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Finding Monsters

Finding Monsters

Apr 082021

It’s a long journey from zero to hero in action sports. Athletes have to invest years of constant practice and dedication to master the art of freeski, motocross and skateboarding. But what’s more, some athletes also have to battle environments that stand in the way of their dreams of rising to the top.

Monster Energy’s Lizzie Armanto had to pave her own way in a male-dominated industry to become an X Games gold medalist and female pro skateboarder. In the process, the 28-year-old from Santa Monica, California, opened many doors in women’s skateboarding and is the first female skateboarder featured on the cover of TransWorld Skateboarding magazine.

In freestyle motocross, a young Taka Higashino caught the action sports bug in a country almost entirely devoid of an active scene. Yet he pushed on to expand the sports’ boundaries and make history as the first Japanese athlete to win an X Games medal. And Clayton Vila grew up with a passion for freeski – not in the mountains, but on an island in New England, but still pushed through to claim X Games gold as one of the top pros.

What on earth empowered these riders to overcome the odds and take it to that next level?

In the short video, Finding Monsters, viewers can get a glimpse of how Lizzie, Taka, and Clayton followed their dreams of becoming X Games medalists and top athletes.

“Since I first heard about the concept for ‘Finding Monsters’ I was excited to see how it would turn out. I honestly wasn’t sure one way or the other. Now after seeing it, I think it’s pretty cool and almost wish it was longer,” said Monster Energy’s Armanto about the video.


Directed by Clayton Vila, the 1:40-minute video showcases archival footage of career-defining moments and cameos shot on location in Block Island, Rhode Island and Los Angeles, California.


“The idea for the film came from conversations with my mother about how she handled my innate daredevil nature when I was young. These conversations made me wonder how many other athletes on Monster Energy’s roster were in a similar situation. I became fascinated by Taka and Lizzie’s stories. Both had completely different circumstances, but we shared similar challenges because our environments weren’t conducive to our ambitions,” said pro skier and director Clayton Vila.


For the full inside story, keep reading below as all three athletes share what allowed them to evolve into Monsters in their respective sports.



When it comes to careers in women’s skateboarding, Lizzie Armanto sets the bar high as one of the sport’s pioneers. The native Angelino picked up skateboarding in 2007 at the age of 14 together with her brother. Back then, being a girl with ambitions – especially on vertical terrain otherwise mostly dominated by men – was still the exception, not the rule.


“While skateboarding is huge in LA, Lizzie was one of a few, if any, girls at the skatepark trying to go pro at the time,” said Clayton Vila.


But Armanto was hooked, and never looked back. “I focused all of my time and energy on skating. Learning how to fail, get back up and try again,” said Armanto about her motivation.


Her strong drive and vertical skateboarding skills earned Armanto a unique track record of pioneering achievements: She took gold in her X Games debut in Barcelona in 2013 with her blend of big airs and technical lip tricks and claimed silver at X Games Austin in 2016. By 2017 she had already won eight first-place titles in bowl and halfpipe contests.


In 2018, she became the first female skater to complete the legendary ‘Loop of Death’ obstacle in a challenge hosted by skateboard icon Tony Hawk, who also markets Armanto’s pro model skateboard on his Birdhouse Skateboards label.


“I felt I had made it when I received my own signature skateboard. In skateboarding that’s the milestone you dream of,” said Armanto.



Speaking of milestones, Armanto was the third woman to appear on the cover of Thrasher skateboarding magazine and the first ever on the cover of Transworld Skateboarding. With three X Games medals to her name, she serves as a global ambassador for skateboarding in places such as India and currently endorses a signature colorway of the Vans Slip-On Pro shoe. She’s also a role model for female skaters as a playable video game character in the popular Tony Hawk's Pro Skater video game series.


But despite all these achievements, it’s important to keep in mind that women’s skateboarding was in a much different place before Armanto stepped on board more than 14 years ago.    


“I’d say the biggest challenge for me was getting my parents to support my decision to stop going to college and pursue it full time. Being a female pro skateboarder able to make a living wasn’t really something that existed when I decided to make the jump to skating full time,” said Armanto.


Asked if rising to the top as a female skateboarder was more challenging than for men, Armanto said: “I guess I’d have to say yes, but mostly because the opportunities for us as females were practically non-existent with the exception of a handful of events.”


Speaking on the state of women in skateboarding, the pioneer is content about the current situation in 2021. “For sure it’s changed, we have about the same number of events as the men, every major brand has invested in supporting women’s skating with teams and product and marketing. We still have room for growth. But yes, it’s changed since I started, and for the better.”



Another change for the better is that nowadays, the next major talent can emerge anywhere on the planet and garner sponsors’ attention through the global power of social media. But back in 2010, Taka Higashino caught viewers by surprise when he made history as the first Japanese motocross rider to medal at an X Games. By throwing down a technical double seat grab backflip Indy air for the bronze medal, he single-handedly put the Japanese FMX scene on the map.    


“There were only ten guys or so riding freestyle when I started out,” said Higashino. Motocross in Japan was mostly limited to racing when he learned the ropes on his first minibike in Osaka, Japan, at the young age of 8. His father supported Taka’s need for speed, although he set limits from the start: “My dad always told me, ‘Don’t become a professional racer, you won’t make any money. Just do it as a hobby on Sundays, on the weekends.’”


But all that restraint was thrown to the wind when an older rider set up a freestyle jump at Taka’s practice spot. “As soon as I hit the jump, I knew that was it! I never felt so much height before. And right away I told my dad that I wanted to stop racing and do freestyle from now on,” said the five-time X Games medalist.


From that day forward, Higashino soaked up every FMX video and magazine-like a sponge and began working on his repertoire. “In motocross racing, it’s really hard to see your progression. But in freestyle, I could see it with every new trick I learned. That feeling of making something new is amazing. It’s definitely addictive!”


Working a regular job on the side, Higashino dedicated all his free time to his addiction, training alongside famous Japanese FMX star Eigo Sato. Then a big break arrived in 2005: A major FMX contest was headed to Osaka, featuring international top riders including Monster Energy athlete Jeremy “Twitch” Stenberg. For the occasion, Taka set his mind to learning a risky maneuver, a backflip on his dirt bike, but literally had to handle all the logistics himself.


“I had to build my own foam pit to practice, so I asked all those factories around Osaka to let me have their leftover foam for free,” said Higashino. He also had to buy a new bike and build a super kicker ramp, which left only a week before the contest to begin learning the actual trick. Ultimately, it all came together for the big event: “I made the backflip in practice and put it down on my second run. Twitch remembered me and one year later I met him when I went to watch the X Games. Being in the X Games was always my dream!”     



The dream came within reach in 2007 when a Japanese sponsor offered to pay for Higashino’s trip to the United States. Soon after, he landed in San Diego with a three-month tourist visa and $6,000 in his pocket, barely able to speak English and only a few FMX acquaintances to call on.


From Higashino’s perspective, it was a conscious decision to put everything on the line.


“I had two paths in front of me. If you want to try and pursue your dream, you have to spend all your energy. You have to give 100 percent, and someone will help you. But if you only give it 90 percent, you won’t have your dream!”


Recognizing Higashino’s ambition, Jeremy “Twitch” Stenberg took the rookie under his wing and helped secure the first sponsors and an invite to X Games in 2007. What followed was one of the most epic runs in freestyle motocross: Constantly expanding his trick repertoire, Higashino toured the world alongside Stenberg and the Metal Mulisha crew for stadium-sized shows. By 2010, Higashino was already winning major competitions and was crowned “Breakout FMX Rider of the Year” by TransWorld Motocross Magazine.


The major breakthrough arrived in 2012 at X Games Los Angeles when Higashino opened his motocross freestyle run by unveiling his new Rock Solid Backflip and proceeded to claim the gold medal. “The day after the contest, I woke up in the hotel and the first thing was to check my back pocket to see if the medal was still there. And yes, it was real!”


Higashino cemented his legacy as one of the icons of freestyle motocross when he rode his X Games victory into back-to-back gold medals at X Games Brazil 2013 and Los Angeles 2013. This made him one of two athletes in history to earn three freestyle gold medals next to Travis Pastrana, one of many achievements for a rider who literally had to pave his own trail to realize his ambitions.


“Taka’s journey is crazy. To think how he made the choice to chase his dream and move to the US knowing a couple of people and not speaking the language. The language, the culture, the food… Everything must have been beyond foreign, but he pushed through and achieved his dreams and then some,” said Lizzie Armanto.



The final athlete portrayed in “Finding Monsters” also had to blaze his own trail. Clayton Vila had to rise from the insular confines of Block Island, New England to chase a career as an urban freeskier. “I was just overall obsessed with the idea of becoming a pro skier. Considering we lived on an island 14 miles off the coast of Rhode Island, it was such a long shot, but my parents believed in me and I’m forever thankful.”


Despite growing up surrounded by sand dunes and ocean waves, Vila already had his eyes on freeski acrobatics at an early age. From age 7 onwards, he intensely studied any freeski video he could get his hands on and literally began bouncing off the walls trying to learn backflips.


“I grew up watching all the TransWorld skate videos, Volcom surf movies, and eventually the Poor Boyz and TGR ski movies. I spent a lot of time competing in my early years, but it never gave me the real satisfaction I was looking for,” said Vila.


Initially, Vila relocated to Colorado at the age of 18 and joined the competitive circuit as a halfpipe rider. But although he soon picked up several A-list sponsors including Monster Energy, he always felt out of place among his peers.


“When I first started out, I felt way behind my competition because I didn’t grow up in the mountains. Finding confidence when you aren’t particularly advantaged can be very difficult. There were many times when I’d think, is this just going to be an embarrassing pipe dream that never works out?”



Ultimately, Vila decided to ditch pipe riding to fully focus on urban freeski. Taking his skills to stair sets and handrails also shifted the focus: Instead of scoring points in competitions, urban ski revolved around documenting advanced and never-been-done-before tricks on video.


“For me, all I wanted was to make a video part in a real ski movie,” said Vila. In 2008, he published his homemade short video “Clayton Vila Shreds Block Island” on the web, set to the sound of Lil Wayne. And just like that, Vila had found his calling by including his second passion, filmmaking.


“When I made my first full video part with my own title is when I really felt like I had done what I set out to do. I’ll never forget how proud I was of that first video part. It made me hungry for more.”


Clayton’s hunger for more led him to create several viral freeski video parts, while also making forays into documentary filmmaking. His debut documentary, “For Lack of Better”, garnered honors as Film of the Year at the Powder Awards in 2015. And in 2016, his pro skiing career peaked with an X Games bronze medal for his video entry in the X Games Real Ski competition.


Since then, Vila has directed numerous documentary and commercial films. In “Finding Monsters”, he sets out to capture the story of overcoming adverse environments in a unique, gritty look. “Overall, we simply wanted the piece to look like a contemporary indie film rather than your traditional action-sport film.”


Asked about the common denominator behind his own story and that of teammates Lizzie Armanto and Taka Higashino, the director offered: “It’s hard to identify or explain what makes one so driven and dedicated to achieving athletic success. But I think almost everyone needs someone in their corner to maintain that dedication. For me, that was my parents.”



On that note, one common theme in “Finding Monsters” is that parents feel conflicted about allowing their kids to pursue extreme, potentially dangerous sports. For Armanto, working on the film put her journey in perspective: “It definitely brought back some of those memories of coming home all black and blue and bruised up and seeing how my parents reacted. Needless to say, they learned to accept and even embrace my beaten and broken body.”


Looking back at his early days in freestyle motocross, Higashino said: “My dad was always fully supportive, but my mom would say, ‘It’s enough!’ When I’m riding, I know I’m in control, but I can see that watching it can be scary for other people. Not sure what I would do as a parent. Like, I don’t want to see my kids doing backflips.”


For Clayton Vila, making the film was a personal milestone. “I enjoyed being able to say thank you to my parents, and all the parents who took the risk of letting their kid pursue their wildest dreams. I also hope it inspires anyone who is in the difficult situation of raising a talented little daredevil to let them give it a shot. These days, with companies like Monster out there looking for the next big thing, the odds are more in a kid’s favor than ever before.”  


Asked about advice for future action sports superstars, Armanto offered: “As cliché as it sounds, don’t ever give up. This video is a perfect example of succeeding against all odds.”


Also take it from trailblazer Higashino who suggests: “You have to be yourself and try 100 percent. If you don’t give it your all and it doesn’t work out, you’re going to look back your entire life wishing that you did.”