Josh Sheehan: The Last Unicorn | Featured Rider
They call him The Unicorn. In 2015, the impossible became reality when Aussie FMX legend Josh Sheehan landed the first-ever triple backflip on a motorcycle at Pastranaland in Maryland. To find out what life is like after such a historic moment, we caught up with Sheeny in his hotel room a couple hours before a Nitro show in Oslo, Norway. In addition to sticking huge World Firsts, the Nitro veteran travels the world with us, throwing double backflips (the only athlete in the world who does so consistently), big whips, ruler flips, and more. But despite being a world-famous FMX progression junkie, Sheeny’s heart will always be on his farm in Australia.
You wouldn’t go so far as to call him a homebody, but it’s clear that even with his historic accomplishments in the sport of FMX, some of the things that excite him most are back on the farm. When we first get in touch, right out of the gate he’s talking about projects he’s got going on in Donnybrook, an apple farming community a couple hours outside of Perth in Australia. “Just had a few exciting things happen at home,” he says, mentioning a new “shed” (though we suspect in reality this is closer to what we’d describe as a “hangar”) he’s building to accommodate all his hobbies, which include working on cars, go-carts, and of course motorbikes. But the conversation gradually steers to the triple.
Sheehan landed the historic trick in April 2015, but that moment was years in the making. Everything about it was unprecedented: the ramp setup, the air bag for training, and the level of danger involved. For context, the double is still considered almost impossible for most FMX riders.
“For the triple flip, it’s not really a trick. The ramp is just so different from anything else; it’s so far from anything else we do on a bike,” he says. That ramp is a 36-footer that goes basically straight vertical, a size and angle you can’t really appreciate until you’re standing next to it, looking up. “That setup was ridiculous. When I looked at it, I used to just think, ‘That’s stupid.’ A lot of people don’t realize how big that takeoff was.”
But, ultimately, avoiding thoughts like that was one of the keys to his success. Instead, he focused on the mechanics of the trick. “Building up to it, if I just stood there and looked at it, it looked ridiculous, so I had to kind of just step back and know that if I hit it at [the right] speed and did these certain things at these times, then it would work. And I just had to focus on getting all that done right.”
For him, that focus and the practice reps were integral. Also, being in good shape didn’t hurt. It requires crazy strength to get a dirtbike to do three rotations, and that alone is a limiting factor when it comes to even being able to try. “I’ve just been brought up to be active, strong, fit. The harder you train, the easier everything else becomes,” he says. And, of course, life on the farm is tailor-made for that purpose: “I try to be active at home, active with work, with manual labor — digging and working around the farm. And I try to run, row, or cycle, keep my cardio fitness up.” He also lifts weights sometimes, we assume because you can’t just go out digging any old place. His training on the bike contributes to him staying in shape as well. The key is variety, he says. “I try to mix it up. It’s nothing specific — a bit of everything. The more you mix it up, I think, the more you benefit.”
On the day of the triple attempt, Sheeny came out very quiet and very intense. “At least right before going, I knew what I was going to do would work,” he says. “I just had to run through the process in my head and not think about anything else that could happen or any other possibility, because for me there was no other option but to land it. I just kept running through it, kept telling myself it would all be OK, and just trying to keep as calm as possible.”
Not to put too fine a point on it, but when he says there was no other option, he means it. This was a stunt where missing the mark would have been catastrophic. He obviously landed it, but the amount of work that went into it is incredible and inspiring, so be sure to check out Road to the Unthinkable to get the whole story.
Josh’s farm upbringing was the perfect place to get into dirtbikes early. “Being on the farm, there were always a couple of ag bikes around.” Those ag bikes, also known as farm bikes, are slightly modified dirtbikes meant for use in agriculture operations. They’re essentially how you get around efficiently when there are acres and acres of land between yourself and where you need to be at any given moment. “No one lived real close to each other,” Josh says. Those utilitarian bikes, combined with that distance and rural setting, helped spur the career of one of the most important FMX riders ever.
The natural progression took him to racing first, which he enjoyed and did well for a while. But he soon found his true calling. “I just always had a passion for being up high in the sky,” he says. “I did love racing; I did love pushing myself and trying to beat everyone else.” Still, FMX became his focus. “Eventually, it just took over, and I wanted to do it more and more,” he says.
Josh isn’t exactly sure why some riders stick to racing, while others are all about freestyle (many do both, of course, but the reasoning behind that is a little easier to understand). Part of it, he thinks, is having a competitive spirit versus having a drive to see what craziness is possible. “Some people want to be extreme and be different. … I love pushing the limits,” he says. “I know a lot of racers that are very good that just think, ‘No way, I don’t want to hit jumps like that. It’s crazy, too dangerous.'”
Interestingly, it was a competition that led to his involvement with Nitro. He did well in one of the first big FMX competitions in Australia, which happened to be run by some of the original founders of what would eventually become Nitro Circus. They asked Sheeny to join up, and though he had to miss that first tour while he wrapped up other obligations, he came on board for our second tour and has been a featured member of the Crew ever since, traveling the world year after year.
He doesn’t come out and say it, but there’s a sense that being away from the farm is not his favorite thing. His home comes up naturally a lot when you talk to him, and the way he describes life on the road hints that he feels happiest back in Donnybrook. It’s an endearing trait for an insanely talented FMX rider who’s also one of the most admired and nicest guys on tour.
“Sheeny is the definition of an athlete,” says Chris Haffey, Nitro’s resident inline guru. “He works really hard for what he does, and it shows when he rides his bike. … It definitely motivates the rest of us to put more work into our craft and bring the best we can every night.” Fellow Aussie FMXer Jarryd McNeil also weighed in: “Pretty stoked to see how Sheeny has come so far since the old days,” he says. “Touring the world with you, Sheeny — it’s been pretty awesome.”
After an unforgettable 2015 that will be hard to top, he’s taking a measured approach to 2016, focusing primarily on three big competitions in the middle of the year: X-Fighters, X Games, and the inaugural Nitro World Games in Salt Lake City in July. That and staying healthy, which is easier said than done: Just after talking to us, a big wipeout at the Oslo show resulted in a broken clavicle for Josh and an earlier trip back to the farm than anticipated. No rider wants to end a tour early, but at least he’s back in the place he likes best, healing up for another big year.
We’re on tour in Europe right now, and after that we’re headed to Australia and North America, where we’ll also kick off the inaugural Nitro World Games. Hit those links for more details, and come see us live!