Professional skateboarder Alex Olson has become almost as well-known for his deep commitment to wellness as anything he does on a board. But he says that transformation wasn’t seamless. “I was a very emotional skateboarder,” Olson says. “I think maybe most athletes come from a broken home or some type of trauma. The sport that you pick is your escapism.” Building the tool kit to deal with those emotions took work: yoga, meditation, breathing, a potent psychedelic derived from the venom of an actual toad.
His latest venture is a partnership with running gear company District Vision, a company that has managed a similar fusion of wellness and sports. (They sell stylish high-performance tights and the world’s nicest meditation cushions.) Olson collaborated with the brand on a six-video series designed for anyone to pick up from scratch and explore breathing and meditation.
Ahead of the course’s launch, GQ caught up with Olson and District Vison co-founder Max Vallot about how athletes “experience the emotional rollercoaster in all its glory,” why “flow state” is actually just another kind of high, and the symbiosis between psychedelics and meditation.
GQ: For starters, how are we defining “athlete” here?
Alex Olson: When you say athlete, it’s more of a mindset than anything. I think a musician could be an athlete. It’s more of just continuing on the path of what your goal is and achieving it at any cost. It’s really just knowing how to practice and continuing practicing. These little achievements and them compounding over time is an athlete’s mindset. It’s not being afraid of failure. Failure isn’t really failure, it’s just progression. It’s more seen as a progress to something that you’re trying to achieve.
So why is mindfulness and meditation a missing piece for athletes?
Max Vallot: When people talk about, “Yeah, surfing is my meditation. Skating or running is my meditation.” That is true to a degree. Without mindfulness, though, you could have a great surf or a great run, but it’s only great as long as it’s going well. You’re not growing from it. You’re just getting high. It’s a healthier form of getting high.
In that way, it’s no different than having a glass of wine or many of the other things that produce interesting experiences that help you escape. Maybe going to IMAX and watching Dune, and being fully immersed in the picture. But you’re not growing from that. You’re just distracted. The crucial difference is awareness. It’s really as simple as that. If you are aware, you can see it for what it is, and what it is is just a high. The next minute, you turn around and you’ll be in a low.
On a psychedelic journey, you’ll be down in a cave of death. In a movie, you’ll be disturbed by something you see. In surfing, you’ll be wiped out by a wave—or not catching anything for hours. In a marathon, you’ll hurt your knee and you can’t run at the pace that you were planning to. So it’s just the awareness of the ebbs and flows. It’s the awareness of anything that arises in the present moment, and learning to see it for what it truly is: just ephemeral phenomena, empty of substance. Nothing to attach to, nothing to define your experience. That’s where the freedom lies.