After The Olympics And A Major Sponsor Change, Team Vans Skateboarder Zion Wright Is Calling His Own Shots

At the beginning of 2021, Zion Wright was skating for Nike

NKE
and was ranked 114th in the world in skateboarding mens’s park, which was set to debut in the summer Tokyo Olympics alongside street.

Now, as another competitive skateboarding season winds down, Wright, 22, is a Team Vans athlete and an Olympian. More importantly, he’s finally calling his own shots in his ascendant career, which, this year, put him on the map globally.

A multidimensional skater who can skate anything you’d throw at him—street, park or vert—Wright entered the final Olympic men’s park qualifier at Dew Tour in May as a long shot to make the U.S. team. There were 16 Americans ahead of him, with world No. 1 Heimana Reynolds all but locking up the one of three Olympic bids.

“Last chance for Zion Wright,” commentator Chris Coté said on the Dew Tour broadcast before Wright dropped in for the last time.

By the end of the competition, Wright had seized the win in a statement final run, throwing down a backside, double-grab 540—the only one of the contest. The crowd—including Wright’s Red Bull teammates and street skaters Jamie Foy and Alex Midler—erupted in delirious chaos as Wright took Dew Tour gold, soaring up the rankings to mathematically earn the third and final spot on the U.S. men’s team along with Reynolds and world No. 2 Cory Juneau. 

Almost unheard of heading into a major contest—not to mention an Olympic qualifier—Wright arrived in Des Moines, Iowa, for Dew Tour in May with no shoe sponsor. He announced his departure from Nike on March 3, leaving fans and the industry to wonder whose shoes would grace his feet in the final push to Tokyo.

But those in the know could have guessed Wright would be the next addition to the Vans Skate Team, which boasts such heavy hitters as legends Tony Hawk, Christian Hosoi and Steve Caballero and contemporary talent Lizzie Armanto, Pedro Barros and Tom Schaar. Wright had an established history with the brand, and eagle-eyed observers noticed he was sporting the familiar silhouette at Dew Tour.

Though Wright wasn’t a Vans athlete while he was competing in the brand’s Park Series Olympic qualifying events in the lead-up to the Tokyo Games, he made an impression on the team. Wright skated in 2019 Vans Park Series Australia comp and really put himself on the map when he won the 2018 event in Huntington Beach at the Vans US Open of Surfing. 

“For us, when we’re on the road, it doesn’t really matter what shoes you wear or if you’re on the program or not. It’s about supporting skateboarding,” said Bobby Gascon, Vans’ senior director of global marketing (action sports). “But he has always been such an amazing person to travel and work with, and as of late he contacted us and said he really appreciated what we’ve done for skateboarding and wanted to be part of it. So just us doing right by skateboarding was enough to sway him. The opportunity was organic.”

Wright was announced as a new addition to the Vans skate team right before the Olympics, but the negotiation and the conversation started “way before that,” Gascon said. “Regardless of the Olympics or not, he would still be on our program, and regardless of results, he’s just an amazing athlete and ambassador for the brand.”

Over the weekend, Wright competed in the first stop of the Street League Skateboardig (SLS) Championship Tour in Salt Lake City, looking for his first SLS podium. The park that hosted the competition was inaugurated Friday by Tony Hawk, in partnership with Vans, and the Utah Sports Commission, and situated right next to the bowl Vans donated in 2019 as the fifth of five park courses it built around the world for its Park Series. 

Wright was on hand for the ribbon-cutting ceremony to officially open the park and sat down afterward to discuss joining Vans, competing in the Olympics and what the next year looks like for him. Clad in a black Vans sweatshirt and his signature Nixon “Bandit” bag, the design of which features Sakura blossoms and silver catfish—nods to his 2021 Olympic debut and his home state of Florida—Wright carried himself with noticeably more ease than the frenetic, high-stakes weekend of Dew Tour.

“It feels incredible to be able to represent such an iconic company like Vans and to be a part of the whole team, so I’m very stoked and honored to be part of it,” Wright told me. Though he grew up going to an indoor Vans skatepark in Orlando, he never wore a pair until recently. (Another sign that a partnership was imminent at Dew Tour.) “Obviously, I’ve seen the homies in Vans. The shoe looks really sick and I’ve been really curious about it, but now to be in the shoe it’s really nice.”

Wright is still finding his niche and exploring the options Vans has to offer to see how they can augment his skating. He’s still getting used to skating in a cupsole shoe. In the future, he’d love to put out a signature colorway.

And as for his departure from Nike? “It’s their loss,” Wright said. “I’m still the same me, just in a different shoe.”

When the dust settled following the SLS men’s street prelims on Friday, Wright missed the cut to make the eight-skater final. Where some other skateboarders may have packed up and left that same day, Wright could be found next door to the street course in the afternoon Saturday before the men’s final, cruising around the bowl before returning to cheer on U.S. teammates Nyjah Huston and Midler in the medal event. 

In the three-year qualification period for the Tokyo Games (up from two given the postponement of the Games from 2020 to 2021), fellow U.S. street skater Jagger Eaton was the only person the world attempting to qualify for the Olympics in both disciplines offered, park and street.

But Wright could technically do it too, if he wanted, ahead of the Paris 2024 Games. As Eaton discovered, it’s a logistically heavy undertaking involving working closely with USA Skateboarding, the national governing body (NGB) for skateboarding in the U.S., as well as World Skate, the sport’s international federation. Not to mention the toll it takes physically and psychologically.

“It’s been a talk,” Wright said. “I don’t know; it’s a lot of work on the body, a lot of mental work. We’ll just have to see.” Either way, competing in Paris in three years following his experience in Tokyo, where he missed the cut for the men’s park final, would “be sick,” Wright said. He liked the Olympic course, which was very fast.

“I didn’t get to skate how I wanted to skate and be able to find lines that I wanted to find, but I had fun,” Wright said of his Olympic experience. Fellow American Juneau took bronze in the park event; Eaton took bronze in street.

Mainly, after having to invest so much of his focus and training on park ahead of the Games, Wright is looking forward to being able to skate a little of everything and get back to basics. Competition skating is only a small part of street; filming video parts is the backbone of the discipline.

“I’m just focusing on Zion, to be honest,” Wright said. “I’m getting back in the groove, not setting out goals or expectations. I’m just going to go with the flow.”

The Jupiter, Florida, native has yet to return home following Tokyo, thanks to an intensive training schedule in Encinitas. But he’s felt the support from home on social media, and the town of Jupiter gave him a letter of recognition after he competed in the Summer Games.

Wright knows that when he returns, it will be with a new responsibility—and honor—to bear, of representing what’s possible for the next generation who may want to pursue skateboarding professionally or even attempt to qualify for the Olympics one day. 

In that sense, Wright told me, his new sponsor couldn’t be a better fit. For Wright, who got his first skateboard at four years old and turned pro at 17, giving back to the next generation of skaters is paramount.

“It means everything to me as far as my upbringing in skating and the community I was around. Skating was my getaway, you know?” Wright said. “Skating was where I went to get away from all the chaos, all the ruckus, and zone out. Vans being able to give that opportunity back to kids is a beautiful thing. That’s a sick opportunity to be a part of that and have them do what they do and give back, because that’s what it’s all about, you know?”

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