How Ultra-Flexible Teens Turned ‘Tricking’ Into a Sport

The floor inside All Star Karate Center has a subtle spring to it. The bounce is stiff and reactive—not sluggish, like a backyard trampoline—and originates a few inches below the padding under my bare feet. It feels … good, if that makes sense? Reassuring, almost. As though, on this floor, I could run a bit faster or leap a hair higher than I would on solid ground. I smile, sigh, and think to myself: I’ve got this.

But I have not got this. “Let’s start simple,” says Michael Guthrie, who is standing beside me, also barefoot. “Have you ever done a backflip?” I stop smiling and shake my head. A somersault, sure. A backflip, no. “Really? OK. No, no, that’s OK,” he says. “Let’s try something easier.”

Guthrie has met me at this gym in Redwood City, California, to teach me the fundamentals of tricking. If you’ve never heard of it, there’s a good chance you’re old enough to rent a car. Tricking is a young sport favored by young people, especially ones whose tendons and ligaments do not wither vicariously at the sight of hard-landing flips, kicks, and spins. Its origins are in martial arts, but shortly after the turn of the millennium, social video platforms like YouTube catalyzed its growth and evolution by enabling practitioners (aka “trickers”) around the world to swap footage of their increasingly impressive feats. The internet being the remix-happy crucible that it is, trickers were quick to incorporate elements of gymnastics, breakdancing, parkour, and capoeira into their repertoires. Today, the sport is both a mixture of those disciplines and none of them at all: Tricking, most trickers will tell you, is its own thing.

“It leaves a bad taste in my mouth when people call it a blend of other disciplines,” Guthrie says. He prefers to characterize tricking as “emotion and personality, expressed with flips.”

It would sound corny if Guthrie weren’t such an authority on these matters. At 25, he’s on the older side for a tricker, but he’s dominated the sport for more than a decade by repeatedly pushing the limits of what his peers believe is possible. His crowning feat came on October 31, 2016, when he became the first person to successfully land a quadruple corkscrew: an off-axis backflip combined with four in-air twists. In tricking circles, it was like the moon landing, the four-minute mile, and the Fosbury flop spun into one. As one fan wrote on the heels of Guthrie’s achievement, “Michael Guthrie has set records for records that we didn’t even know could be set, and then broke them himself … I mean, they don’t even show this kind of stuff in movies.”

All of which reads like hyperbole if you haven’t seen what Guthrie can do. But it’s true: He can maneuver his body in counterintuitive ways. Spiraling through the air along multiple axes, Guthrie’s head, hands, feet, and torso can appear, by turns, to move contrary not just to gravity but his own momentum, sweeping through space along paths you don’t usually see in, say, gymnastics. His list of tricking-firsts is, without exaggeration, innumerable. Even the movie thing is accurate. Tron: Legacy, the visually gobsmacking sci-fi action flick, featured tricking in some of its fight scenes, but the sport has advanced so dramatically since the film’s 2010 release that the CGI-boosted stunts manage to look more believable than Guthrie’s.

Consider the quad cork, for example. When Guthrie pulled it off in 2016, the most rotations anyone had managed to execute previously was three. To add that extra twist, Guthrie needed to find a way to spin faster than any tricker before him. He found the oomph he needed in a move called the touchdown raiz. It’s a setup maneuver that trickers use to line up their bodies for more ambitious tricks, the way a gymnast might use handsprings. Except, unlike a handspring, the touchdown raiz enables an athlete to gather rotational momentum about the axis that runs between their head and their feet.

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