Like any extreme sport, wakeboarding provides a mix of creativity, hazards and thrills that draws in anyone from the professional level to the beginners.
For those not familiar with the action sport, wakeboarders are pulled by a rope from a boat, jumping from the trails worn in the water called wakes at speeds averaging around 24 mph — though the sport has evolved to become much more than that.
When you start looking for major athletes in the world of wakeboarding, Steel Lafferty is one of the biggest names. To put it in context, Steel is on the Wikipedia page for wakeboarding, so that’s a pretty good indication of what he’s accomplished in the sport. He’s also sponsored by Red Bull, one of the largest sponsors in extreme sports.
One day at home, his dad placed a wakeboard in his hands straight off the shelf from Sports Authority. Lafferty tried out the board at the lake house his family went to every summer and loved it. Lafferty got better over time the more he practiced. Then at age 12, he went to a contest and won.
Older friends taught him tricks and eventually he learned more from pro wakeboarders. He realized he could make a career out of what he loved. After numerous wins on the pro-am circuit, Lafferty went pro in 2009.
“That feeling was epic, it’s like a pinnacle [of my career] and a feeling you don’t forget,” Lafferty said about his signing with Red Bull. “I remember getting my first Red Bull hat — then you’re legit.”
The Ft. Lauderdale native has the distinction of being the first to land four new tricks in competition. Lafferty sees inventing new tricks and pushing the sport of wakeboarding as more important than simply winning contests.
Over his eight-year career, Lafferty has essentially pioneered four tricks in competition — a wake to wake 1080, a toeside backside 900, a backside 1080 off the double off, and the double half cab roll to the flats (all of which you can see for yourself online). Before him, no one had completed these in a competitive setting.
“Those four tricks, they were [something] I just did, something nobody in the world had ever done. They’ll be remembered as long as wakeboarding is around,” Lafferty said.
Lafferty had advice for young wakeboarders — make a name for yourself and have as much fun as possible.
“Live the lifestyle. Push yourself and progress. One of the most fun things about wakeboarding and other sports is progressing. Push yourself but have fun too, because if you’re not having fun, then there’s no point. Don’t conform to what you think judges want to see in a contest. Put your own style on it, make wakeboarding different.”
Local wakeboarder Robby Goad is only 8 years old and is still learning to do basic tricks like a front roll, but he agreed with Lafferty’s advice. “It’s not about winning,” Robby said.
“I would say Lafferty was spot on. It‘s about going out there and having the best time and doing the best you can do,” said Kurt Goad, who is Robby’s father. “I tell Robby in anything he does, just have fun.”
Some kids prefer video games, others prefer wakeboarding. An extreme sports junkie, Robby also races in motocross and windsurfs.
“It feels, I don’t really know, kind of like flying. I like being in the air and the jumping,” Robby said.
His arsenal of tricks might not be as extensive as Lafferty’s, but the 8-year-old can hit a frontside wake, a toeside wake, a heelside 180, an ollie 180 and a 360.
Robby started when he was 5 and hasn’t looked back. His dad took him to Black Creek, a popular wakeboarding destination near Fleming Island, to hone Robby’s skills.
“He kept saying he wanted to try it, so we pulled him on a jet ski,” Kurt said. “And he’s been wakeboarding ever since.”
Robby won his first competition in his age group in Jacksonville, so Kurt bought a ski boat to get Robby some more practice wakeboarding on Black Creek. Kurt then took Robby to Orlando, the epicenter of wakeboarding in Florida for competitions.
Robby placed high, and he also met Darin Shapiro and his son. Shapiro is the most successful rider in the history of the sport, with 12 world titles and six medals at the X Games.
Robby’s transition to the sport hasn’t come without some growing pains. He usually wants to finish his runs strong with a front flip. One time, it didn’t work out well. Robby’s board came up and hit him in the head.
“The hardest part about wakeboarding is falling. It hurts badly sometimes,” Robby said.
“He takes it in stride. He always gets up,” Kurt said.