Get It, Guenther?
There is something refreshing about the unbridled fire that burns in young riders. From the perspective of years inside wakeboarding it can seem naive or even brash, but the fuel that feeds it is pure passion – a love for the sport they’re still learning so much about. That is the case with Guenther Oka, perhaps the best all-around barely-legal rider on the planet. Six months ago Guenther was another 17-year-old kid hopeful of breaking through and legitimately making it. Not making it in terms of slapping stickers on his board and living off the bank of Mom and Dad, but making it by actually making some noise and getting contracts. Last year he dropped a couple videos that turned heads and the rumblings could be heard amongst riders and team managers alike. Guenther was a kid to look out for. Now he’s doing his best to prove those rumblings true and surpass expectations – and he’s doing a damn good job doing it. A wild card entry into this year’s Jamboree, Guenther left Texas with the respect and admiration of all the other riders there. And just before this issue went to print he snagged a victory at FISE in France. We sat down with Guenther just before and after Jamboree, hoping he’d have a good experience at the famed event and provide the unique inside of a kid just starting his career as a pro. What amazed us was not just how passionate Guenther is about wakeboarding, but how poised he is about what it’s going to take to be successful in the future and what might need to be done to keep the sport alive and growing.
Garrett Cortese: Here we go, you’re on record.
Guenther Oka: I better watch what I say! (laughs)
GC: What’s it been like for you getting to know a lot of the riders and getting more involved in the scene?
GO: It’s definitely been interesting. I’ve noticed that a lot of wakeboarders are portrayed a lot different than they really are. Like before I met Henshaw I just thought he was this old guy that doesn’t really like the younger generation of wakeboarding.
GC: Where did you get that impression from?
GO: Social media, for sure. This was a while back, but when Dowdy said some stuff in “Prime” and there was some back-and-forth on Twitter (between Dowdy and Henshaw), and that was part of the impression I had of Henny. But when you meet him in person it’s totally different. And it’s kind of the same with Dowdy. After I moved in with him people asked me stuff like “Is he really an asshole?!” and things like that. But it’s like, no, he’s a cool guy, he can just come across more serious and he means what he says.
GC: Have you found that for the most part guys are cooler than what they portray on social media?
GO: For the most part, guys are always more laid back. They are normal, cool people who are just really good at wakeboarding. Social media can definitely twist perceptions though.
Bradlee Rutledge: Social media can be good and bad.
GC: Yeah, like some people probably think the guys who comment on every wakeboarding post via Instagram bots are cool…
GO: (laughing) “Oh, this guy commented on my picture, he must be rad!”
GC: Do you have more fun riding park or boat now?
GO: I don’t know. They help each other so you don’t get burned out. When one starts to get old you switch to the other. I think a solid mixture of both not only keeps it fun, but helps your style. I couldn’t focus on just one thing.
GC: Do you not have the competitive mentality where you want to focus on one thing, dial it in and be regimented about it?
GO: Well I’m here to take things seriously, you know. Before a contest I’ll try to focus in – like before Wake Open I was taking a couple boat sets a day. But at the same time I was still finding time to get some park riding in – going out to Henshaw’s. To me it’s all about having fun, but at this point (in my career) where it’s time to be serious about some things you’ve got to take the time to be serious. So it’s a balance.
GC: Is that a weird transition to make? Going from a kid in Ohio who loves to wakeboard to moving to Orlando and becoming a pro with some contracts to live up to?
GO: It is weird. It almost goes against everything I’ve ever done. For the longest time it wasn’t about contests or videos, it was just about riding for fun. That’s why I’d go to the lake every weekend in the summer. But now I’m at this point where it’s getting to be a job and there’s almost more pressure involved and it’s getting more serious. So that’s weird, but I think it’s a good transition because it is what I’ve always wanted. I think as long as I can keep the balance between fun and business that will be a good way to go.
GC: What’s your school situation then? Are you done?
GO: No, I’m actually a senior right now, but I do online high school. It’s kind of a joke, but I get good grades, will get a degree – that keeps the parents happy (laughs). I tried to convince my parents to let me move earlier but they weren’t having it. What actually convinced them was running into Mike Dowdy’s mom at an INT event. My mom didn’t know who she was, they were just chatting about wakeboarding, and she mentioned how Mike started doing online school to move to Orlando and ride more. I think that helped convince her it would be okay for me to go. They’ve been really supportive.
GC: What was school like before you came to Orlando?
GO: It sucked (laughing). Seriously. It just wasn’t for me. I went because I had to, but as soon as I was done I was out and I’d head home or to the cable. I never got involved with many activities or anything. I feel like moving out at this age was kind of weird at first, but in the long run I think it’s definitely helped.
GC: Are you even 18 yet?
GO: No, I turn 18 July 2, but I feel like I’m doing a lot of the adult things I need to be doing to take care of myself in the real world.
GC: What was the weirdest thing for you to learn or start doing on your own?
BR: Probably laundry, right? (laughs)
GO: Laundry was pretty easy, actually, I thought it was gonna be way harder (laughing). I just put it all in…
BR: Yeah, just put it all in at once and put it on cold so it doesn’t run…
GO: Wait, what do you do?
BR: Put it on cold, so then your colors don’t run and your clothes don’t shrink as much. But I always pull out my shirts before I dry them, otherwise they shrink too much and you’re always pulling on them trying to stretch them back out.
GO: Totally! I hate it when they get too tight! I’ll have to keep that in mind… But I think the hardest thing for me was just being responsible for yourself. You have nobody to answer to. Being able to live with Dowdy at first helped a lot because of how responsible he is, it taught me a lot.
GC: Are you cooking for yourself?
GO: Yeah my cooking’s definitely improved! (laughs) Last year there was a lot of ramen, a lot of cereal… but now I’ve upgraded to making full meals.
GC: What’s it feel like to have won the Wild Card for this year’s Jamboree?
GO: It’s like a dream come true. Probably the last thing on my list of what I expected to happen to me. Last year I watched everything I could from the Jamboree because I thought it was the sickest contest ever. I knew I wanted to make a wild video for it this year, but I never expected it to turn out the way it did. I thought I was just going to have to film it all at OWC, but when Kevin told me I could do it at Area 52 I was floored. I think that’s what made it really unique.
GC: Who filmed it?
GO: Taylor Hanley. He was awesome. He had a full plate but made time to help me with it.
GC: How many times did you film together?
GO: Just once. We got it done in a few hours I think.
GC: What are your goals heading into Jamboree?
GO: Last year you didn’t see much photos or video from the wild card winner, so my goal is to go in there and try to make some noise. I want to prove that I deserved to be there and get the votes that I did.
BR: That it wasn’t an internet fluke?
GO: (laughing) Exactly. Really though I just want to ride with those guys and show that I’m legit, that I can do this, that I can roll with everybody else and that I’m not just getting lucky. It’s not going to be easy. The list of all the riders is all the sport’s heavy hitters. Even just being there I think is going to help my riding and my attitude toward wakeboarding, so I’m stoked to take it all in. A little nervous (laughs), but stoked.
poking some tail North and South. Photo: Rutledge
ONE WEEK LATER…
GC: So how was Jamboree?
GO: It was unreal. Absolutely hands-down the best event I’ve ever been to. I saw the best riding I’ve ever seen and had probably the best time ever.
GC: How were you feeling going into it?
GO: I was a pretty solid mix of stoke and nerves (laughs). When I got there with all the guys and we got to see the setup there was definitely some fear factor, but the next day when we got to start hitting it, it was awesome.
GC: Were you able to ride to your expectations? You said you wanted to prove you deserved to be there. Did you?
GO: I think so. I wanted to prove my video wasn’t a fluke, I wanted to follow through with it and show the guys in person that I deserved to be there and I think I did.
GC: What was one highlight for you?
GO: Raph Derome. Ending the whole weekend with a double indy tantrum to blind up the road gap. They had the Rockstar bus pulled around the back and everybody was either on top of the roof or standing next to it watching him ride and he goes out and kills it. First hit, first try: double indy tantrum. Couple more hits and then just drops a perfectly clean double indy tantrum to blind. Everybody lost it. It was unreal.
GC: So as a younger kid coming up and becoming a pro, what does being around an environment like that do for your psyche and goals as a rider?
GO: It’s inspiring more than anything. Those are all the dudes that I’ve always looked up to and still look up to. To see them pushing their riding and still killing it just makes me want to go out there and ride even harder.
GC: What was your personal highlight at Jamboree, for your own riding?
GO: On the last day everybody was at the road gap watching each other ride. I was just coming over as Nico was finishing up and he did a double cab roll up the gap into the top pool. I’d been wanting to try it, but was a little hesitant. That helped convince me to go for it, so I hopped in and first try stomped it. I was so pumped on that.
GC: What do you think an event like Jamboree means to wakeboarding and the future of wakeboarding?
GO: I think it’s the best event that there can be for wakeboarding because you have all the best riders together, not necessarily competing, but definitely pushing each other. When you have an environment like that without the pressures of a contest, that’s when guys ride their best and that’s when the sport sees a ton of progression.
GC: Who do you normally ride with in Orlando?
GO: I ride with the Jessamine and Conway crews mainly. The Conway Kids (laughs), I got the stickers on my board to represent. For cable I’ve been able to get myself into Area 52 and start riding with that crew more.
GC: What’s it like to be in the Area 52 mix now?
GO: It’s definitely fun. Everybody out there has been around the block and they’re into what they’re doing. A lot of the guys right in Orlando (that I ride boat with) are really into boat riding, contests, and being “the best wakeboarder”. But out at Area 52 it seems like it’s more of a do-your-own-thing approach where you can focus on being creative and stuff. I kind of have to shift back and forth depending on who I’m with (laughs) because I definitely see myself as both a boat and cable kid.
GC: Do you think too many riders your age get too focused on the contest side of things?
GO: Oh definitely. There are riders who kill it behind the boat but they don’t try to put together an edit or set up photo shoots – and if they do make a video it’s all gnarly mobes and spins. They just go and learn the hardest tricks and try to make them consistent. I think sometimes kids forget how fun it can be – and how good it can look – to slow down a bit and do tricks that are more simple and stylish.
BR: What’s it been like to get some contracts this year from Liquid Force and O’Neill and start becoming more of a legit pro? Does it add any pressure?
GO: At this point still it’s kind of unreal (laughing). I almost forget sometimes exactly what’s going on – where I have different sponsors to cater to and commitments to fulfill and all that. Up until January I was just doing me, I didn’t have any contracts with anybody ever before, so it’s definitely a change. I wouldn’t say it’s more pressure though, for me it’s more motivation. I think guys can get that mixed up, too. It’s motivation for me to prove those sponsors right – that I was a good choice and worth the investment.
BR: What are your plans the rest of the year. Are you gonna live the endless summer and try to go somewhere else over the winter?
GO: I don’t know yet. I’ve got FISE after this, then Plastic Playground and some other contests. I’m gonna get involved in some of the Liquid Force Free 4 All stuff, too, those events are awesome. Later on I might go to the Philippines for a month or so, I need to figure some things out.
GC: Have you gotten to do much international travel yet?
GO: I got to go to China last year for a cable World Cup stop. Everybody kept telling me that it was going to be awful, but I had a great time. We were in Shanghai and it was pretty rad.
BR: What was the cable setup like? Didn’t you have to do a lot of air tricks?
GO: Yeah, we had a rainbow box, a transfer box, and a kicker. So there were a lot of air tricks (laughs).
GC: How’s your air trick game?
GO: It’s pretty strong… I got Wakezeached for an Instagram post of it (laughing). I think calling stuff out needs to happen.
GC: What other than style or tricks need to be called out?
GO: I know I’m still pretty new to all of this – I haven’t been “in” in the industry very long, but just looking at it now a little bit from the inside it seems like a lot of riders don’t get enough opportunities. I feel like wakeboarding needs to get younger and stay progressive to keep growing – and I’m not just saying that because I’m a young guy trying to make it. I see riders like JD, Oli, Dean, and Henshaw, they are getting into their 30s and still proving that they can be progressive and stay current! If it wasn’t for the older generations of riders helping younger riders and giving back, then nothing would happen. But just from what I’ve seen in the last year or so, I see kids who are actually wanting to get shit done and they’re hungry and want to be at the top but can’t afford to do it because they aren’t getting contracts. I think it’s pretty evident that some brands hold on to some of the riders for too long, to the point where it isn’t allowing the sport to grow anymore. So I feel like if wakeboarding is going to keep growing in the future, it needs to let go and be smart about staying young.
Proving the next generations knows a thing or two about style. Photo: Rutledge
GC: So since you’re part of the younger new generation, and you come from a background where you were a big fan, did you find it hard to relate to older pro riders as a young fan?
GO: No, I mean I’m a wake fan, I love everything about it. I still look up to a lot of the older generation of riders and I have a lot, a lot of respect for everything they’ve done. They’ve paved the way and made the sport what it is now. But if the road is going to continue then some older guys are going to have to pass the torch and let younger guys be able to make a living to keep the sport progressing and growing. Obviously it makes sense that I’m saying this because I’m part of the younger generation now and have visions of the way I think things should be or could be, but I think looking back at the history of the sport there are always times where a young group of riders comes in to make their mark and an older generation sort of passes the torch. Right now I feel like there are older guys who have earned their contracts over years of riding and pushing the sport that aren’t going to want to give those up. At some point though it has to happen or the sport will die. If young riders can’t come in and get paid to do it, the sport won’t grow at all.
GC: What is your vision of how things could and should be? What is your vision of wakeboarding’s future?
GO: I think wakeboarding is on the right path and I see cable as a big part of its growth. It just makes sense in that it’s easier to access for a lot of different people, all the equipment is right there, and you can go for the day either by yourself or with a bunch of people and have a blast. Obviously being out on the boat is awesome, it’s a great environment and lifestyle, but some of these boats are over $200,000 now, which is crazy. Who can do that or would want to when you’ve got a park nearby for way cheaper? The more parks that keep popping up the more people will get on boards and the more the sport will grow. The money might not be with cable parks (in the States) right now, but I’m hoping that’s where it’s going to lead to.