Along the northeastern convergence of Brazil and Argentina, just east of Paraguay, sits the Iguazu Falls. Encircled by untouched rainforest, breathtaking waterfalls up to nearly 270 feet high cascade from all directions, allowing the Iguazu River to continue downstream to where it eventually meets the Paraná, the continent’s second-longest waterway.
The falls divide the upper and lower portions of the river, and can be seen from each of the countries. Farther downstream, there’s a spot from which visitors can see all three borders at once. In April 2013, it was on the Brazilian side, the city of Foz do Iguaçu, that Bucky Lasek came to a crossroads of his own.
Lasek stood at the top of the halfpipe and above the tree line, surveying the rushing waters. On the other side, a scrum of spectators gazed up at him. The falls played unlikely host to the first leg of a new, international X Games circuit. The Iguazu would set the backdrop for Lasek to reclaim his place atop competitive skateboarding.
It had been nearly 10 years since Lasek last skated to Vert gold at the Games, winning at extreme sports’ biggest competition in 2003. A year before he’d come up just short, returning home with a silver medal. He’d also begun to take some time away from skating to participate in a second event, driving RallyCross.
For over two decades, he’d been known as one of his sport's greatest innovators, with a penchant for trying things at high altitudes on a skateboard that others wouldn’t—and frequently creating new tricks in the process. But Lasek, the oldest skater in the competition, had recently celebrated his 40th birthday. Some wondered what he had left in the tank.
Dropping in through the sticky Brazilian heat, across the globe from his southern California home, the Baltimore native overcame a frustrating first run to mix flips and turns he’d mastered for years into a series of vintage performances. Skating relaxed and as technically sound as ever, Lasek earned back his place atop the podium, ending the gold medal drought and dispelling any talk of decline. He had no idea his big year was just beginning.
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“Winning that event really spiraled into a new approach,” says Lasek, “because at that point, if I would have done badly in Brazil they would have talked about how old I was, how I’m not the skater I used to be. That’s the kind of stuff the media talks. That’s the story—they’re gonna go with that, even though they don’t really know me, they don’t know my passion, my will.”
Invigorated, Lasek rattled off the best competitive stretch of his life. The rest of 2013 brought three more X Games golds, with victories at the stops in Barcelona, Munich and Los Angeles. Four straight Vert golds, a new record, brought his lifetime medal count up to 16. He might have been sporting a mustache and goatee this time, but this was the Lasek of old.
“I just kinda go with what I know,” says Lasek of his halfpipe approach. “Switch it up as much as possible, try to bring something new to the table that maybe I’ve done in the past or that someone’s never seen me do. I try to always keep it fresh, otherwise it’s kind of rhythmic and not that exciting. I try to keep it positive and fun.”
At this year’s X Games in Austin, Texas, Lasek will take a crack at a fifth consecutive Vert title on Thursday. Now, the question isn’t Lasek’s age, but if his health will keep him from a repeat performance.
Two weeks ago, Lasek landed on his right elbow during a practice run, ripping open a deep, messy gash. The wound required seven stitches, which were removed Monday in preparation for the Games. In test skates, the injury limited his flexibility and strength—earlier this week he couldn't bend it at all. Couple that with a continuing recovery from a frustrating shoulder problem suffered at the beginning of the year, and a difficult weekend lies ahead.
“I’ve always said injury is my nemesis,” says Lasek, who has battled serious knee and ankle injuries across his 24-year pro career. “That’s the thing that’ll take you down, especially with age—you start getting hurt a lot, start not believing. You get tired of being hurt and battling back. Hopefully this is just a couple of back-to-back injuries. I’ve had them plenty of times before and have to get back up and keep pushing.”
Lasek knows there will likely be limitations on his skating, but his concerns encompass more than just setting records. On Saturday, Lasek will enter his third year in the RallyCross competition, still searching for a first medal.
Passionate about racing since his teenage years, Lasek got serious in 2006, after faring well in different types of cars and holding his own against experienced drivers. He continued his education at courses around the country, and eventually settled on rally cars, drawn to the aggressiveness of the sport and making the adjustment to four-wheel drive. He debuted at the X Games in 2012, finishing 13th.
The decision to pick up RallyCross forced Lasek to quit skating in the Park competition because of conflicts in X Games practice schedules. This year, participating in both RallyCross and Vert requires him to frequently travel nearly 14 miles between the skatepark in downtown Austin and the racetrack toward the outskirts of the city.
“If I medal in RallyCross, that alone would be probably one of the biggest highlights for me at this point,” says Lasek. “It’s been such a struggle developing these cars. I think my team and I will be at an all-time high when that moment happens. If it also happens in skate, with my injury right now I’d honestly be amazed by that as well.
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“It would be a big weekend to medal in both, but I’ll take one. As long as I have fun and I don’t get too injured, I’ll take that as a win as well.”
At 41, Lasek will again be the oldest competitor in the Vert field, edging out stalwart Andy Macdonald by less than a year. The rush keeps him coming back, the competition, the opportunity to keep pushing the envelope and the prospect of the podium. He’s given little thought to retirement. Injured or not, the approach he’s honed over the years remains the same.
“You’re active, it’s got so much adrenaline and the fear factor,” he says. “To [overcome] any fears you have, the adrenaline itself you have from that, how could you not go back to it?
“I know on the skating side I have nothing to prove, I have nothing to lose. I’m still gonna go for it.”