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.
Though he likes California, Malto hasn't fled his hometown. His base remains the six-figure, two-bedroom loft he shares with friend Joseph Lopez.
"I can do everything I need to do here, so I do it," Malto says. "I live in the River Market. I have a skate park that is absolutely perfect — everything that I'd want to skate — a mile and a half away from me. The skate shop is right here. All my friends. It's actually good to skate here, too — lots of good spots around the city. This feels like home."
Malto was born in Havre de Grace, Maryland, into a military family. His father, Ben Malto, of Filipino descent, bounced among Army posts before settling in Fort Leavenworth when Malto was 8. It was a homecoming for Sean's mom, Lynn, who grew up in Leavenworth.
Malto is the youngest of four boys (Travis, 28; Justin, 27; Chris, 24). He often tagged along with Justin and Chris to skate parks, taking up skateboarding when he was 10.
"Justin took him under his wing," Lynn Malto says. "He was exposed to a lot of great skateboarders." She remembers the day when her sons returned home and bragged that Sean had landed a big jump. Lynn explained to Sean that there was no jumping off garage roofs.
"The three of them have no fear," she says of her skateboarding sons. "I think that's what makes Sean a really good skateboarder."
Escapist's Askew had seen Malto skating at Pleasant Valley Skatepark and was impressed with his progress and his ability. He knew Malto was special, and he wanted him on the Escapist team. "He's got something that other kids don't," Askew told Malto's parents. Malto was riding for another team, but he soon cut ties with it to sign with Escapist.
Malto was just 13 when Escapist started sending videos of his stunts to potential sponsors. DC Shoes called first. Girl Skateboard followed.
"It's almost like a tryout," Malto says. "You just kind of show them what you're doing."
Malto wasn't going on trips yet. He also wasn't getting paid. But the companies were giving him everything a teenager could want: shoes, skateboards, clothes.
There were bumps. At 14, Malto knocked out his front teeth while skating a dry pool at Gillham Park. The day was misty, and his no-fear attitude led him to try a jump.
"I just wasn't thinking," he says. "I tried to get my hands up, but I wasn't quick enough."
The crash was only two months after his braces had come off. Repairing the damage meant a root canal.
"My parents were so bummed on me," he says.
After eight videos, DC Shoes finally sent a 15-year-old Malto on his first trip, and others rapidly followed. Soon skateboarding interfered with school, and school interfered with skating. Two weeks into the fall semester, Malto embarked on a two-week DC Shoes trip. Some classmates thought he'd moved away.
With more trips on the horizon, Malto, his parents and even the school's principal and counselors agreed that the dream was worth chasing. Lynn Malto says her son was a straight-A student before he left school his sophomore year, and she says she and her son made a deal that he'd finish school if he started touring. But neither of them realized how much pressure skating would exert on Malto, how much time it would take. Today, he's on the road six to eight months a year.
"We miss him," Lynn Malto says. "He's gone a lot. But Sean's always been independent and had a good head on his shoulders."
At Escapist one day this August, Askew and Malto joke about the press coverage he received during Street League's Kansas City stop. Askew does his best TV voice: "High school dropout from Leavenworth, Sean Malto."
"That was rude," Malto says.
Askew goes on: "They were like, 'His daily routine is waking up and calling some of his homies and seeing where they want to skate. But he's not a bum. He's getting paid.' So all of his friends who aren't getting paid are bums."
"It'd be nice to have a diploma," Malto admits. "It's still on the list but pretty far back. It's one of those things: Am I going to be worried about it? Should I worry about it? Because I'm not."
Malto doesn't have to worry about it. He no longer needs to send videos to sponsors, hoping he'll catch their eye. Four Star covers his clothing. Etnies takes care of his footwear. (He's on his third shoe.) He rides Girl skateboards with Spitfire wheels and Thunder trucks. Gatorade is his drink of choice, and there's always plenty. And, of course, he gets love from Escapist.
"I'm comfortable," Malto says.
Two years ago, he bought a house in Leavenworth, a split-level to share with his mother. (His parents divorced when he was 16.) But he was sleeping on Joseph Lopez's floor five days a week, so it was time to buy his own place in KC.
Malto's loft is a throwback to the glory days of MTV's Cribs. The bar and the tables and the rest of the furniture are showroom-new and indicate the decorating guidance he had from the wife of his friend and pro skateboarder Mikey Taylor. Skate videos loop constantly on the giant flatscreen — except when he's playing Call of Duty. Skateboard decks hang on a wall, not far from a life-size poster of Chiefs safety Eric Berry that's visible from the outside at night if he leaves the lights on. A signed Berry jersey hangs on a wall near his kitchen. The inscription reads: "Best of luck. I hope you join the team."
Not the Chiefs. Adidas.
"It's kind of a shame that it didn't work out," Malto says. "But I did get a signed jersey out of it."
A photo on his refrigerator, taken when he received the Arizona Street League's 24/7 Award given by his fellow skaters, shows Malto smiling and holding stacks of money.
"I love where I'm at now, and I want to keep it here for as long as I can," Malto says. "So I'm going to go skate and do everything I need to do to keep this going for as long as possible."
Lil Wayne wanted to skate. His people called Malto a few nights before the rapper's August 22 Sprint Center show. He wanted to schedule a session at the California Skateparks-designed East Bottoms indoor skate park that Malto owns with Askew and a few buddies. (Twenty-eight people pay $100 a month to skate there.) Weezy had taken up skateboarding on his latest tour — and been spotted with the resulting bandage on his head.
The skate session was set for 3 a.m., and Malto was told that he could invite four friends. Four tour buses rolled up the gravel drive leading to the skate park. A big bodyguard climbed down from one of them and scoped out the place in silence. Bars cover the windows of the converted warehouse, and rusty barbed wire lines the outside of the garage doors, overlooking train tracks.
Lil Wayne's people told Malto that he'd brought too many people. His friends would have to wait in the lobby while Lil Wayne got a feel for the room.
"It was super, super awkward for the first hour," Malto says. "I guess Lil Wayne's self-conscious about it. So there's three people in the whole park, skating around. He's kind of wobbly, rolling around, looking at things for 45 minutes, and no one's saying a word."
Lil Wayne found his legs, and the others were allowed in.
"It was pretty awesome for an hour and a half," Malto says. "It's funny getting cheers from Lil Wayne or cheering Lil Wayne on. It's funny watching someone skate with that much diamonds in his mouth. His diamonds were insane."
Lil Wayne cameos in an upcoming Malto video. As Malto flies down a rail, the camera cuts to Weezy. "My man!" he shouts.
"When am I ever going to have to deal with something like that again?" Malto says. "I didn't think I was going to have to deal with it before. It was cool."
It's another hot August afternoon as Malto tells the story. Malto and Lopez are skating. They pop off the concrete and grind against rails and ledges. Sweat soaks Malto's red-and-yellow Escapist T-shirt, but he makes every gravity-bending move look effortless.
The August 28 championship is days away. He's still an alternate and says he's looking forward to seeing his friends skate, but his voice gives away his disappointment.
After their practice, Malto and Lopez hit Grand Slam Liquors at Sixth Street and Grand. Malto grabs a bottle of Gatorade from the cooler, and his iPhone rings. He takes the call.
"Fuck, yeah!" he screams.
Tommy Sandoval has rolled his ankle and is out of the Street League Championships. Malto is in.
"It sucks that he's out because I'm friends with him," Malto says. "But at the same time, I want to skate. And you get paid to show up."
For one day of skating, he'll collect $10,000. The championship winner will pick up the biggest purse ever awarded in a skateboarding competition: $200,000.
"I'm so hyped," he says. "I wanted it so bad. I wanted to support my friends. I love my friends. But I also want to skate with my friends. Everybody wants to do what they love to do."
Nyjah Huston has owned the 2011 Street League tour. The 16-year-old with long, ropelike dreadlocks has won all three tour stops — and $150,000 in prize money for each. He's the defending champion — he won the 2010 tour and raked in $800,000 in total contest earnings.
If beating the champ requires a killer instinct, Malto may not be the one to do it.
"I'm really happy for him," Malto says of Huston. "Everyone's happy for him. He's definitely really good at skating those contests. He's consistent, and the contest is based off of consistency, so it's been really good for him."
Hurricane Irene, bearing down on the Northeast, has nearly forced organizers to cancel the event, at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. Instead, they rush to move it up a day. The hurricane hasn't kept fans away, though. Malto's mother and girlfriend are in the stands the afternoon of Saturday, August 27. So is Askew.
The Street League course features giant concrete ledges, long metal hand rails and, of course, a giant set of stairs. It's a three-round competition with two eliminations in each of the first two rounds. The final six battle it out in a best-of-seven-tricks final round.
Malto survives to the last round, leading the pack with 36.9 points. He's wearing Chiefs colors: a red T-shirt with "Escapist" and "KC" in yellow letters. His six consecutive tricks have made him the day's most consistent skateboarder, but it's tight. Scruffy-looking Californian Chris Cole, whose bandaged hand might be broken, is right behind Malto, with 35.9 points. And Huston is still dangerous with 27.8 points. Each is seven tricks from being champion.
Cole and Huston keep chasing big tricks and bigger rewards down the stretch. Malto sticks with moves calculated to rack up points on the scoreboard.
Cole grabs a 9.2 and a 7.4 by spinning and grinding down the rails and ledges, raising the pressure on Malto. He steps up with a nollie nose grind down a ledge: 7.6.
Huston also takes risks, popping off the stairs and spinning toward the long yellow rail, landing his board on it. With amazing balance, he grinds down to score an 8.5 and stay alive.
Malto, calm and focused, hits another nollie nose grind down the ledge for 8 points and a hold on the lead.
Huston thumbs his nose at gravity again, flipping his board and landing it on the rail, then sliding down and rolling off for 9.4 points. Now he's in second place.
Cole's risks backfire, and he has to bail, but Malto stays steady. An overcrook grind down the center rail is good for 7.3 points, pushing his total to 72.1.
Huston answers with more highlight-reel moves, flipping and landing on his board off the big bank of stairs for 8.2 points.
Cole, back from the dead, hits a huge 360-flip 50-50 for a 9.6, the day's best move. With one trick left to go, he's in second place again with 71 points.
Malto, unfazed, nails a frontside crook and locks it in so perfectly, before flipping out at the end for a 7.7.
"It is Sean Malto's event to lose," an announcer says.
Huston hits another big 270, flipping the board and sliding down the middle rail. The 9.0 isn't enough.
The championship is now down to Malto and Cole, and Malto hugs and high-fives the man standing between him and $200,000. He cheers for Cole as his competitor takes off for his final trick — one that he fails to make. Malto wins.
To get to this moment, which he greets with a look of disbelief, Malto has strung together 13 consecutive tricks without bailing. Rob Dyrdek, the skateboard champion behind the Street League tour, asks Malto in an interview afterward if he was nervous.
"Yeah, the whole contest," Malto says. He turns humble again. "Cole kept going, and I just wanted to nip at his heels, and it somehow worked out, even though these guys are the best."
Today, he's the best, with the $200,000 oversized novelty check (handed over by three Monster Energy Drink cheerleaders), the Nixon watch ("Iced out!" Dyrdek says), the championship ring and the trophy to prove it.
The victory party doesn't last long. On Monday, Malto boards a plane for Europe to do that shoot for Etnies. More travel and then more travel after that. He'll try to keep it going as long as he can. Whatever happens, however long it lasts, Malto will come home to Kansas City.