Much had been discussed about the seemingly unassailable rise of Japan as a force in competitive skateboarding prior to this event, what with it being both the first WST tour stop ever to make landfall in the land of the rising sun AND the 2023 Street World Championship: the locals were expected to show up and bust out.
Reader, they did.
Nine out of the final sixteen who we saw on Sunday were Japanese, and it could easily have been more. A clean podium sweep was only prevented by the mighty Brazilian Rayssa Leal (about whom more later). 2022 men’s World Champion Aurelien Giraud didn’t enter so how he may have fared in this Battle Royale will remain one of the great unknowables of this whole magic enterprise.
Before we chop up the finals, let’s take a quick moment to acknowledge a few semi-final talking points: for the men, Mexico’s Greg Rodriguez and Peruvian member of the IOC’s Youth Athlete Development programme Deivid Tuesta both gave good account of themselves against their heroes in first appearances at that level for both, and in the women’s division we could draw attention to the fact that Spain and Holland continue to outperform their European neighbours by collectively supplying a quarter of the female semi-finalists between them.
Since we started with women for As It Was: Ostia, let’s say it is the chaps’ turn to drop in first this time.
All photos: Atiba Jefferson
The superbly talented, loose-as-a-goose American has the most unbelievable flick and edge-of-control approach which belies both his consistency and contest pedigree (he has been on every WST Street stop so far). This was his first final, however, and while he was on the ropes by the time the run section was over, he still went all-in during Best Trick, being the only skateboarder to kickflip the driveway to hubba, in his case to frontside 50-50 grind- which is not only near-impossible but also highly reckless. Arguably the most spectacular trick of the event.
The amazing thing about skateboarding at this level on the WST is that although the Best Trick section comes last, the standard and consistency are now so high that the battle is often lost or won before the first one is thrown down. So it was for Nyjah: a single stumble during his first run left him 15 points adrift of the Japanese pacesetters and when he uncharacteristically slammed on his first trick in the second, it was as good as over for the man to beat. Two 90-plus scores in Best Trick may have left him rueing what might have been, but the victory which has been his every other WST stop would have required the only 90+ run score of the whole week in Tokyo- and while anything is possible for this man, just shy of 87 was the best anybody else could do, so he would have needed the run of his life.
There is no real way to square the circle of Ginwoo’s challenge: put simply, he does tricks which are so advanced that the margin for error is tiny going on for non-existent. Nobody else is getting their feet back onto kickflip frontside bluntslide bigspin out, much less on a handrail. Although he was unable to replicate or improve upon his bronze medal performance from the 2022 World Championship, he has only tiny refinements of technique to master and decades in which to do so, a fact which should already be causing his older contemporaries sleepless nights.
Nothing short of delightful to have the sublimely spontaneous American natural grace his first WST final here in Tokyo. Far from being a contest purist, he nonetheless has enough magic in his bones to be as deadly as the best skatepark student of the craft and make it looks exciting and dangerous all the while. With a full run and two Best Trick scores in the 90’s he now has a successful campaign behind him on the World Skateboarding Tour against which to measure where his talent lies. With a final score 11 points off podium contention he may be able to find places to improve going forward- but on sheer ability alone, you have to say he is magnificent and the final was better for his presence in it.
The sweet-natured and unorthodox 19-year old had his best-ever showing at a WST event here in Tokyo, with three 90+ scores in the semi-finals alone. His arrival seemingly from nowhere to mix it with the international elite has been one of the stories of the World Skateboarding Tour, and it reached an apogee in Japan. Alarmingly consistent and clever enough to conceal some of his Best Trick tradecraft until showtime, his second final of the Tour saw him knocking on the door of a podium spot with his Mum and little brother in attendance to witness. Wholesome as can be.
If the Japanese master was distracted by the Skater Of The Year gong show which he was in the running for while here, it didn’t show. The gold medallist at the Tokyo Olympics, Yuto has had a patchy run of results on the World Skateboarding Tour since then. The only skater in the finals with two run scores over 80 and the highest Best Trick score of the entire World Championship for the backside 270 nollie to noseslide, backside 270 out which some are naming after him, Yuto’s return to WST form was less than half a point off coming second and less than 4 points off the win. That is how hectic it was at the top in Tokyo.
The least-known of the Japanese podium, Kairi Netsuke has been on a steady come-up in skateboarding over the last 12 months and on the evidence of not just his finals but semi-finals it is not hard to see why. A modern heelflip maestro, he had the highest run score of the contest and opened his Best Trick account with a heelflip backside nosebluntslide but he also has the greatest late backside bigspin of all time. Came to win and very nearly did; seems destined to, soon.
Cometh the hour, cometh the new World Champion without a board sponsor. Besides Yuto Horigome, it is hard to think of another skateboarder who is really pushing the envelope of possibility in street skateboarding more than Sora right now and he came into WST Tokyo in the form of his life so far. Opening every run with a sugarcane, he led from his second Best Trick (95 then 92) to leave everyone else battling for second. His last trick was the greatest victory lap in contest history even though he didn’t need it’s 95 score to still win outright. Too good in too many ways for too many of his competitors, he met his moment and took it in a way which was magic to behold. Superb.
And if you thought that the male side of things had storylines to spare…
A first taste of WST contest experience beyond the quarter-final stage for the Chinese 14-year-old, she too had a better semi than final, where her consistency in practice deserted her on the frontside feeble grinds and backside lipslides which she had on lock all during warm-ups. That left her chasing the pack in Best Trick, which she posted only her last attempt during. Nonetheless, the experience at that level will be invaluable in demonstrating that she can make it that far and bounces her all the way up into 15th on the OWSR leaderboard.
The Olympic bronze medallist has only missed the cut into the finals at one WST stop so far with her solid, sketch-proof trick selection. Her challenge is that she likes to set out her stall early and lead through consistency, so when she missed (of all tricks) one of her signature frontside crooked grinds on the smaller hubba she was left with a 14 point gap to close which, to all intents and purposes, meant hoping for a slip-up from her fellow countrywomen which was not to be. Despite logging a frontside crook and backside overcook in Best Trick, she remained double digits off a podium spot and may need to work on some kind of 'Hail Mary' flip variation for such contingencies in the future- which is easier said than done at this level.
Hugely impressive throughout the event and in possession of the best frontside bigspin in the game, this was Liz’s fourth WST final and what is remarkable there is she has done so-including outright victory in Rome- without doing many flip tricks. Having posted a comfortable 72 first run score she almost added a bigspin heelflip to her second run which could prove a pioneering point-grabber for her in the future. Having established her Best Trick baseline early with a Barley grind and a hurricane, she tried to bring her Rome-winning front feeble frontside 180 out from the low rails of that course to the handrails of this one without success in her last 3 trick attempts.
The stealth contender of the Japanese youth armada, the physically slight but mightily courageous 14-year-old made her third tour final with back smiths on the 9-stair handrail as the opening trick of her runs, and a back lip to end. Yep. One of only two skaters to make the finals from heat 1 of the semi’s, she was good for 3 Best Tricks (bigspin front board, kickflip front board, hurricane) all of which were top-tier. The fact her completed run in both semi’s and finals hovered around the mid-60’s when others were in the 80’s seems to be where she can improve most, but that said she showed a lot of poise for her (or indeed any) age.
The Australian made her debut at World Street Skateboarding Rome in 2022 and has been on a rocket ride of progress ever since. Having missed the frontside 50-50 kickflip out on a flat ledge in her first run she needed a barnstormer to stay with the Japanese pack when she took an inadvertent stumble in her second. Was it nerves. or just one of those things that happen in skateboarding- an activity which is always more art than science. Professionals fall off axle stalls all the time, and the smallest obstacles are often the most treacherous, so more likely it was just her turn to have a lightning bolt of rotten luck. She regained her composure for a blistering 3 of 5 Best Tricks- 50-50 kickflip out on the hubba(!), heelflip and switch kickflip the long 9 stairs- which took her to within a point of the podium but not quite. Given that her semi-final run scores were 20 points higher than those she made in the final and everyone who beat her completed theirs, we can say she is likely to be back on that podium soon.
Looking like the lady to beat having made every final on the tour so far and been on the podium in all but one (and having won outright in Switzerland at WST Lausanne back in September), Momiji matched a perfect first run with making her first two nerve-settling Best Tricks courtesy of a Suski grind and then switching terrains to crook nollie heel the smaller hubba. Perhaps it was just coincidence that Chloe Covell’s heelflip right before Momiji’s third attempt scored higher than her two banked tricks, but she gamely spent her last 3 attempts trying to replicate it- although she stuck each one, she was unable to roll away. Even with all that, she remains the pacemaker in the women’s WST, and as Masufumi Kajitani of Japan’s VHS magazine pointed out, she is popping higher and going bigger every time we see her.
The real tale of the tape lies here in the women’s WST: the top 2 were more than 15 points clear of the field. Rayssa Leal is the most famous figure in the women’s contest game today, and with good reason. Coming off the back of her lowest-ever WST placing of 7th in Lausanne where she was hobbled from early on in proceedings, she looked fresh and deadly here in Tokyo. After putting down an emphatic 84 first run which ended on a backside tailslide on the hubba (also worth a ‘!’), she threw down two ‘haymakers’ as MC Tim O’Connor described them in a flip front board and a flip back lip in her fist two standalone attempts. The second in particular was a thing of real beauty. Rayssa then used her last 3 Best Trick attempts getting agonisingly close to a kickflip frontside bluntslide on a handrail which would not only have won her the World Championship but ushered in a new progression benchmark in women’s skateboarding and in so doing made history in real time. You rather suspect that one is in the mail, and may arrive in Paris- if not before.
Part of the second wave of Japan’s incursion into the women’s contest scene (alongside Liz Akama, Coco Yoshizawa and Miyu Ito), Yumeka’s most recent podium placings of third/second/first in Rome, Lausanne and Tokyo respectively should tell you the direction of travel there. The most exciting thing about her victory here was not her Best Trick section despite that registering the highest single score of the women’s event (kickflip front feeble, worth 94.8 juicy points a-thank you) but her response to her fluffed first run. Having seen two scores in excess of 80 already laid down and in the knowledge that her semi-final runs would only muster a 76, she threw her safety run in the bin and gambled all or nothing on a flip front board to open a run worth 84. Her entire World Championship hung on that committed gamble and that kind of swashbuckling, see-sawing roll of the dice is exactly what you pay your money for and what makes what we do so exciting. A deserved new World Champion and full of the joys of spring, she is a great ambassador for everything she represents.
Shall we stick with the Jerry Springer-style homily enders for these things? I rather think we should.
SO: what can we learn from WST Tokyo Street World Championship 2023?
Well, firstly the Japanese onslaught is real. 5 out of 6 podium places went to domestic talent and only a Rayssa Leal-shaped barrier prevented a clean sweep on home turf. This time.
Secondly, although skateboarding is clearly growing in Japan, it is really not the done thing to skateboard down the street. I mean like REALLY not the done thing. Just a word to the wise.
And finally, it is amazing how many people got tripped up by the smallest obstacle on the course. At least a dozen people tried to toss in a bigspin front board on the bump to flatbar as a way to stick on a few extra points onto their run score on the way back to the big section, only to stumble on it and lose their momentum and composure. Not a strategy suggestion, just an observation.
And with that, let us say congratulations to our winners, thank you to everyone who came from their homes far and wide to join in- and Arigato, Japan, for hosting a wonderful World Championship.