Kevin “K-Rob” Robinson may be a four-time X Games gold medalist and freestyle BMX champion, but when we meet him at the new skate park in East Providence, he’s playing the role of maintenance worker, picking up odd bits of trash scattered among the halfpipe, box jumps, ramps and spines. The park isn’t scheduled to open for another week – the features are still unfinished wood – but that hasn’t stopped local kids from rolling in on their bikes, skateboards and inline skates for a sneak preview in early July.
A proud smile plays across the face of K-Rob, 44, as he watches a trio of young BMX bikers playing on the halfpipe at the Onna Moniz-John Neighborhood Park on Central Avenue, knowing that no orange fencing or keep-out signs would have stopped his younger self from dropping in, either. Plus, getting kids like these involved in athletics is why he launched the K-Rob Foundation seven years ago: the skate park is a joint venture between the foundation, which contributed $30,000 toward its construction, and the City of East Providence, which added $20,000 in public funds. Businesses, sponsors and fellow athletes have all contributed to the foundation, which also raises money through events like the annual Family Fun Fest in Crescent Park.
“My goal from day one was to build a skate park in my hometown,” says K-Rob, who grew up about two miles away from the park and now resides in Barrington.
K-Rob launched his BMX career on homemade ramps in a friend’s backyard in Riverside in the early 1980s, and he literally grew up alongside the X Games, competing in ESPN’s very first “Extreme Games” in Rhode Island in 1995 and medaling in seven X Games and a variety of other competitions. His 17-year career took him all over the world and into the company of athletes like skateboarding legend Tony Hawk, BMX veteran Dennis McCoy and football star Junior Seau.
The X Games have made extreme sports into big business, but back in the ‘80s, K-Rob was a long way from the BMX hotbed of Southern California. In fact, the sport was such a novelty that his first paying gig was as part of a trick-riding group that performed with a traveling circus. “We did shows at state fairs, hung around with carnies – it was the best experience ever,” he recalls.
Two decades, a hip replacement and countless broken bones later, K-Rob is officially retired from competition – but not from riding. A motivational speaker, he has traveled to hundreds of schools across New England to talk to kids about self-belief, bullying prevention, overcoming adversity and bike safety – all delivered from the seat of a custom Hoffman BMX bike and interspersed with tricks that help keep students engaged and entertained. K-Rob also runs bike, skateboard and scooter stunt shows, and works as a BMX commentator for ESPN.
And he’s got at least one more trick up his sleeve – a big one. On August 13, K-Rob will attempt to set a new Guinness Book of World Records mark by doing a 100-foot, ramp-to-ramp, no-handed backflip in Kennedy Plaza. The “K-Rob Flips Providence” event will be broadcast live and also shown on ESPN2’s World of X Games the following day.
A winch will propel K-Rob to speeds of nearly 50 miles per hour as he approaches the eight-foot takeoff ramp, and if all goes well he will let go of the handlebars as he flips at about 18 feet in the air before dropping onto the 12-foot landing ramp.
The trick, with its national media exposure, represents a bookend of sorts for K-Rob and Providence, where the 20th anniversary of the first X Games has sparked discussions about bringing the event back to the city. K-Rob is so confident that he will nail the trick (he has successfully landed an 85-footer in practice) that he’s planning to include his 81-year-old father in the stunt: it’s a throwback to 1995, when he bunnyhopped his bike over the senior Robinson as part of an Extreme Games exhibition.
This isn’t a case of an old-timer coming back for one last moment in the spotlight: McCoy is still competing at age 49, and all three BMX vert medalists at the 2016 X Games were over 40, so clearly K-Rob could still be in the game if he chose to be. “I wasn’t enjoying competing anymore,” says K-Rob about his decision to retire. “For me, it never was about winning, but about pushing my own progression.” Going for a record jump in Providence this month makes perfect sense, then, for a guy who pioneered the no-handed flair on the halfpipe and is still inventing new bike tricks in his spare time.
“I feel really healthy and good on the bike, but I’m doing it now for my own reasons, not to make sponsors happy,” says K-Rob, who could have tried his record-setting stunt anywhere but insisted upon returning to Kennedy Plaza, where the X Games and his career begin two decades ago. “I wanted to do something fun and exciting, and also to do something awesome for the state of Rhode Island.” X Games vice president Tim Reid says he, too, is excited to bring fans back to the competition’s roots. “After more than 20 years of events, X Games remains tied to the progression of action sports, and Robinson’s flip will be the next chapter,” he says.
For K-Rob, the risk of performing is outweighed by the reward of demonstrating that you can continue to strive to be your best, even when you’re not competing for trophies. “You find your purpose in life: we all have talents and things we’re good at, and I feel like mine is to inspire people,” he says. “There’s a lot of negativity out there right now. So if you’re in a position to inspire people – whether it’s two or two million – it’s important to capitalize on that.”