2005 Rider Of The Year: Ben Greenwood
By Tony Smith
Wakeboarding used to have two kinds of guys: skiboarders and freeriders. Today we have all kinds. There are contest guys and video guys. Travel veterans and camp rats. Big air guys, wake-to-wakers, spinners, flippers, huckers, rail masters and crazy gap chargers. There are tour bussers, cable experts, Euro circuit dogs, surf specialists, West Siders, long liners and rock stars. And then there is Ben Greenwood.
And so a new category: The technically perfect guy.
It’s a little hard to explain without being there to see, though. Technical proficiency is a subtle, underappreciated art in our realm, for sure, but there’s no getting around it with Ben. Every grab is exact, every movement controlled and every move made to look easier than it is. There’s no case to be made for or against the way Ben rides, it is what it is — the real thing, without doubt. That’s the major reason he was voted the 2005 Rider of the Year by this staff and the former winners of that title.
At first glance it’s hard to tell where Ben Greenwood is from. He cheers hard for the Boston Red Sox, but has a New York phone number and New Hampshire license plates. But figuratively he’s straight out of nowhere. For a long time he was just “that guy who coaches at the Wakeboard Camp”, one of the many that have made the high-hoped move to Clermont only to bask daily in 95-degree heat and relative obscurity. He certainly doesn’t have the traditional wakeboarding pedigree of some of his contemporaries: no silver spoon and new Nautique parked in a Florida backyard, or transforming from West Coast snowboarder to wakeboarder. Which is not to say he hasn’t been riding for a long time, he just came from WAY on the outskirts, spending the short New England summers on his family’s boat before going away to college in upstate New York (Skidmore) to get a degree and play soccer. When school was done he picked up wakeboarding again, and eventually he had a run in at a clinic/contest with then-pro Keith Kipp, who unknowingly convinced him to follow his passion.
“I didn’t even realize it was the same guy,” Kipp said recently. “I remember going to a clinic up on Lake Placid years ago and there was this kid that landed his first Pete Rose when I was in the boat, and I told him that he was good and he should give it a try (professionally). But even now it took me a while to recognize that was the same kid.”
“Yeah, I remember Keith telling me that I should try to move to Florida to make it as a pro and I was blown away,” says Greenwood. “I mean I was this nobody but what he said started to make me think I could possibly do it. He seriously made me think I could.”
Once that seed was sown it was a fellow New Englander that nurtured it along.
“I met him up north a few times and I could just tell how good he was,” says long time friend Keith Lyman. “So I asked him to move down to Florida with me and my sister so I could have someone to ride with. I didn’t really take him seriously when he said he would but then he called me like a week later and said, ‘I’m moving down.’ We had a three bedroom place with me and my sister and her friend and I realized he wasn’t going to have a room, so I pitched a tent in the backyard for about a year so he could have a room and I could have someone to ride with. And he was like, ‘I wouldn’t have moved down here if I knew I was going to put you out of your room.’ But he totally helped me out with my riding back then.”
“Yeah, I felt really bad about that,” Greenwood responds. “I’d come downstairs in the morning during the winter and Keith would be on the couch because it was too cold out in the tent. He was the one who helped me out though; I never would have gotten to this point if he hadn’t done something like that.”
While that sounds eternally humble, peel away a few genuine layers of humility and you’ll realize that Ben isn’t actually quite as doe-eyed as he seems. No, maybe that’s too presumptuous – his instinct is evident, rather than his ego. You don’t get to his level without one or the other. That instinct has made him not only learn the moves that would get him there, but molded the basis for how and why he rides the way he does today. Which is a rider who is all about respect, both getting it and giving it, particularly on the water. His nod to the proper and precise way of wakeboarding are not only a personal choice, but seemingly a show of reverence to the life he has come into. Surely one of the reasons that everyone wakeboards professionally is to sustain a reputation for doing it a certain way, and Ben’s way is, to quote Charles Gaines, “gracefully, and with the proper respect of grace.” That’s why the moves are so defined, the linking of them so seamless and, in the end, why he is at the same time both fun and inspiring behind the boat.
For those of you not fortunate enough to ever have spent much time watching professionals ride, particularly a rider the caliber of Ben Greenwood, it is an awesome display of both daring and subtlety. The most extreme example our sport has ever known would probably be Randall Harris, who walked the fine line between chaos and control every time he hit the wake. At any given moment when Randy was (or is, nobody really knows) riding you may see the most amazing move of your life. Ben’s riding over the last year has to be considered in the same ballpark. While the audacity is noticeably more toned down, the control factor is that much more demonstrative. A typical day’s freeriding session includes the following: heelside 5’s grabbed in every legal spot on the board (switch and regular), a perfect, never-missed nose grabbed Pete Rose, an actual method backside 180 into the flats, toeside nose grabbed backside 360, (poked) melan 720’s, from both sides of the wake, indy ole 720’s (switch and regular), (poked) mute 720, on-axis indy backside 540, melan backside 3, etc. And all while passing the handle to his front hand before he lands. The list goes on and on like that and though it seems weird to explain it that way, that’s the picture that needs to be painted in lieu of actually seeing it live. It is an exercise in both athleticism and poise, without mentioning just being correct. In 2005, a year when the nuclear grab inexplicably became in vogue, someone was heralded for doing a back flip over a rail, people were still doing batwings in competition, something called a whirly dick was invented and a host of other moves that just plain didn’t look good were thrown carelessly around, it’s nice to know someone out there was blazing a path in the opposite direction by slowing things down instead of speeding them up.
Without getting too much up in our own stuff, it is important to know that Ben’s election as Rider of the Year didn’t have everything to do with just the way he rides. There are certain other factors that come into play that, while not required, help mold a total picture of a person that had a year everyone could aspire to. One of the single most impressive things about Ben over the course of the last 12 months is that he came back from two significant injuries – a blown ACL that was just starting to heal this time last year, and a shoulder injury that kept him off the water for most of the early winter.
“It’s kind of predictable to say, but the whole knee injury made me better and more motivated,” Ben says. “It certainly had me wanting to be out there more. Not necessarily to prove myself, but just because I missed it a lot and when I came back I wanted to see where I could go with it. Hey I’m 27, and I realize I’m not going to be charging double ups when I’m 35, so I’m just trying to capitalize on things while they’re good. I don’t really feel like I deserve recognition or anything though. Every time I read in Alliance how underrated I am, I never feel like that. I don’t feel like people should be all about me.”
It was hard not to be all about him though once the injuries proved to be healed and Ben hit the water again. By that time he had also taken on another full-time job, becoming the wake team manager for Quiksilver in January. Think about that for a minute when you consider his year: he was an elder team member trying to come back from injury on an already stacked board team, was also in the midst of his most traveled season as a pro (doing several stints in Europe and, at one point, flying back there for two weeks after having been on the road for three and home all of 24 hours), all while trying to learn the ropes of a new job in his spare time. The fact that his riding not only came back all the way from those injuries but actually improved during that time is hard to believe.
“The job with Quik has almost given me a different outlook on things, not necessarily because of responsibility that I have with the company, but of responsibility to the sport now, rather than just representing it as a rider. Now I’m actually in a position to have an affect on it the whole spot other than just by myself, by building a team and making the marketing track the way I feel it should be. So as slow as it was to get to the point I was, where I was finally making it as a rider, it really feels like the last year has been all to get to this point,” he says. “There was no real defining moment over the last year; it’s all suddenly meshed into what it is now.”
While he certainly must have some idea that his riding is among today’s best, Ben’s demeanor doesn’t suggest it. Consider that when we told him that he had been chosen as the Rider of the Year he was literally speechless for the next five minutes. Similarly, when asked about his peers, specifically who he would vote for ROTY in 2005, he replied strongly, “Danny Harf. That kid is shocking, to be able to do what he does in contests and make it look like he does … there are very, very few people that are consistent like that and in the top ten that you would look at their riding and just say, ‘Man that looks so good.’ Not to be insulting, but a lot of the guys have their set runs and they do them better than anyone else, and that’s extremely hard, I’m not going to take any credit away from them, they work their asses off which is great. But I think each one of those guys looks at Danny and thinks, ‘Man, if I could make it look that good I’d be lucky.’ And the fact that he’s learning new shit all the time and making up new stuff … at the point that he’s at he could be like, ‘I’m Danny Harf, I’ve freaking won the X-Games four times, pay me to hang out.’ But he’s at it every day, busting his ass. I don’t even know him that well, but just from what I do know of him it’s completely impressive.”
Nor is Ben immune to having his star struck moments, even though he’s lived in Orlando for the past four years. “Shaun Murray came up to me recently after seeing some video and said, ‘I knew you were good, but I didn’t know you brought that much to the table.’ And that was just a surreal moment for me, because I basically had all of his boards growing up and wanted to ride just like him.”
How do you follow up a year like that? By doing what you do, of course. As Ben admits, when other people tell him that he rides with style, no matter who they may be, that’s the most satisfying thing to him. And while that seems a trivial concern, it is ultimately what he represents as this year’s Rider of the Year. Not chasing his Tour dream or having wild desires, making plans or accomplishing goals, just riding with grace and letting that be enough. It’s a nice luxury to have, provided you do it as well as he does.
We are sometimes accused of being too concerned about the perception of our sport in the eyes of others, but isn’t it better that way? Put more simply: Who more than Ben Greenwood represents wakeboarding at its finest right now, and who more than him would you want to ride like? Because everybody daydreams about riding a certain way, and those thoughts have got to be suspiciously close to how Ben actually does.
“He’s basically a modern day Collin Wright,” says Lyman. “Everything he does is correct, and the thing about it is that people go out and try to mimic it but they can’t really, because they just don’t get it like he does. His style of riding is wakeboarding at it’s best.”
As for Ben, he has a more worldly outlook after his whirlwind year, “I found that I’ll never be satisfied with my own riding. This whole Rider of the Year thing is more motivating to me than anything else. People are appreciating what I’m doing, but I want to exceed those expectations if I can.”