Jean-Marc Johannes (29) is South Africa’s skateboarding maverick, currently with four ‘World Guinness Records’ under his belt – working on breaking another – and one of the strong contenders striving to be part of the Tokyo Olympics 2021, where skateboarding will be making its historic debut.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Image by: Lyle Minnaar
Before COVID-19 halted activities around the globe, Johannes was competing in the final season of the qualifiers in an effort to represent SA in the upcoming Olympics.
Now, with the Olympics postponed to 2021, he is working on breaking another world record. He tells Blacklight that even though he was looking forward to the games, he is not disheartened by the postponement.
“Although it would have been a highlight of the year, especially for the entire skateboarding community, we are still excited to finally be part of the Olympics,” he says.
“My goal has not changed: I am now looking forward to 2021. When they postponed the games, I immediately stepped up my training tenfold. I went back to the drawing board and pushed myself even further.”
The Athlone bred skater, a suburb located to the east of the city centre on the Cape Flats, in Cape Town, has been defying the odds most of his life. Growing up in a crime and gang-infested city, skating became his outlet.
Although he grew up a sports aficionado, a chronic asthma condition saw him unable to compete in any sports. He was in and out of the hospital for most of his childhood.
Picking up a skateboard at the age of ten would change the trajectory of his life. He would go on to make history, winning gold, silver and bronze medals in The Festival of International Extreme Sports (FISE) World Series in 2016 and 2017.
In 2018, he also broke the Guinness World Record with the most Nollie Heelflips in a minute. “The (previous) record was eight in a minute, and I broke it with 18 in just 46 seconds,” he shares with pride.
“The second record is for the most Fakie Heelflips in a minute. It was previously set by Rob Dyrdek (former United States (US) professional skateboarder and host of MTV’s show, Ridiculousness) with 11 in a Minute. I broke it with 12 in under a minute.
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.
“I am currently preparing to break another world record, which has not been broken in 11 years and previously set by a US skateboarder.”
Blacklight: Can you describe skateboarding as a professional sport for people who still don’t fully understand it?
Jean-Marc: Skateboarding was originally an extreme sport. I would say it’s a form of expression like music, or painting; it’s a platform for you to apply whatever idea you have in your mind. With a lot of sports there’s an extensive rule book (a right and wrong way of doing things or getting into the specific sport) with skateboarding there are no limits or boundaries. Skateboarding is often referred to as a culture, a form of art. As much as it’s very competitive, like any other sport, it’s a family, a community of individuals from all walks of life coming together under one umbrella.
BL: What does it mean to you?
JM: It’s everything to me; it’s my voice. I am generally a quiet person, Skateboarding gave me a voice, confidence, and resilience, and taught me a lot of life lessons – things that are applicable in all parts of life. The lessons I have learned through skateboarding have made me who I am. You see skateboarders falling very hard and they get back up and try (it) again. That is how life is.
BL: What is the significance of breaking these world records, for you?
JM: I grew up in Athlone, in the Cape Flats, and at the time there were no skate parks or skateboarders. It was not an ideal place for a skateboarder to have a career or even break into the international market. The only time I saw the Olympics or someone breaking the Guinness World Records was either on TV or through reading about it. I used to idolise those people, and so, for me, this was always a dream. Although I always had a deep passion for sports, I could not partake in any of them because of my (asthma) condition.
I was given medical advice not to part-take in it as it would aggravate my condition. I had accepted my fate until I discovered skateboarding. So this is something that keeps reminding me that I am capable of anything that I put my mind to, regardless of my background or other factors. I never thought as far as the Guinness World Records, but through training and determination that is where I found myself. Personally, it’s not just about breaking world records; it’s also about breaking barriers for myself.
BL: Growing up in the infamous Cape Flats, how were you able to flip that negative and turn it into a positive?
JM: Growing up in such an environment, being surrounded by negativity, makes you see life differently. Because you are in it, you get to see what happens to a person when they are involved in a negative (criminal) lifestyle. You have a reference, whether it’s friends or people you know. You see it all the time, every single day until you begin to think, ‘That could’ve been me.’ I was already struggling with my condition, therefore, I could not engage in any other negativity that surrounded me. I wanted to see what was on the other side of life – there had to be another side, I believed.
Skateboarding sort of became an escape from that reality. Every single day, without fail, I would come back from school and skate by myself until the streetlights came on. That was my life until I left South Africa to begin competing internationally. So, skateboarding, for me, was more than just a recreational activity.
BL: For the youth, in the Cape Flats, who feel hopeless and resort to negative outlets, where do you think that stems from?
JM: It’s a wide range of issues; it’s hard to pinpoint. Using myself as an example, you look at international successful skateboarders and you are not quite sure how to get there. You don’t have the tools to help you get there. You don’t know how to even get your foot in the door. You see this path, but you don’t know where to start in pursuing it. This is kind of applicable to everybody, where you see this long road that stretches in front of you, that keeps changing all the time. However, people need to know that no matter how long or different the route is, the idea is to keep walking, to keep going.
It’s not easy, but if you believe in your abilities and are willing to dedicate yourself 120 percent, you will keep going regardless of your environment or background. If you can envision that end goal, it does not matter if you start with a worn-out skateboard or a brand new board, you will keep going. If the end goal is important, you will risk everything to get to it.
BL: What made you believe that you could turn skating into a career?
JM: My first skateboarding contest was around the age of 11. I used to frequent skate parks to watch pro skateboarders with friends from school. One day, I came across a poster of the Pros vs. Amateurs Open Games. At the time I didn’t understand the world of competitive skateboarding, so I wanted to go and watch, but not to partake. I and my friends went. One of my friends put my name on the list, as a prank. I was shocked when they called out my name. But I don’t know what happened – I picked up the board and I completely zoned out. I skated and at the end, they told me that I had won the contest. I could not believe it because I was just simply replicating what I was doing when no one was watching. That win made me realise that there could be something special worth exploring with skateboarding.
BL: What’s the defining moment of your career?
JM: There have been quite a few moments. I was invited to The FISE World Series, in China, in 2016, and it was the first time they had a South African skateboarder in the contest. At the time, I had no sponsors, I just went there to represent myself and to put my name on the map. I skated for my life and I won the series, becoming the first South African to win gold in skateboarding, internationally.
I didn’t realise how impactful that achievement was until I started getting messages from other kids. That’s when I realised that someone who was discouraged in their life, in some way, looked to that as a sign to keep going. Because I did that, I inspired my nation. It also motivated me to believe that I can keep achieving more. Now, when I get the privilege to do what I do, I remember that I am that message of hope for so many young people.
BL: What do you usually tell young people who look up to you?
JM: Young people must understand that every single step you take in pursuing your dreams is a step closer. Everyone is currently struggling in some way or the other, but we owe it to ourselves to continue pushing. Failure is just a mindset. There may be times when you want to throw in the towel, and it’s in those moments that all you need is to just take one more step to achieve your goal. Sometimes it means thinking outside of the box and having to do things out of the ordinary to help visualise your end goal.
BL: What is the bigger vision?
JM: I would like to create platforms for local skateboarders, athletes and entrepreneurs that will take them to the next level. I had to run around in circles for most of my career trying to find ways to pursue my dreams. Now, I would love to create ways so that someone else does not have to waste time going around in circles, instead of getting to the business of pursuing their dreams.