Modern Heroes: MARTTI KUOPPA

The secret to how world champion and multiple x-games gold medalist got his throne back after 2 burnouts and officially retiring for 3 years.

Martti Kuoppa laughing all the way to the bank with his first place trophy at the FlatArk in Kobe Japan back in October. Photo : Red Bull Content Pool

October, 25th 2015. Kobe, Japan. The air is electric. Everybody is waiting suspended in time for the results of the FlatArk, the biggest BMX flatland contest in history. All the big guns made the trip to try to grab the biggest prize money ever. A pack of wolves ready to battle to death. And battling in blood sweat and tears they did. Especially in the finals where current World Champion and crowd favourite frenchman Matthias Dandois faced officially retired Martti Kuoppa. But the unexpected and most theatrical of situations happened: the Finnish rider won the gold and the $40K taking it back to the essence of flatland by pulling some of the hardest and most original tricks of the contest.

How could Martti pull such a monumental achievement as he had not entered a contest in 6 years? And what the hell is BMX flatland anyway? Listen to this modern tale of a true modern hero.

Martti Kuoppa doing the Plasticman on below zero temperatures. ©Kai Kuusisto

BMX flatland is the art of doing tricks on a flat surface on a BMX. Indeed, flatland, even though a physical activity definitely blurs the line with art as creating new tricks is an integral part of the process of riding and the Holy Grail for any rider.

Martti started riding in 1991 and in his lifetime got all the accolades from both the mainstream and the underground. He has featured multiple times in the Guinness book of records, has won all the biggest contests and notably has developped the most creative and progressive riding known to man in the 21st century. They call him ‘The Boss’ for a reason and he’s truly considered a living legend of the scene. Often imitated but never duplicated, he has inspired and more than ever keeps inspiring whole generations of people and riders. But just like most modern sports such as skateboarding, surfing or breakdancing, the absence of rules, structure or coaches and the predominance of freedom means you can also get lost.

And lost Martti Kuoppa was when he stopped entering contests in 2009 and officially retired in 2012, totally burned out from riding. So when the inconceivable happened last october in Kobe, I wanted to understand what had happened and how the already legendary Martti Kuoppa had succeeded in writing history again.

The first time I ever saw you was at the World Championships in Cologne, Germany in 1996. Young kid, fearless, full of raw energy and determined, yet shy and a bit nervous, to say the least! What was your mindset back then? Yes, I still remember that day like yesterday, especially the fact I was so nervous that I almost vomited before my run. My mindset was definitely to strive after a clean performance and make it to the finals.

How do you reflect on those days now? Back then obviously I was a kid with a huge dream, and that dream was to become a professional BMX rider. And in those days very few people made a living out of BMX flatland so in a way it was a bit of a crazy move not to take my studies seriously and really put 110% of myself into riding. But I don´t regret that decision at all because it proved me that we need to have big dreams. With hard work they are all reachable!

As you went from a child prodigy having a hard time getting recognized to multiple gold medals and a ‘all time master of flatland’ status, it always seemed you worked very hard to get there and got very deeply involved both physically and mentally. Could you elaborate on your journey both emotionally and psychologically over these years of flatland lifestyle? I think that I have seen a full map of emotions being involved in flatland for 25 years: I have won almost everything that a rider can win. I have made a living from riding and had a lot of people idolizing me because of the tricks I have made. I also experienced such a high level of stress that I got very sick physically. You know, I actually burned out twice severely. I had taken my riding level to such a place that it started to hurt me too much and I had to step out of being pro.

I realized I needed to drop everything, even my dream job -my bmx career- in order to take care of my illnesses because if not, there could be some very serious consequences.

I had to dive into the unknown which was: how to live a normal life without traveling all the time, not competing anymore and not being in a athlete “six pack” shape all the time (smiling). That process taught me some priceless lessons and made me a much more mature person.

Doing what he does best, in one of the position he invented and mastered called the stemplash. Here the frame rotates multiple times around while rolling as he balances stepping on the stem. Yep without brakes as well. ©Kai Kuusisto

Did you ever set specific goals for yourself with flatland? I am definitely the type of person who sets clear goals for himself. My main objective at competitions has always been 1st place. Nothing wrong with that but it is really heavy to strive for the top spot all the time. So now that I have decided to compete again after 6 years off the circuit I had to make myself new ambitions and had to work really hard to get out of this “winning mindset”. Because at the age of 37, I really don´t want to go through the same stress that made me quit my career. So, I finally came up with a strategy that doesn’t seem to stress me at all which is to really bust out as good as I can when it´s my time to ride. And so far, for the first time in my life I have been able to smile and not be nervous on stage! And yes, I’ve won both of the last competitions I entered which is pretty crazy after all that has happened.

As you are truly recognized as one of the all time greats of bmx, how did recognition and fame influence your mindset and the way you approach life? The most important thing becoming a full-time athlete has taught me was that perseverance is the key to be successfull in life and by that I mean, both materialistically and spiritually, if one decides to do so. For example, I had to learn how to survive in a normal 9 to 5 job after being an athlete. So, I put my mind into it and I started building a career as a salesman and after 6 years doing so, I decided to go back to school to study sales. I have managed to do really good in a normal job life because of what I have learned from being a top athlete. Although it is not as cool as being in the spotlight all the time… I need to deal with people who actually don´t appreciate me at all as I am just a salesman (smiling), but it is because they don´t know my little secret: I have 3 X-Games medals in my closet. (laughter).

What did this life did bring you, good and bad? I would say that the best things that have happened to me were those 2 severe burn outs ending my pro BMX career. At that point I was so lost in life that I had no idea which direction to go. That very day I discovered my path to zen meditation and that was the moment when everything started to change for me. That was truly something that I would never have imagined of happening in my life. I would never have thought I would start to ride again after finding the real reasons for riding…

In the past year or so you’ve mentioned several times about your zen master and how the last couple years have transformed you. Could you go a bit more indepth for those who don’t know what that embodies? What was your path to this new found serenity? Could you also tell us what difference that makes in your riding today and in life in general? As I said I started my zen meditation practice around the time I ended my bmx career because I did not know what to do. I basically started seated meditating every day and that is what I still do every morning after I get up. Twice a year I am also going on a one week retreat where we meditate for about 8 hours a day. Meditation is really like peeling an onion one layer at the time. It can be painful sometimes to realize the things we don´t want to see about ourselves and to recognize that we’re using such things as surfing the web, shopping, alcohol, drugs… to block the view to our true selves…. so we don´t have to think about it. But the thing is, all of that stuff is down there in our subconsious operating all of the time even if we don´t think about it. In the last couple of years I have come to realize that I can be very selfish, greedy, mean etc. and now that meditation makes it possible for me to see so clear, I am able to pay attention every time I am selfish and I can somehow be more real with people I interact with. But it takes time.

There are no shortcuts on feeling better or happier in life.

We have to fail many times to understand that our behavioural patterns are so ingrained in our minds that it will take many years to let them go. But once we are able to do so, we are able to free ourself from pain, step by step… There are a lot of these so called side effects in zen. After the mind calms down it is possible to be much more creative. Balance and coordination become much more subtle and sharp. Energy levels get higher. I’m also a lot less nervous on stage. And the list goes on. But again, if these consequences are the reason why a person starts to meditate in the first place and uses them for the benefit of himself only, then that is quite ego centered and selfish. But all of us need to get started from somewhere, right? (smiling)

Cliffhanger during another frozen Helsinki night. ©Kai Kuusisto

Flatland is definitely a mind game where you sometimes might have to spend hundreds of hours alone on one trick to pull it. Does becoming a master of your mind with your zen practice has helped you become a better flatlander less inclined to the stress of this mind game? Also, do tricks come more easily to you now? I still consider myself a zen student who is still many years away from mastering his mind but I am very familiar with a few very effective techniques my zen practice taught me that makes it possible to perform on stage in front of hundreds of people without letting the stress/worry/anxiety/nervousness take over. I am able to use all of those emotions as “bridges” to a higher level of concentration, and calmness follows up from there. Most of us at some point of our lives are afraid of failing or loosing and looking stupid. Some of us spend all of our time in this world from childhood to death in a constant worry. What meditation does is that it slowly but surely puts an end to fears. And once we are not so afraid anymore we can feel more free while performing on a bmx bike or speaking in public in front of many people.

Would you mind sharing some quick tips and tricks to achieve this? Easier said than done… but I’m going to reveal how I dealt with the pressure at FlatArk in Japan a few months ago: There was this huge prize money for the winner which was a real ”mind fuck” to many riders. As it actually started to haunt me as well, my zen teacher gave me a great meditation advice which was to visualize me lighting that prize money cheque in fire and watch it burn…

So I started picturing burning the cheque on a daily basis 2 to 3 weeks before the contest.

Another good technique that I am able to do is to invite these irritating / horrifying emotions to my presence when I meditate. So as I had not been riding on such a big stage for 6 or 7 years, I started to visualize myself back on stage and how nervous I usually was… I simply felt all those unwanted emotions and anxiety in my body while I sat on my cushion, every day. I truly felt them traveling throughout my body and the trick was to not push them away. You simply have to feel where they are and eventually they fade away, and then you can invite them back again. Sometimes the anxiety is situated in our lower belly… Sometimes it´s like a rock in our throat… Sometimes your heart beats faster or your hands get sweaty. Just simply feel these and don´t waste your time trying to understand them intellectually. Just feel them physically and let them be. Earlier in the year I actually spent 6 months with a terrible sensation in my lower belly that was present at all times. I perfectly knew it wasn’t food poisoning. It was anxiety related. It sucked all of my energy but I just sat with it, hang out with it, and even got really scared feeling it all the time. Then one day I was at the bus station and the sensation moved on to my throat and I continued breathing with it and it just faded away. Just to give you an idea that sometimes it can take a long time to get something out of our systems, if you decide not to suppress it.

Was meditation a choice, a purpose or a necessity? I would say it was a necessary life practice I had to get into when I ended my pro athlete career. It lifted me back on my feet and I made the choice to pursue it. Nowadays, I would say it´s more like a path that I walk on and it´s much more than just sitting on my meditation cushion every day. It has become a way of life and I can feel its power in every situation I am facing. So it´s no more a choice. It is second nature… and I would never have expected this when I first started to meditate.

Another balance defying trick. Rollin in the stemroller position. ©Kai Kuusisto

Were you spiritually involved before getting into zen? Did you have faith? I grew up in a family that had a bible on the bookshelf. But I never had too much interest in Christianity. I have always felt this spiritual call inside me but never knew what it was and I spent my life without thinking about it. When I first stepped into zen I did not like the Buddhist aspect to it. All the bowings and chants felt stupid and I walked away from group practices because of that. I decided to isolate myself just to practice on my own. Then about 4 years ago I met my zen teacher and slowly started to accept things as they are without questioning them so much. Nowadays I am all okay to bow here and there when I am on retreats. I have accepted that I´m doing a spiritual practice now and I am perfectly fine with it.

Seeing how you’ve been back in the competition scene, how do you stay hungry and come back for more with a fresh approach? After I had lost my hunger for competing I needed to become able to enjoy the practice itself. I learnt the pure enjoyment of the movement with my bike and I started to feel one with it again. Now it’s all love for my riding.

Does spirituality influence the way you now see, consider and ride flatland? — like a shaolin monk does meditation practice as part of martial arts. I´m still digesting what flatland is all about for me as its purpose has changed after I started zen. I was doing it for selfish reasons before as I just wanted to win everything and was always focusing on doing the hardest tricks. I know that I can still win and contribute some very hard tricks to the scene but one of the main reason for me to ride now is to share my art and my knowledge instead of saying “hey, check this out, this is the hardest shit out there and I´m the best!”. I don´t need to be the best. For example, after I won FlatArk several pro riders told me that I had inspired them to keep pushing their riding… That actually felt more fulfilling than winning the biggest event of our sport. So I believe that is closer to the real reason why I´m coming back to the competition scene:

share my experience and let people know it is possible to come out of a great struggle, get back on a bike, bust out and enjoy it like never before.

I am sure there are a few people out there who can relate to my situation of how it feels to get back on a bike now that they are or getting close to 40 years old. Meditation is full of side effects which at this point of my meditation practice are not the purposes why I keep sitting but they are kind of cool things when I understand how to use them while riding my bike. It makes things much more creative and also fine tunes the balance system because of the body-mind connection. Learning tricks has also become way faster and easier. This year somehow my relation with bmx has changed and I have felt my heart connecting with my bike again. The flame is really strong again.

Flipping the bars with his feet just like a skateboard. Excepted he is holding a bike. Kickflip steam roller at the FlatArk contest. ©Alberto Moya

Do you actually consider yourself — and your approach — as artistic? I am an artist in its purest form. Some like my art, some don´t like my art but they talk about it, so there is something interesting there. (smiling)

Where do you get your inspiration from? I am not really able to explain how my creativity emerges. It just happens to work that way. But the real key is to let things be as they are without forcing your mind into creating anything. Then miracles happen. I have learnt that if I’m waiting for inspiration to come, it might never show up. I am better off going out and find it by just doing things right now. Inspiration will always show up sooner or later when you get involved.

How did taking on a 9 to 5 job made you realize how important flatland really was to you — even though you’d had 2 burnouts from it? The 9 to 5 job came to me at a very interesting time. I was seriously burned out and had spent all the money I had made with BMX. I was panicked. How was I going to survive now? I pressed the red alert button and ended up working at a bicycle store, selling regular bikes for minimum wage. I started building things from there and eventually found another job and gained some good work experience. I then realized that I could get back into flatland without it driving me crazy and I slowly started learning my skills back… and it truly felt different than ever before. All the frustration, anger, disapointment, fear of failures… were gone. I had never felt such calmness in my practice and got really curious about it again. It took me a few years off, doing something totally different to realize how to approach flatland with a healthier state of mind. Besides being 3 years without riding my bike got me back to the bottom of the ladder. My riding level was so low I thought I was never going to be back to a high level. I had to accept that thought and it actually became a relief to welcome the fact I was not going to be on top of the competition game anymore.

What did that job give you that you actually didn’t expect? Being a ”star” in flatland can build your ego and self esteem to sizes that are not healthy when you live in the ”normal” world. You know there were a lot of people saying positive things about me or my riding. Everything was paid for as long as I placed well in comps. As I was building my confidence from other people’s feedback, results at comps, coverage in magazines and the list goes on, I started to develop a certain lack of respect. It worked in very subtle levels but the patterns just kept getting stronger and stronger.

What the normal job world did to me was truly humbling me down. It gave me the feeling that I´m nothing more than any other person out there.

At first I hated it, then it ended up being a great magnifier to see deeper into my problems. I worked in sales and you know how customers can be with salesmen. I had not been used to people being rude to me on a daily basis… As a rider people usually wanted to hang out with me and were super nice. Now, in this job world, people were treating me bad… I felt miserable at first but then I started being grateful because I slowly got aware of the self centeredness I was affected with for so many years. And don´t get me wrong, I´m still stuck with much of that stuff but these days it´s different because I am conscious about it.

Do you think you were actually living in a parallel world this whole time you were only committed to riding? Do you think it could be one of the causes of your burnouts? Kind of loosing touch with reality? I think the main reason for my burn out was the amount of training I did, my craving for new tricks and only accepting first places -second place sucked. The amount of traveling also got me. I basically traveled 5/6 months a year. This one year I went to the USA ten times and because of the jet lag, I completely lost my sleep for 6 months. That is when I burnt out for the first time. My whole life since I was a small kid has been striving for goals after goals. Eventually I started to burn the candle at both ends. I was also drinking and smoking heavily in those days to ”relax” and forget about things… which was just me suppressing the bad emotions I didn’t want to feel. Now that I don´t drink or smoke anymore and actually feel all the ”bad” emotions too, I feel much stronger. And hopefully I don´t push myself into another burn out anymore. I think I have definitely learned my lesson the hard way.

Combining two hard tricks in an original way is the holy grail for any rider. Here Martti does it his own way again. Cross Footed Hitchiker body varial ©Stephane Bar

Saying this, what is the major lesson you got out of flatland that serves you in everyday life? I would say: try your best in everything in life but learn to adjust the “volume” in a way that it´s not too high, not too low and everything will be fine. This is much easier said that done but now that I´m getting to a point that I´m able to moderate things this way, I find life much more joyful!

How do you see yourself in today’s society? Do you feel relevant in this world today? Yesterday I was in Japan on stage and everyone knew who I was… Today I´m back home and I can walk the streets with nobody knowing what tricks I have done or what my status is in BMX. I like it both ways, it gives me a great perspective on things.

What is a hero to you? Do you consider yourself one? I´m more into this “people’s champ” thing you know… I look up to people who have made big things in this world but still are able to stay very humble. For example, I read about the Hollywood actor Keanu Reeves. Multimillionaire, as famous as it gets, but still travels on the subway and is very down to earth. True heroes to me really understand that they are just as normal as the rest of the world. They interact with their fans with appreciation and understand that without their fans they would not be heroes. (smiling).

I see myself more like a role model than a hero.

Nowadays, with my greater experience of life I want to share my recipes with others without being scared that they are going to use that against me in a competition. I will stay true to my roots and be grateful of what I have and if someone sees me as a hero, I am going to say thank you and really mean it.

How does it feel to now be propelled back to the top of the scene with all your recent wins, when winning contests is not your main focus anymore?It’s bizarre to be honest. Winning a big competition still feels good but now it is also truly nothing special. I get back home and life goes on. As one zen master told me : the best gift for a zen student is to grasp that if you are always attached to the end product, once you get there you will always feel empty afterwards, thus creating a never-ending dissatisfaction. If you enjoy the trip as much as the destination you understand that achievement is really nothing special and that the real purpose of life is something else than just winning, running after and achieving goals. And I still have plenty of work to do on this field. And it is all good like that.

Doesn’t it feel ironic that you had to go through hell and back to now naturally and effortlessly reach these goals that were always so stressful and work-heavy to get to? Yep (smiling) But without visiting hell I would not have been able to approach these things as naturally as I did this time.

To round things off would you have any recommend readings, watchings or hearings? Some readings:

Charlotte Yoko Beck — ”Everyday Zen”

Shunruy Suzuki — ”Zen mind beginners mind”

Jack Kornfield — ”After the ecstasy the laundry”

Ezra Bayda — ”Beyond happiness”

For a movie: maybe ”Peaceful warrior” LOL

Who would you like to thank? I´d like to thank my Zen teacher, Karen Terzano. I want to thank everyone who read this interview. I want to thank all my fans out there. I want to thank my girlfriend. I want to thank myself for everything. And I want to thank you, for scratching beneath the surface with this interview, it´s been the most interesting interview I have done.

Cold Chillin’. ©Kai Kuusisto

About the writer : french former BMX flatlander Lionel Cardoso has been deeply involved in the BMX community as a pro rider, writer, magazine editor, distributor, events organizer, teacher, master of ceremony and company owner for about half his life. Nowadays, he’s still involved in BMX sporadically as an MC and DJ but is making a living doing graphic design, electronic music and writing for french blogs.