San Diego skateboard scene produces two Olympic medalists including Australian champ Keegan Palmer
San Diego-born Palmer moved back from Australia at 14; Cory Juneau captures bronze
That kid with the baby face and curly brown hair you might have seen pulling off insane tricks at the skatepark in Encinitas known as Poods … or maybe the skatepark in Linda Vista … or the one in Solana Beach … or at the CA Training Facility in Vista … or on a backyard vert ramp in Jamul … or slashing down the railing in front of Fred Baker Elementary School in San Diego … or doing kickflips in random cement alleys and graffiti-sprayed drainage ditches across the county?
Yeah, he’s an Olympic gold medalist.
His name is Keegan Palmer, he’s 18, he was born in San Diego, he lives in Encinitas, he represents Australia, and he won the Olympic debut of park skateboarding.
The guy with the bronze medal, 22-year-old Cory Juneau, has spent his entire life in San Diego and is one of Palmer’s closest friends. The guy in sixth place from Puerto Rico also trains there. The Brazilians who finished second, fourth and eighth were training last month in North County. The reigning world champion who finished 13th lives in Carlsbad.
“Today was like another day at the skateparks where we skate,” Palmer said of the 20-man Olympic final at Ariake Urban Sports Park. “Everyone was there. What you just watched is like any session we have back in San Diego.”
It’s why Palmer and his family returned to Encinitas after 13 years in Currumbin on Australia’s Gold Coast. Not because his American father is from San Diego and attended UC San Diego, not for a job, not because the waves are better, but because of the skateparks, because of the weather, because of the sport’s unique vibe in Tony Hawk’s hometown.
“It’s used to be the facilities, but the facilities have grown in all countries,” said Alex Donnini, Palmer’s Australian coach. “It’s more the culture. It’s like the mecca. You just go there and you grow up understanding what skateboarding is.”
Palmer’s father is American and his mother South African. He chose to represent Australia — he apologized for his lack of accent and “every Australian out there who hears it” — because that’s where he lived the longest, from ages 1 to 14, and where he honed his passion for the sport. But the polish on a suddenly golden career came after he left.
“If you know San Diego, you know that’s where skateboarding is,” he said. “It kind of shot off my career by doing that. … It was pretty easy for my dad, because he went to school there and he loves to surf. It was a little harder for my mom because she loves Australia — who doesn’t?
“But it’s working out now. We have a gold medal. It paid off. … I’m beyond stoked.”
He got an assist from the pandemic, which did two things. It delayed the Tokyo Olympics for a year and allowed Palmer to grow. And not just physically, admitting “to be really honest” he didn’t think he was mature enough to win in 2020.
The lockdowns also allowed him to take his training private in the otherwise communal world of skateboarding.
“We were really stealthy,” Donnini said.
Palmer returned to Australia last January for two months of secretive training at skateparks in New South Wales and Victoria, although it turned out to be less than that. Visitors are required to quarantine for 10 days upon arrival, and on his 10th day he tested positive for COVID-19 and had to do another 14.
“It was not cool,” Palmer said. “I was pretty pissed. But I had to do it. We had to put a lot of the training stuff we planned for Australia on hold. But it worked out in the end.”
The idea was to adapt a trick performed on big vert ramps and apply it to the wall of a skatepark. It’s called a kickflip varial 540, requiring an inverted spin of 1½ revolutions while the board is spinning beneath you.
They worked on it in Australia, but he didn’t land it in a concrete bowl until he returned to the States. Then they disappeared again, touring skateparks in Utah and Colorado before 11 days of heat acclimatization training in Houston.
People might have seen it in May at the Dew Tour event in Des Moines, Iowa, that doubled as an Olympic qualifier, but Donnini contracted COVID-19 and ultimately the entire Australian team was quarantined in a hotel instead of competing.
“My last round of tricks that I did, no one has seen it until this day,” Palmer said. “That was kind of the plan for this year, to have a solid plan and make sure no one knows what’s happening. I came out swinging. I put a lot of hard work into it, and it paid off. Glad (the judges) liked it.”
They rewarded him with a score of 95.83, nearly 10 points more than Brazil’s Pedro Barros in second. Palmer hopped up on the deck after his run, flipped up his board and then slammed it down — the sport’s version of a mic drop.
Juneau took a different path to the podium, barely qualifying for the eight-man final and then upping the difficulty in his runs because, well, what did he have to lose?
“All the stress and butterflies were gone after I made it in there (to the final), so I just put everything I had on the table,” said Juneau, whose 83.14 edged Brazil’s Luiz Francisco by less than a point for the bronze. “It all came together how I imagined.”
He had known Palmer from international competitions, and they became even closer after his return to San Diego in 2017. When he walked past Palmer in the interview area, he playfully kissed the back of his head.
“He’s like a little brother to me,” Juneau said. “We’ve been skating together since we were little kids. He came to California from Australia, and we had a bond. He’s kind of really stepped into his own, and I’m so proud to see him up there, figuring out what he wants to do and push himself. This is the best I’ve ever seen him skate. He deserved it.”
Palmer also knows the 26-year-old Barros well. When he visited Brazil to train at age 10, he and his father stayed at Barros’ house.
“His ability on top of a skateboard, I never had a doubt about it,” Barros said. “He’s got it all. What he did today is beautiful because he just put skateboarding at a new level. Honestly, he’s already a legend. He’s still young but he’s lived a lot.
“It’s not the strict practice, it’s not his preparation exactly for this Olympics that made him win gold today. It’s the experience he had in life. It’s the people he had in his life. It’s the family he has. It’s the skateboarding community he has by his side, and the way he respects it and lives it.”
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