Skater Manny Santiago on making Puerto Rico proud
Big beaming smile, missing tooth, blue hair, contagious positive vibes, it can only mean one man is at the other end of the videocall: Skateboard star Manny Santiago.
The pride of Puerto Rican skate is ready to represent at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and could become only the second Boricua to win gold after Monica Puig made history on the tennis court at Rio 2016.
At 35 years young Manny has qualified for skateboarding's big Olympic debut in Tokyo, but even before it starts he knows he wants more:
"Today I have a dream, tomorrow I have another," he tells Olympics.com.
"If I look after myself, I can do it, so right now my dream is to skate at least to Los Angeles, represent Puerto Rico, and show people that if you look after your body and fight you can go far. I'm nearly 36 and I'm riding better than ever, I feel better than ever and I still haven't reached my peak."
Read on for this exclusive interview on where Manny comes from, his inspirations, how his mama made it all possible, what's behind his endless positivity and permanent smile, his love for music and dancing.
Skater Manny the Disney Movie?
A late starter, Santiago didn't start boarding until he was 13, now no-one's stopping him.
Born in Cayey, Puerto Rico, his mother moved the family to Lowell, Massachusetts in the U.S. where he stepped on a board for the first time at the Roberto Clemente Skate Park.
It was 'love at first fall', he laughs, and a love that kept him away from a growing gang scene. Mama made it all possible he tells us.
"She took me away from dangerous places and brought me to where I could follow my dreams and reach my goals."
Santiago gives it all to his skate game, including the tooth he lost on a failed rail grind, giving him that instantly recognisable look.
"I can't go for three days without riding," he says, "I have a full skate park in my back yard so I get all the practice I need for competitions."
Handy for lockdown during the coronavirus then.
Now he thinks his life should be made into a Disney movie, here's his pitch he made to his 270,000+ followers on Instagram:
The back yard skate park helped him through these strange times, but even without it he would have found a way.
"If I didn't have the park then I'd put something in front of my house, at least a tube, a ramp... I always find another way rather than getting into negativity."
It's an attitude that's taken him far.
In 2012, he became the first Puerto Rican street skateboarder to place in the top three in the X Games after coming in 3rd place at the finals in Barcelona and competes regularly on the SLS Select Series.
Now they call him 'Manny Slays All' for his fierce and fearless style with tricks ranging from kickflip backsides to heelflip boardslides, crooked grinds to shuvit lipslides...
There's nothing Manny won't try and he has a crash reel that'll make your eyes peel.
Santiago's got brands and businesses and is respected far and wide for his skills and personality, he holds skate tournaments back in Puerto Rico every year for men, women, and 'coquis', and tries to give back as much as he can.
Manny Santiago: The Olympic moments that made him proud
Born on a small Caribbean island, while growing up every Olympic success was a massive moment for Puerto Rico and for Manny Santiago.
"But the one I really remember was in 2004 when Carlos Arroyo and the Puerto Rican basketball team beat the USA Dream Team and when Carlos Arroyo looked at Dwayne Wade and [Lifts his shirt the way Arroyo did] and said 'Puerto Rico'. No one else had beaten them up until then and I was so proud, it was everywhere, everyone was talking about it."
It was a game that the country stopped to watch:
Puerto Rico, the tiny island with a population of around three million people beat the unbeatable USA basketball Dream Team and NBA star Carlos Arroyo became a national icon.
What's often remembered is how Argentina's Golden Generation beat the Dream Team and then won gold at Athens 2004, but it was Puerto Rico who snapped the USA 100% win streak since Jordan and the NBA stars joined at Barcelona 1992.
The victory planted a seed in Manny's mind that anything's possible. Other Olympians have inspired him too:
"Miguel Cotto's always fought for Puerto Rico, he was at the top for a long time, a legend in his sport, and of course Monica Puig who was the first puertorriqueña to win gold at the Olympics, so thanks to all of them. They're my people."
So who should we watch out for from the Puerto Rican team when the Olympics rolls around?
"Right now? The entire Puerto Rican women's basketball team. They're killing it. Women in sport everywhere are fighting and breaking down barriers and putting on a show.
"So all the women in the world in sport, follow them and support them please."
Beyond sport there are a lot of people who inspire him, particularly from Puerto Rico's thriving music scene.
"I don't need music to ride," Santiago says, "but I enjoy it much more when the music's on. Music, dancing, having fun, those are three things I need in my life, they make me happy."
Staying happy and positive comes natural to tis Olympian-in-waiting.
Manny Santiago's guide to staying positive
"I've been like this since I was a kid," he says, smiling.
"The important thing is to stay active, even when it all closes down and it feels like the world has stopped. It's important because we're humans and humans need movement, to create, to express themselves, to be happy.
"A lot of people who suffer from depression and anxiety don't do anything and they think too much about things they can't control, and that's when the monster comes. You have to keep moving. You have to celebrate. You have to share. That's human being.
"Humans are all about the group, and love and emotions and I think that's what's important."
You can find positivity in your hopes and dreams for the future says Puerto Rico's newest Olympian.
"You have to dream and keep dreaming, and believe in your dreams. I've been like this as long as I can remember, always active and happy and as an adult I've learned a lot.
"No, not everything is good but you have to find the good in it, I always think that positivity will get me much further than negativity - nobody wins in life by being negative all the time."
Get ready for a wave of Puerto Rican positivity on wheels, it's about to hit the Tokyo Olympics.