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‘90s skating prodigy Brandon Turner is back, with a new mission in Pacific Beach

Brandon Turner, 39, does a trick at the Linda Vista Skate Park on Dec. 15.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

In his teens, skateboarder “Li’l B” toured the world, but partying derailed his life and career. Now he’s helping others stay clean

Twenty years ago, teen prodigy Brandon “Li’l B” Turner of San Diego was a global superstar in the skateboarding world.

But with that fame came money, alcohol and drugs. By his 20s, Turner had tipped into a downward spiral of using and selling drugs and stints in jail and prison. In 2016, Turner got sober, got fit and got back on his board in a serious way. Now 39, he’s not only skating professionally again, he’s a recovery coach who is using his talent and experience as a teaching tool to help other addicts stay clean.

A couple times each week, Turner takes up to 15 clients at the Healthy Life Recovery rehab center in Pacific Beach to local skate parks where he teaches skating skills, shares his story and encourages others to adopt a healthy lifestyle to keep temptations at bay.

“If anyone is coming from a place of isolation or struggle with addiction, you can pick up a skateboard anywhere in the world and you’re going to find a friend,” Turner said in a recent interview. “I just try to expose people who are interested to the lifestyle I lived. We don’t discuss skateboarding, we meditate. We do organic daily check-ins. We talk about learning how to live life on life’s terms without drugs and having skateboarding as an outlet.”

Brandon Turner, 39, pauses after warming up doing a few skateboard tricks at the Linda Vista Skate Park on Dec. 15.
Brandon Turner, 39, pauses after warming up doing a few skateboard tricks at the Linda Vista Skate Park on Dec. 15.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ryan Witt, who co-founded Healthy Life Recovery two years ago, said he has heard nothing but positive feedback from clients since Brandon joined the coaching staff a year ago.

“They love it. He’s saving lives,” Witt said. “I get calls all the time from people who say they’ve been struggling for years but his inspiration finally gave them courage to say, ‘Hey, I have a problem and I’m ready to fix it.’”

Witt said Turner’s recovery is very much in keeping with the skating mantra: “You’re going to have bad days and fall down. But to get back up and keep going is what keeps your sobriety. That’s what it’s all about.”

Turner grew up in a Navy family in San Diego. When he was 7 years old, his father got orders to move the family to Japan. By that time, Turner had already been skating for several years, but his prized skateboard was stolen during their move to Japan.

When he finally got another board two years later in Japan, Turner sought out a group of young Japanese skaters who taught him to speak the language and their unique style of trick-riding and jumping. Before his family moved back to San Diego when he was 12 years old, he already had landed his first skateboard product sponsor.

Brandon Turner chats with Vivian Gunther at the Linda Vista Skate Park on Dec. 15.
Brandon Turner chats with Vivian Gunther at the Linda Vista Skate Park on Dec. 15. The San Diego native now counsels rehab patients on maintaining sobriety through skateboarding.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Eager to tap into San Diego’s skating network, the seventh-grader tracked down then-teen phenom Peter Smolik who took Turner under his wing and helped him land a new sponsor, Voice Skateboards. Through Voice, and later with Shorty’s Skateboards when he turned pro at 18, Turner spent most of his teen years and early 20s touring the world doing stunt shows, demonstrations and appearances.

In a recent video interview for Jenkem Magazine, fellow Shorty’s team member Chad Muska said Brandon — who went by the nickname “Li’l B” back then — was known for his “crazy stunts” and absolute fearlessness. The touring was relentless and the money was rolling in. Turner told Thrasher magazine last summer that one point during his touring years, he was making up to $60,000 a month.

“It was amazing,” Turner said in a telephone interview. “We had huge budgets and we were traveling multiple countries at a time. It was a crazy time of my life to experience a lot of different cultures and people and share our vision and artistic creations through our products. It really changed my life and gave me a lot of new connections. It was surreal to me and really humbling.”

But a big part of the skating lifestyle is celebration, and the partying never ended for Turner. Sometimes he sees old photos of himself performing in different cities around the world and he draws a blank. “There was a lot of partying going on and drinking, so some of it is like a blur to me.”

For Turner, drinking and taking drugs amplified his inner daredevil spirit, which often led to serious injuries. Afraid of getting arrested for underage drinking in a park, he jumped off a bridge near Mission Beach and broke his leg. A year later, he nearly died at a friend’s party.

“I was in front of a party and was intoxicated and got run over by a car,” he said. “I broke my leg and ended up on life support and flatlined a few times,” he said. “It got out of hand with the partying. I started losing control of myself and making bad decisions.”

Brandon Turner, 39, pauses after warming up doing a few skate tricks at Linda Vista Skate Park on Dec. 15.
Brandon Turner, 39, pauses after warming up doing a few skate tricks at Linda Vista Skate Park on Dec. 15.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Although he never stopped skating, Turner said the “street lifestyle” of using and selling drugs and cycling in and out of jail took over his life in his 20s and early 30s. Finally a year or so after getting out of prison, Turner got sober about 4-1/2 years ago. He said it wasn’t an overnight lightbulb moment that helped him stop using, but a gradual series of steps where he learned to set safe personal boundaries for himself.

He started skating purposefully every day, educating himself on self-help philosophies and eating a healthy diet. He also started taking Pilates classes to get his body back in shape and became a certified Pilates instructor. The next step in his recovery journey was to find a way to share what he’d learned with others.

Witt was introduced to Turner through a co-worker last year. He was so impressed by Turner’s personal story and genuine commitment to recovery that he offered him a job on the spot.

“I’ve always been told America loves the underdog and he was the quintessential underdog,” Witt said. “Here was this kid who had childhood fame and all the odds were stacked against him. And now he’s doing things nobody had done before.”

Over the past year, Turner has been filmed undertaking a series of extreme jumps and tricks around San Diego and San Francisco that can be seen at facebook.com/brandon.turner.7146. He also launched Gift, a global clothing brand with his former skating tour mate Sammy Baptista. His next goal is to open a creative space in San Diego where people can practice skateboarding and make art and music.

“I feel better than I’ve ever felt in my life,” Turner said. “That just goes to show you with certain lifestyle changes, anyone is capable of anything. That’s my message. If you really take control of your life and live a healthy lifestyle, the sky is really the limit.”


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