Issue 8.1: February/March 2005

Falling Star

by Paul Devlin Wood

photo: Erik Aeder
Thumper Nagasako does not require a level playing field. His contest is strictly with himself—how perfectly he can skate straight up a wall, how well he can execute a potentially lethal mid-air acrobatic and another and another.

Some would call this insane, this sport known as vert skating. ("Vert," of course, for "vertical.") But if twenty-one-year-old Thumper were insane, he would have broken himself to pieces long ago. He would never have accomplished what he has—rising from complete obscurity in his hometown of Wailuku, Maui, where literally no one else practices this sport, to his repeatedly demonstrated rank as one of the best vert skaters in the world.

That’s right. The world.

In fact, inline skating could well be included in the coming 2008 Olympic games; if so, Thumper would represent the United States as one of the two best in the nation. He’s an international star, and very few people at home know it.

But the skateboard kids of Central Maui know it. You can see it in their faces as they watch Thumper working out on the vert ramp at Keopuolani Park. You read it in their upturned gazes: silent awe.

The vert ramp, or half-pipe, is a strange arena—two sheer plywood walls face-to-face. At the bottom, the walls curve together in a short connecting span of level surface. From the side, the contraption looks like a gigantic "U" shored up by sticks.

At the top of each wall, there’s a flat deck—a place where a skater can bail out or rest. A long steel pipe, the "coping," runs along the seam where the wall and the deck meet. For a skater, this coping is the measure of reality: Even while executing triple spins in mid-air, he has to keep spotting that steel bead and trying his best to fall toward that silver line. If he falls wrong, he could crash onto the deck like a dork. Worse yet, he could find himself too far away to touch the wall at all. Free fall. Not good.

Thumper’s home domain is the half-pipe at Keopuolani Skate Park. It’s eleven feet high, tall enough that Thumper can train here for international contests. Next to the vert ramp is a street course—a low-altitude maze of sculpted concrete dips, lips, bowls, ramps and stairs that fills every afternoon with skateboarders and the raucous sounds of their boards scraping, slapping, squawking and clattering against every obstacle. Sometimes skateboarders climb to the half-pipe deck and drop in. But they lose altitude quickly, and after a couple of turns they bail out at the bottom. Thumper is the only kid to apply inline skates and personal discipline to work this half-pipe to its full potential. "Without this ramp, I wouldn’t be able to do anything that I can accomplish," he told me.

I met him at the top of the half-pipe. He was wearing a baggy T-shirt and shorts, a brief helmet, big-plated kneepads and his skates—high-lace black boots with four small wheels in line under each sole. He said: "When I’m at the top of the ramp, I let my muscles relax. I relax my mind. That way, when I drop in, I’m calm but energized at the same time. It’s hard to explain."

So he demonstrates. First he cranks up his boom box: Sandman by Metallica. Then he skates over to the coping and pauses, the front wheels of both boots hanging over the void. He crouches, then drops out of sight. I can hear his skates rolling like thunder on the plywood drumhead. Then it’s boom-BOOM as he hits the first curve and attacks the ascent. The half-pipe trembles. Now Thumper rises into the sky as though he’s riding a geyser blast. He executes a relaxed heels-over-head spin, rotates so that he’s facing straight down, and touches the wall again with his skates, striking just below the coping. He plummets out of view. Boom-BOOM. Now I’m looking at the bottom of Thumper’s skates. He reaches across, grabs the side of one boot, rolls one and a half times, then drops again. Boom-BOOM.

"It’s like flying," Thumper told me. Yes, but the freedom of flight is stolen with great cunning from the iron fist of gravity. These super-precise moves must be rehearsed every day. Thumper’s personal discipline is not just physical—involving cross-training, protein shakes, sleep, fluids, lots of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches—but also psychological. He follows a mental regime of "toughness training," visualization exercises and motivational techniques. In the end, the difference between flight and flop is the willful application of intelligence.

I watch Thumper whirl himself through a whole range of aerial tricks. They go so fast, all I can think is "wow." But they are precise and named: the hoverflip, back-to-back 9s, the McTwist, the 720 (that is, degrees of rotation).... In one trick, he spins 270 degrees and touches down with his right skate directly on the coping, then slides noisily along the rail till he drops in again. This kind of sliding trick, or "grind," is a specialty for Thumper. The specific grind that he just executed is called a "270 topacid." It’s all very technical. Even the "grabs"—clasping onto the skate in mid-air—have precise names: the rocket, the hang, the stale, the safety. While I find all this fascinating, I am most interested in the look on Thumper’s face while he performs. It’s the look of a Zen monk sitting in meditation. He ends the run by flying back up over the deck, then dropping softly like a bird, tucking his legs so that his skates touch with a light tap. His breathing is relaxed.

"I feel like I live two identities," he told me. There’s this one on Maui: The kid from Wailuku who comes out every day to practice solo acrobatics. Then there’s Thumper, the superstar.

In August 2004, for example, he stood at the top of an altogether different half-pipe—thirteen feet high with an additional six-foot drop-in ramp—in Staples Center Arena, where the L.A. Lakers play. As he stepped forth at that great height, the stadium lights dimmed, strobe lights blazed, he saw his own image projected onto a huge screen, his name flashed everywhere, and the announcer shouted: "From Hawai‘i, THUMPER NAGASAKO!" Sixty-thousand screams went up, and ESPN cameras started gobbling his image and relaying it to fifty countries. "Staples is pretty much full crazy, madness," he told me. "The challenge is to keep my balance and keep from being too amped. But when you drop in, it’s always just you and the ramp, just like at home."

At Staples, Thumper competed with the world’s best eleven. He took eighth and was the highest-placing American. One month later, he returned to Los Angeles for the Vert World Championships. Midway through that competition, he took a freak fall doing a 900 (two and a half complete flips) and gave himself a concussion. Forced to scratch his final run, he still took sixth on the strength of his performance.

Physical damage is part of the risk: He has broken both wrists and an ankle, torn a knee ligament and ripped his groin and hip muscles. A lot of this damage he sustained while emerging as a world figure—for example, throughout 2003, his rookie year, when he became the number-one American and number four in the world.

He has sustained psychological damage, too. In 1999, he made his first attempt to break into professional skating. His parents, Gail and Jordan Nagasako, invested money and time traveling with him all over the United States, to competition after competition. In the end, he failed to qualify. "That was a huge disappointment," he said. "I thought, ‘I don’t know if competing is for me.’" So he went back to the Keopuolani half-pipe and for three years did nothing but skate for the love of the sport. "I let go of the dream of being pro." Then in 2002, he saw that the world amateur competition would be in California. "What the hell. That’s not too far to fly." He took first place and shot onto the world professional scene. Clearly, he learned a lot of self-discipline during his three-year retreat.

Now he can use prize money to finance his own trips—but it’s barely enough. In 2004, he could only afford to go to three competitions; to be ranked properly, he has to compete at least five times a year. What he really needs is one more sponsor.

What is it that makes someone like Thumper pursue such a self-driven, solo passion? What’s the source of such self-sufficiency? You could say he was born for it. After all, he earned the name Thumper (his real name, not a nickname) by tumbling and kicking in the womb, a natural-born vert skater. What’s more telling is that Thumper is entirely home-schooled. He never experienced the homogenizing process of the classroom. His mom, Gail, spent the childhood years improvising curriculum out of Thumper’s natural interests, everything from marbles to bodyboarding. Her intention was to "allow Thumper to maintain his sovereignty over his life."

That’s a nice phrase to remember if you’re ever at Keopuolani Skate Park in the afternoon, standing amidst the skateboarders and their scraping, slapping, chattering boards, and then you look up at the solitary figure—slender, calm, thoughtful. He pushes the button on the boom box: Metallica. And he drops in—boom-BOOM—perfecting impossible flight.

For more on Thumper, visit