On a midsummer afternoon, Sean Malto is working the counter at Escapist Skateboarding. The skinny, baby-faced 21-year-old has made a sale, but he's having trouble completing it on the store's computer. This isn't his usual job. He's covering for the Southwest Boulevard shop's co-owner, Dan Askew.
An unflustered Malto apologizes to the customer, who doesn't seem to recognize him, even though Malto's smiling face is plastered on the store's windows. Escapist was Malto's first sponsor, and the relationship is still strong after nearly a decade.
Arguably Kansas City's fastest-rising sports star, Malto has spent this year competing for six-figure prizes against the world's top street skateboarders in Rob Dyrdek's Street League DC Pro Tour. Last year, he finished fourth overall in Street League, winning $177,000. This year, though, he's been snakebitten with injuries. A knee surgery in May kept him on the sidelines for the Seattle tour stop. He was back in action for a hometown crowd June 11-12 at the Sprint Center, finishing fourth.
After the customer leaves, Malto pulls out his iPhone to show how he injured himself in July. He was shooting a skate video in Denver, and a move that was supposed to launch him off a loading dock on his board sent him crashing onto concrete, back first. The raw footage shows his head bouncing off the pavement like a basketball.
Adrenaline, shock and fear propelled him off the slab, and he was on his feet in seconds. He says it's his worst injury of the past couple of years. Daily trips to a chiropractor had Malto feeling good enough to give Street League's Arizona tour stop a shot two weeks later. At that weekend's tournament, he crashed while warming up.
"Seriously, five minutes before the contest started, just one weird slam — not even that hard. But I think it was still weak down there. It just jammed everything," Malto says. "I couldn't really walk that well."
Malto was placed on a stretcher and taken to an emergency room. He understood that his season was almost certainly over.
On this shopbound afternoon back in Kansas City, reviewing the footage and talking about his crashed-out summer, he knows that there's only one way for him to skate in August 28's Street League Championships in New Jersey.
"I'm, like, a first alternate, so it's kind of cool," he says. "I hope nothing happens to anybody, but if it does, then I'm in."
Malto is planning to be in New Jersey to watch his friends skate. He's a fan first. "For me, contests are a bonus," he says. "They're super cool. Street League is an amazing event. But this video part that I'm trying to put out with Girl is going to do way more than winning contests."
Girl Skateboard Co. and Etnies — his board and shoe sponsors, respectively — are sending him overseas after the championships. First, 10 days in Europe to shoot a skate video for Etnies. He returns to Kansas City long enough to celebrate his 22nd birthday September 9. Then he's off again to Europe and China to get more tricks on the Girl video, alongside top skateboarders, including Guy Mariano.
"They're some of the greatest skateboarders ever," Malto says. "Being in a video with them is pretty intimidating. You want to try to do the best you can because you know that the video is going to be all amazing skating."
Malto reps Kansas City hard. He loves this place. His first shoe for Etnies was Royals-blue with the letters KC stitched on the back. He often appears in videos wearing a red No. 7 Matt Cassel Chiefs jersey. Malto and other members of the Escapist crew put their hometown love up front in a skate video that's set to Irv da Phenom's "Red and Yellow" and features the athletes skating at Arrowhead, the Liberty Memorial and other spots around the city. Malto's decks tweak iconic local-business logos (Gates' strutting aristocrat, the Boulevard sign), replacing the company names with Malto's.