From Child Prodigy To Addict To Recovery Coach, Skateboarder Brandon Turner Has Never Been More Dialed In
Healthy lifestyles, the best trainers money can buy and advancements in health and tech have allowed athletes across sports to compete well into their thirties and forties. But the trend, well established in the major leagues, doesn’t always carry through to action sports, which toe the line between their reckless, drug-and-alcohol-addled origins and their nutrition-and-gym-fueled present.
That 39-year-old pro skater Brandon Turner—a former child prodigy who struggled with substance abuse for years, infamously jumped off a bridge, got hit by a car and spent time in jail—would own the trick that caused the skateboarding world to lose its collective mind in 2020 is more than improbable.
But when you learn more about Turner’s story, you realize that improbable has never been a part of his vocabulary.
As a young military brat, Turner moved to Japan in the early ’90s because his father was stationed at Yokosuka navy base. The nephew of former Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Calvin Sweeney, growing up, Turner’s family expected him to play football. But he had started tooling around on a skateboard before moving to Japan at six years old, and it was there he really became immersed in skate culture.
Turner’s skateboard had gotten stolen on the way to Japan, and he had neither the money nor the access to replace it when he arrived. (This was, remember, before the internet.)
He played sports on the base, but his heart was in skating; when he finally got a new board, the Japanese skate community “welcomed me with open arms,” he says. He fell in with Tomonari Hongo, who took him under his wing and taught him his first kickflip, and had an early sponsorship from the WILD BOY'z skateshop.
It was a culture shock, then, to return to the United States at 13 and face scrutiny both inside and outside his family for being a Black teenage skateboarder. His Black peers called him “white-washed”; the girls he liked would ask him: “Why do you skate? Why don’t you play football?”
“Just pedestrians looking at you weird, looking at how I’m dressed, holding my board going into the store, I was just profiled,” Turner says. “People now are aware of it and maybe didn’t know it existed, and it existed a lot back then. And I’ve definitely felt that my whole life, and I kind of felt like there’s been a gap, people kind of forgot about it, but in more recent times with everything going on in the world, it’s always been in the back of my head. It affects you.”
Turner remembers a time in eighth grade when he was skating at a school with his friends and the police came. “They told us all to sit down and they were gonna give us all tickets and stuff and they were like, ‘Everybody else can go but you,’ and it was all my white friends,” Turner says. “They questioned me, had me call my parents, gave me a ticket, had them come pick me up. That happened multiple times.”
Turner also had to adjust to the significant differences in skate culture between Japan and the U.S. “In Japan, the way things are done is really quiet and precise and with honor, so it was interesting how everybody was so outgoing and expressed themselves and how the skateboarding culture is so creative here,” Turner says.
Skating around Pacific Drive at the beach in San Diego, Turner—or “Li’l B,” as he was known back then—emulated skaters like Chad Muska, Tom Penny, Kanten Russell and Peter Smolik. It wasn’t long before, at 13, Smolik and Russell brought Turner onto the Voice Skateboarders team and he got his first introduction to the big life—traveling, making products, filming and editing videos—and the lifestyle of partying that accompanies it.
“It was a real crazy experience for me. I had some really good mentors and it was straight to business,” Turner says.
By the time Turner was 15, Muska, who lived down the street in Pacific Beach, was the biggest skateboarder in the world. “I would just admire him from afar,” Turner recalls.
Muska knew Turner from a trick he had done at a famous spot in San Diego. Tony Buyalos had in 1992 started up the now-iconic Shorty’s Skateboards, and in 1997 Muska had just joined the fledgling team. The move shook up the skate industry—not least because Muska had just filmed a huge video part for Toy Machine, one of the biggest skateboarding companies at the time, but left when his part was omitted from the release.
With the new Shorty’s Skateboards team getting off the ground, Buyalos needed riders.
“I got a call one day, and [Muska] was like, ‘I’m doing this company and I want you to ride for us,’” Turner recalls. “And even though my loyalty was to Russell and Smolik, I saw it as, ‘This is my time to move up and this is someone I’ve been looking up to,’ and I made the decision to get onto Shorty’s.”
That, Turner says, is when everything changed.
“I started getting paid more, and the whole dynamic just changed, and everything went up in scale,” Turner says.
This was skateboarding’s heyday. In video parts, skaters were paid big money for even bigger tricks, traveling to film parts and connect with one another. Skate shoes were exploding, taking a page from the Jordan Brand playbook; in 1993, Muska’s signature éS Muska became the first $100 skate shoe, selling out almost immediately.
“Skateboarding was booming, the economy was good, and people were willing to spend the money,” the shoe’s designer, Franck Boistel, told Quartersnacks in 2019.
It was, Turner says, a “lavish” time.
“As a 15-year-old, drinking is just a part of a skateboarder’s lifestyle,” he adds. “You have a good day, you’re out drinking. You have a bad day, you’re out drinking. Traveling with friends, having a good time. We did video projects on a bigger scale, and then we started getting awards, we started traveling more, I started getting older, women started coming in the picture, more drinking, more partying.
“Just like how you see everyone online acting however they want someone to perceive them, that’s the lifestyle we actually lived.”
Ironically, this period of skateboarding excess coincided with the maligned national education program D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), as part of the War on Drugs, which sought to prevent use of controlled drugs and alcohol and membership in gangs. Multiple studies have questioned D.A.R.E.’s effectiveness. “It was like a joke to us,” Turner says. “We definitely mocked it, like, ‘Get up out of here.’ We wanted to do the complete opposite.”
Soon, Turner says, “I started getting in a little trouble here and there.”
Running from the cops. Jumping off a bridge. Getting hit by a car. Breaking his leg. Being put on life support.
This part of Turner’s story is well-known. It’s the part that almost ended his skateboarding career forever.
“I always was skating but I was one foot in, one foot out on the streets,” Turner says. “Always in county jail and finally ended up in prison for multiple chargers over the years, and that was an awakening. Not knowing what I was gonna do, coming out of there and continuing skating, I made a decision to change my life. And that’s when I realized I maybe had a problem with substance abuse.”
Turner was given his first beer by an uncle when he was five. “I’d got myself to a point where I’d done it so long it became part of my neurological self,” Turner says. “I just looked at it as anything bad in my life that happened, alcohol was involved or some drugs, and that’s the story in a general way.”
Anything Turner does, he says, he does to the fullest, and that was the case with alcohol. Maybe sometimes he could have just one or two drinks, but often, he was blacking out, waking up with no memory of what he had done or how he had gotten where he was.
So when he made the decision to get sober, Turner would go all the way on that too.
“Blacking out can be a scary feeling, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to feel like that no more. I don’t want to put people I care about through that,’” Turner says. “It was an easy decision for me. Anything bad that ever happened to me, alcohol was involved, so for me it was like this needs to go—for me personally. I’m not judging anyone, but it’s about helping other people who are struggling through my experience.”
In the interest of helping other people recover from addiction, Turner is tapping into what skateboarding has taught him as a recovery coach at the Healthy Life Recovery rehab center in Pacific Beach.
Sometimes, he takes a literal approach, starting a skate program in July 2020 that sees him bring people in recovery down to the skate park to teach them skateboarding skills. Other times, he draws on his own life experience of how addiction almost brought his entire career crashing down around him to inspire.
Turner and his friends may have spurned D.A.R.E.’s hands-off, judgmental approach in the ’90s. But in his work with Healthy Life Recovery, Turner is so successful because he is able to reveal deeper parts of himself to his clients, connecting with them on a deeper level and earning their trust.
Turner’s unique skillset is certainly needed right now. In the last year, drug overdose deaths, which had fallen for the first time in 25 years in 2018, began to climb again in 2019 and rose 13 percent in 2020, to a new record, according to data from the New York Times. The pandemic will almost certainly lead to a further spike.
For a country in crisis, Turner and Healthy Life Recovery have been a port in the storm for their clients.
“It’s just amazing seeing people take their life back and progress and have success and their passions and their dreams.... Coming from the streets, having nothing, homeless and strung-out on drugs, to having full jobs and families and houses,” Turner says about his work. “It’s incredible to see and really fulfilling and makes me really happy. That’s what it’s all about.
Not only does Turner help people in recovery get clean, but he helps them learn to have healthy relationships and facilitates them finding a career. Turner knows it can be difficult for his clients to make the changes necessary in their lives to move into recovery, because he went through it too.
“I’ve had to learn through experience that maybe my old ways and some of my old friends and some of the things they’re doing didn’t align with what I was doing,” Turner says. “I had to change some of my associations. It doesn’t make sense for me to be hanging out with drug dealers when I’m trying to help people and do the right thing in life.”
But his work as a recovery coach isn’t Turner’s only professional focus these days. A self-termed creative, Turner does business development for his own brand, Gift, an online clothing company he started with partner Sammy Baptista.
“It’s doing really well, and it feels good,” Turner says. “We’ve been a part of so many companies for so many years helping them grow and it’s finally our time.” Toward the end of its run, Turner was a designer for Shorty’s. He loved seeing some of the old shirt designs in the Jonah Hill-directed film Mid90s from 2018, which captures the spirit of that era of skateboarding in a raw way.
Turner is also, incredibly, at the top of his game as a pro, doing some of the best skating of his career with Sk8mafia. He’s in the best physical shape of his life, which he attributes to discovering Pilates. It changed his body, and thus, his skating, so much that he got certified as an instructor so he could help other people recover from injuries and extend their careers.
“I feel activated on a level that I’ve never been activated before,” Turner says, whether that’s his breathing, his flexibility, his focus, his balance. “My whole body’s integrated in a whole different way, my core muscles, there’s all different types of core muscles and they’re all activated. Movement is medicine and that’s what Pilates and yoga does, it’s breathing and oxygenating your blood so your circulation doesn’t get stagnant.”
Turner admits that at 15, he and his buddies would have cast a sidelong glance at the way skate culture has changed today, with kids signing on with major sponsors as preteens, training for the Olympics, working out in the gym and tracking their nutrition to supplement their skating.
“My ’90s self wouldn’t have went for it at all,” Turner says. “I was a core street skater. The world has changed. We were kind of bullies; you know, if you weren’t living a certain way or if you did certain behaviors, you’d get made fun of. It’s different now.”
To wit, physical fitness was always important to Turner, but no one knew in his crew knew about it.
“I used to watch Billy Blanks Tae Bo and be doing that in front of the TV, but I wouldn’t tell any of my friends,” Turner says. “I was always into martial arts, but back then if you were that guy who was working out there was a fine line between where it was accepted and where it wasn’t. But I’ve always worked out. I had all the seasons of Billy Blanks Tae Bo, working out by myself, in my thermal pants, so that’s what I was doing,” he laughs.
Turner’s 15-year-old self would also probably be shocked to see how he interacts with police these days. Namely—he doesn’t have to run anymore.
“Back in the day I was on probation a lot, so when the cops would come I wouldn’t be there,” Turner says, chuckling. “I would leave my board and start walking away like I wasn’t with anyone for that reason.”
Now, Turner says, he’ll be the one to approach the cops and talk to them first—often explaining what he and his crew are trying to film.
“I let them know exactly what I’m doing—that I may be trespassing, but I’m basically working and I’m trying to capture footage,” he says. “I’ll show them the videos. I’ll make them a part of it rather than I’m against him doing his job and him against me doing my job. I’ll make it more of an integrated conversation. I’ve had good cops come up to me and their kids have been skateboarders, ‘Hey, I know who you are,’ and they’ll want a picture for their son.”
Li’l B approaching the cops to explain his video parts and working as a recovery coach. It would have been impossible to conceive of in the ’90s, but Turner couldn’t be happier with where he’s at at this point in his life.
And why not? Turner has turned heads for his dialed-in skating as of late; he had a feature story in Thrasher last summer, and Jenkem Magazine put out a mini-doc on him earlier this year.
This month, at 39 years old, Turner won the 2020 $10,000 SLS Trick of the Year contest for his switch hardflip at the legendary Wallenberg Big Four in San Francisco, blowing the skate community’s minds (and, apparently, the powers that be at Street League Skateboarding).
“Street League Skateboarding created Trick of the Year six years ago so that skaters from all backgrounds could showcase their talent on a global platform and be rewarded for their efforts,” says Joe Carr, CEO of Thrill One Sports and Entertainment, the parent company of Street League Skateboarding (SLS).
“This year was probably the most special given Brandon’s incredible personal journey and what he was able to accomplish at this stage in his career. It also shows how skateboarding can be an outlet to drive positive change, both individually and for the wider community.”
Ever since he was 18, Turner says, he’s had a list of goals—certain tricks he wanted to do. Wallenberg was the last thing on that list. So what comes next?
“When I go to skate spots, I look at what I’ve done in the past and if it’s worth it for me,” Turner says. “If it doesn’t top what I’ve already done, I don’t even waste my time. If I’m going to put my effort into doing something, if I’m gonna risk getting injured doing something, I’m not gonna be skating on any old rail. I’ll let the younger people do that.
“I wait, and if it’s not worth it for me I won’t skate it. When I want to do something that I know is worth it, I’ll plan and prepare mentally and physically to go do it.”
Turner has also become a mentor to up-and-coming skaters, the way Tomonari Hongo mentored him when he first arrived in Japan. And in a storybook twist, one of Turner’s favorite young skaters to mentor is Shintaro Hongo—Tomonari’s son.
It’s generally accepted as truth that when skateboarders get into their thirties, they’re past the prime of their careers—that they’re not going to be able to stomp certain tricks anymore or progress their skating any further.
Turner doesn’t buy that for a second.
“I’ve always kept it true to myself, knowing I have the same mindset I did when I was a kid when people told me I couldn’t skate places,” Turner says. “When people say, ‘Aren’t you getting too old for this or that,’ that makes me want to do the complete opposite. That’s what I do. I want to prove them wrong.
“I’ve never changed my mindset and I’ve never listened to the lies of what I’m capable of. That doesn’t exist to me. That’s an opinion. To tell you the truth, I feel better than I did when I was 18, and about peaks and when you’re at your prime or whatever, I don’t believe any of that.
“I believe your prime is a mindset,” Turner says. “And I think I’ve kind of showed that.”