
Eaton said he had been working toward this goal even before skateboarding was named an Olympic sport. And since he's arrived, the experience has more than lived up to the hype. He said came across Yao Ming and "it blew my mind." He noted that Tony Hawk was on hand for his practice round. And he said he was so nervous Sunday that he thought he was going to be sick before his first run.
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"Other competitions just aren't the Olympic Games," Eaton said. "And that's a fact. And anybody who tells you different is lying."
Eaton is the first of what will likely be multiple U.S. medal-winners across skateboarding's four disciplines – men's and women's street and park. (Women's street competition takes place Monday.) And he is the first American to medal in one of the new sports at the Tokyo Games, which also include karate, sport climbing and surfing.
"I grew up thinking that it was going to be possible, and when it was possible, my whole goal was to be on the podium at the first one," Eaton said. "And that's why this one means so much to me."
Not bad for a gymnastics kid.
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Jagger Eaton wins Tokyo Olympics skateboarding bronze for Team USA