With a swing of the leg and an arch of the back, his toes draw a circle high up in the air. A light greeting to the sky-blue spring floor in between, and he’s back in the air again. Every time you think he’s going to finish a sequence, you’re wrong. And you never know what’s going to happen next, because with such coordination, he can improvise new tricks on the spot (like bouncing off of his head to his feet when there’s no time to use hands). His movement looks playful, effortless, and a little surreal. And it makes you want to abandon your habit of being a couch potato.
To this man, gravity seems to be a mere friendly suggestion rather than a law of physics. The perfected mind-body cooperation makes it look so natural that it’s as if movement happens to him, and sends him spinning wildly like a meteor in orbit.
The meteor is the one and only Vellu Saarela, Finnish self-taught tricker and tricking entrepreneur. If you haven’t heard of tricking, it’s somewhere between a breathtaking art form and a highly technical sport. Combining flips from gymnastics, kicks from martial arts, and an attitude from breakdance, it’s on a level of badassery that nothing else can achieve. Its history is fairly short: the 28-year-old Saarela himself is one of the, if not the pioneer and architect of what tricking has become in the recent years.
The man is a collector of many firsts: for example, he holds the title of the first person in the world to do a double gainer – a double backflip off of one leg, that is. He’s also the founder of the Nordic’s first gym dedicated to tricking, in which this interview is happening. But more on that later.
Let’s begin at the beginning. How did it all start?
“I was 12 years old when the kid next door showed me a video – the Team Ryouko Friday Night Madness 3,” Saarela recalls. The rambunctious feel of the video thoroughly impressed him: “they just rampaged and raved around, doing cool stuff. It looked so fun! I wanted to know how it felt. So, I went home and started googling how to do a backflip,” he continues.
He managed to get a few friends excited about training, which was an important motivation boost. Tricking is, first and foremost, a community thing: trickers challenge and applaud each other, create new combos and moves together, and test their skills in awesome tricking battles. To say Saarela’s enthusiasm was immediately intense is an understatement: “I wanted to trick constantly, every day, and spent all my free time on it,” he reminisces finding his passion. “In retrospect, it all came very naturally.”
The athlete’s life sounds almost like a coming-of-age-story: teachers and parents alike would shake their heads at his constant training, telling him it would never become a profession anyway. In spite of this criticism, he kept going, wanting to find out how it would feel to be excellent.
After attracting international attention with a sampler video posted on a forum, Saarela announced to his mother that he’d be flying to Sweden the next weekend, on an invitation to trick there. He was 14. Indeed, the role of the internet was crucial as the tricker’s career started taking off. “Otherwise, who would have known that there’s someone training deep in Finland’s backwoods?” he shrugs.
Flash forward two years, and Vellu Saarela’s name was on the lips of the tricking world. If there was a related event anywhere in the world, he’d get invited. As he describes, “the possibilities were so many, you could choose where to go. This month I’d go to Israel, Italy and France, but skip Portugal. Looking back now, it seems like a smooth take-off, but it happened over the course of five years, and those five years were full of training. 12-14 times a week.”
A truly unforgettable moment Saarela likes to think back to is bringing home the victory of the unofficial European championships, The Big Trick, at the age of 16. “That’s when you understood you were really at the top,” he says. Since, he has performed in numerous countries, for VIPs such as Putin and prince Charles, in the opening show of an FC Barcelona match, and rap artists’ weddings. Not to mention the productions he’s organized and choreographed, like the opening ceremonies of the U20 Athletics World Championships, and of the new wing at Helsinki airport. In addition, he’s been threatened by a rifle if crossing a certain line drawn on the stage in Turkmenistan, and witnessed the backstage craziness of the “Sexbomb” singer Tom Jones.
Despite the fame, Saarela comes across as very approachable and present, which prompts my question about how he keeps his feet on the ground (even if they aren’t always literally there). As it turns out, it wasn’t always that way. “At the peak, you did start to take it for granted,” he admits, “but I always had friends around to keep me from thinking I was the king of the world. What comes to being approachable, the fame and meeting so many people have definitely taught me to be that way. Without that, I might just be a typical Finnish grump training on my own like: ‘don’t talk to me.’”
Years of training in backyards, landing tricks in piles of snow, and continuously getting kicked out of gymnastics gyms because of the allegedly “bad reputation” of trickers, all cooked up a dream in Saarela’s mind. The community was craving a place where it could grow.
Today, next to the very heart of Tampere, Finland, a red-brick block hosts the LegendTrick Gym, the first gym in Scandinavia dedicated entirely to tricking, named after Saarela’s entertainment company. Fun fact: the spring floor, which will make you momentarily believe you’ve grown wings, was inspired by a Japanese innovation – the top material is office carpet! Complete with a light and sound system to make any club green with envy, the gym is like a shrine to which trickers from all over the world pilgrimage to. Of course, it’s also a second home to a constantly growing number of locals that have discovered the enjoyment of wiggling around in creative ways. How did the process of creation unfold?
“For a long time, it felt impossible. It was a dream that was never going to be true, because there were no tricking gyms in the entire world back then. But after years of teaching classes and renting all kinds of spaces, the number of our students had become such that founding a gym started to seem like less of a risk,” he explains. While creating this footing, Saarela and his team also traveled the world doing gigs, consistently putting aside a portion of their income, which eventually was invested in founding the gym. Saarela explains that behind the project there was also a desire to do something more for the scene, in addition to developing it in the form of the crazy new tricks.
Saarela’s list of achievements definitely exceeds the capacity of this article. But what about the challenges – did life ever say no to him?
“The challenges have been at least as numerous as the successes,” Saarela confesses. The business got off to a rocky start: for a good while, the team worked without salaries and neck-deep in debt. Building everything from scratch, Saarela had to feel his way through the dark. Now, he ponders that it would have been helpful to hear that the insecurity wouldn’t last forever. “Of course, I really had to believe in myself all the way,” he says. This relentless belief seems to arise as one of the crucial keys to his success. But fortunately, his family, wife Karina Saarela, and friend and co-performer Anssi Nurmi also had his back. The support of his loved ones has been a very important part of the process, he adds.
The tricker’s motivation was also tested by a series of serious injuries in his second year of training. Breaking his toe, and soon afterwards his leg in three parts at once, was followed by a parental prohibition to never do such a thing again. “To be fair, they didn’t even know what I was doing at the time. I just told them I was going to go jump around outside,” Saarela says, with a mischievous grin. However, he then secretly resumed practicing and later confessed to his parents like an addict: “so… I’ve been doing a little tricking again. I just can’t quit!”
These experiences add to the significance of the gym: now, Saarela rejoices in being able to offer a safe place for the new generation of trickers to train in, in addition to high-quality teaching, which he had to do without.
The impression one gets from Saarela’s life is that no matter how many times the world tried to make him give up, he simply said “nope.” He remembers having to face skepticism from nearly everyone he knew, and being told that such dedication made no sense. To his younger self, he’d now advise to have faith and just keep going. To all those who demanded “why?” he had no other answer than that it was what he wanted to do. Apparently, that attitude bore fruit. “If you stop to think how far we’ve come, it is pretty great,” Saarela smiles.
A Desire For More
What’s next for Saarela and the LegendTrick Gym? Are there any dreams left?
“Of course. If you’re out of goals and dreams, that’s a bad place to be. You’re really lost. I guess everyone has those moments of uncertainty – I did once, too. But the next plan is to get more capacity for the gym by expanding to the other side of the wall. In 2022, we want to build another LegendTrick Gym in Helsinki. And then, one in Berlin!” If Saarela’s long-time business partner Anssi Nurmi, continues living there, that is. Furthermore, Saarela wants to document his process and share the wisdom he’s gained, in order to help other trickers around the world to found more gyms. “Because that’s what the scene needs,” he asserts.
The hunger doesn’t stop there. Yet another goal is performing more, but in the form of his own productions rather than doing gigs for others. His vision is a theatre show with 5-10 performers, with an emphasis on tricking, sprinkled with elements from dance and modern circus.
The thought is exciting: will tricking get the public recognition and respect it deserves? Will the well-dressed audiences flock to admire the novelty? As Saarela says, it has potential. And after witnessing where pure willpower has brought him, it’s not hard to imagine this dream coming true, too.
Finally – How To Be Unstoppable?
If I had to describe Saarela’s general vibe with one word, I’d say it’s free. Not only in the obvious sense of his freedom of movement, but evidently, freedom and happiness are the rewards of years of hard work in order to make your own meaning. He gets to be in his element all the time, and it shows. What advice would he give to someone that also wants to create their own unique thing?
“Trust the process of doing what you enjoy. It’s hard work, obviously, so your work ethic has to be high. Often, you’ll overestimate what you can do in a short time, but underestimate what you can achieve in the long run,” he wisely states.
We discuss the very human trait of wanting immediate results. However, it’s important to not get demotivated: working for a long period of time in uncertainty and without visible rewards is a part of the process. Bringing up the psychological study on delayed gratification as an example, Saarela highlights the importance of consistency and perseverance. “If you do one small thing towards your goal every day, it’s enough.”
If you don’t take my word for it, take a peek: