As a chronic asthmatic, Jean-marc Johannes’ condition prevented him from joining his peers in playing popular school sports like football, rugby, athletics and cricket. His breathing problems simply didn’t allow him to compete on an equal footing.
Johannes was fortunate, though, to have an understanding physical education teacher at Windsor High School in the Cape Town suburb of Lansdowne. Instead of shunning his learner, Peter Merkel, whose name still evokes a glint in Johannes’ eye when it’s mentioned, encouraged the ambitious youngster to practise on his skateboard on the school’s tennis court while his mates were honing their sporting skills.
“I felt excluded, but Mr Merkel understood and he told me to enjoy my skateboarding instead,” says Johannes, who has since become a top performer on the international circuit just three years after turning professional.
“Last year, they actually renamed the tennis court in my honour. They have also built quite a few ramps and have encouraged skateboarding at the school,” says the 28-year-old, who is on the cusp of qualifying for the Tokyo Olympic Games.
“It’s a motivation for other kids who struggled with mainstream sports to take up other disciplines like skateboarding. I donated a copy of one of my Guinness World Record certificates to the school to serve as a motivation for the learners.”
Skateboarding will debut at this year’s Olympic Games (along with surfing, karate, sport climbing and baseball/softball) and Johannes has set his sights firmly on realising his lifelong dream of representing South Africa at the world’s biggest sporting event.
From being hounded off the streets by overzealous law enforcement officials just a few years ago, skateboarding has taken off in South Africa. It is now very much recognised as not only one of the hippest sports in the country but also as a way to divert young kids away from the all-pervasive gangs and drugs that characterise much of life in and around Cape Town.
Johannes’ success on the international circuit has made him a role model for those from humble backgrounds who aspire to bigger and better things.
Raising skating’s SA profile
In addition to the socio-developmental role that skateboarding is playing in areas crying out for positive role models, the rise of Johannes as a winner of gold, silver and bronze medals in the Festival of International Extreme Sports (FISE) World Series in 2016 and 2017 serves as motivation for many aspiring young skaters in the country.
More than anything else, it highlights the endless possibilities that now exist in what was previously seen as just a cool pastime.
Being a role model suits Johannes down to the ground. “Athlone, where I learnt to skate, is an area that has lots of gang activity and is crime-ridden. So it’s not considered to be a place for skateboarders to make it to a global platform, let alone win an international contest.
“That thought made me push even harder. Everyone told me it was impossible and that it won’t happen because of where I grew up. I hope my persistence and dedication will be an example to others not to let their circumstances limit their ambitions.”
With the Tokyo Olympics just over four months away, Johannes has been hard at work to ensure he walks alongside South Africa’s best athletes at the opening ceremony on 24 July. If he does, it’s bound to boost an already burgeoning sport even further.
In addition to his array of medals and accolades, the street skater is the proud owner of two Guinness World Records, both of which were rewritten after a decade’s shelf-life.
Two years ago, he set a new record for nollie heelflips and in August last year he claimed the record for fakie heelflips set in 2007 by American skateboarding legend and the host of MTV comedy show Ridiculousness, Rob Dyrdek.
A nollie heelflip requires the board to be flipped 360° in the air with the front foot while a fakie heelflip replicates the flip with the back foot.
Problems with securing sponsorship prevented Johannes from participating in last year’s Olympic qualifying events, which had a negative impact on his ranking. But he managed to compete in the last three of the first season’s 11 events, picking up enough points to secure an invitation to the second and final season of qualifying, which started in November.
“I needed two good scores to get into season two, and thankfully I did that in Brazil and Los Angeles. I will be going to all the season’s events, starting in Las Vegas and Peru in March, to ensure I book my place at the Olympics.”
Fight for a ticket to Tokyo
With Africa expected to have three places in the field of 20 male skateboarders in the street and park sections, Johannes, currently ranked 70, is vying with compatriot Brandon Valjalo at 50, Benin’s Georges Agonkouin at 69 and Morocco’s Nassim Lachhab, who was ranked 121 at the end of November’s competitions.
The qualifying season ends on 31 May, with the final list of qualifiers scheduled to be published on 6 July.
The thrill of mastering potentially bone-breaking and gravity-defying new tricks is literally what drives Johannes to new heights. He’s already ramped on to a 2m-high bridge over Cape Town’s Liesbeek River, before crossing a 1.5m-wide structure and launching himself on to a ramp on the other side.
And he had fans scratching their heads when he soared 10m into the air between two suspended containers that were 3m apart.
“Skateboarding is probably as tough as any other professional sport in the world. It can’t be mastered and when there’s a sport that allows you freedom of creativity, there’s no limit to the level of difficulty and the skills required,” he says.
Like in all other sports, physical preparation has played no small part in Johannes’ elevation to the next level of his craft.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to your skills as a skateboarder. But when you compete for two to three days, jumping down stairs and rails, it takes its toll on your body. You need to be able to physically keep up with that rather than simply relying on skill alone.”
To cope with the physical demands of his trade, Johannes works out at the Cape Town-based Sports Science Institute of South Africa (Ssisa) under the watchful eye of Ayden Smith, a biokineticist who specialises in sport-specific conditioning.
“It helps a great deal that Ayden has worked in skateboarding before. Because of his knowledge of the sport, he knows where your strength actually lies.
“I do a lot of explosive power training. Core strength exercises constitute probably more than half of my programme and then I also do lots of cardio work. I’ve never felt this strength on my board before starting at Ssisa a few years ago,” says Johannes.
“Because of my higher level of fitness, I’ve been able to skate for longer, which has helped me to push the envelope.”
Johannes has already achieved much during his brief career as a professional skateboarder but qualifying for the Olympics will, for him, surpass all his previous glories. It should make all the bumps, bruises and broken bones he’s suffered along the way seem like badges of honour.