THE CALLING | An Interview with Keith Lyman
Keith one golden morning (photo: Cortese)
Life works in funny ways. So too does the reality of it. Keith Lyman has had a very interesting life up to this point. With his very real decision of enlisting in the armed forces to serve our country it is about to become even more so. Words ultimately won’t ever describe the impact Keith has made on the world of wakeboarding, but thankfully we have photos and video. All you really need to do to get an idea of the legacy Keith is undoubtedly leaving behind is pop in just one or two of his many awe-inspiring video sections. Keith wasn’t just another wakeboarder with a big bag of tricks and a little personality; he rode a wakeboard in a very unique way; one that in the history of the sport could only be compared to one other icon – Randall Harris. Lyman went big. Really big, actually. But he did it with so much fluidity, so much control, and so much style that it really just made everybody else shake their heads in disbelief. While Keith could have stayed on the path as a professional wakeboarder, especially given the recent sponsorship opportunities, he ultimately felt it was time to answer a different calling. A much higher calling. Keith is a self-professed military enthusiast and has been interested in the armed services long before he knew anything about riding sideways behind a boat. After years of making all of us stoked about riding a wakeboard, it is now Keith’s wish and decision to serve our country so that we may still have the freedom that allows us to play on the water. Seeing Keith walk away is bittersweet for all of us at Alliance. We know there will never be another rider like Keith, both on and off the water, but we consider ourselves lucky to have been around and closely involved with his career. Thank you, Keith. Good luck and Godspeed; we know you’ll make us proud.
Alliance: To date, no pro wakeboarder has walked away from their professional wakeboarding career with as many sponsors and as much opportunity as you have today. Why are you choosing to leave what many people would consider their dream opportunity?
Keith Lyman: There are several reasons. The first and the most important reason is that I love my country. I have always wanted to serve in the military, even before I knew what wakeboarding was. It is true that I am leaving a dream job; I have worked extremely hard to get to where I am today. I love wakeboarding and will miss the lifestyle for sure. However, I don’t want to be a 50-year-old man looking back on what I did in life and say, “I really wish I had served.” You only live once and I want to do as much as I can with this one life.
A: When did you first become interested in the military and how did that lead into becoming interested in actually serving?
KL: Since I was a very young kid and found out what the military was and what it stood for I was interested. Throughout my entire childhood I figured I would go to a military academy when I graduated high school. But I discovered wakeboarding when I was about 13 or 14 and my short-term goals sort of changed. My love for the military never faded though.
A: What do you say to those people who say you’re leaving a dream life on the table or that you’re just looking for some sort of hero worship?
KL: I originally did not want to inform anyone other than my close friends and family that I was joining the military. I had plans to not even notify the wakeboarding industry or the fans because of that exact reason. I am not joining the military as a publicity stunt, I am joining the military because I believe that I can do great things there and because I want to serve my country.
A: You are leaving some pretty big shoes to fill in terms of how you ride a wakeboard and approach the sport. Do you see some riders on the horizon who you think can fill them?
KL: I don’t think I have met any young up and coming riders who have as much passion for this sport as I have had. I remember when I was younger, before the industry jaded me, when I would get all worked up if someone said anything negative about the sport or the legends that came before me. I have always been respectful of the athletes who came before me and who helped make this sport what it is today. Although I lost respect for some when I found out later on that they weren’t the best of people. Even for those riders whose life skills I don’t necessarily agree with, I still respect them for what they have done for the sport. But recently I haven’t seen that same respect level in the younger kids. There are some, like Steel Lafferty – that kid is a bad ass. His parents raised him right and I hope to God that he stays that way throughout his career. Another kid that I don’t know too well but who has impressed me not only with his riding, but also with his respect for the “forefathers” is Scott Stewart. I hope he makes it in this biz.
He always had a solid method (photo: Lee)
A: Do you consider yourself a forefather?
KL: Not at all. There were many athletes that came before me and I am just one of many in my wake generation. But I hope I have carved out a small notch on the ever-growing totem pole of wakeboarding.
A: What advice would you give to a young rider trying to make it into the sport today?
KL: Wakeboard because you love it. It is hard to not get wrapped up in all the politics that come with a professional career and it takes a very “switched on” individual to deal with everything. I have seen numerous kids with a lot of potential move down to Florida to try to become pro and end up getting sucked into the party life that unfortunately has consumed so many of the real pros. I would also tell kids to develop patience, infinite fortitude, and a passion for being on the water. If you cannot stay away from the negative things in this industry you will most likely become just another casualty. Stay motivated! Stay focused! Respect the athletes who have done something for this sport and who have come before you. You don’t have to agree with their character or personalities, but respect them for what they have contributed to this sport.
A: You already knew you were leaving wakeboarding to serve in the military before signing a deal with Slingshot, how did that all play out?
KL: That is true. Slingshot actually began actively pursuing me last year once they found out LF was going to let me go for 2011. I knew that I was going to join the military a while before that happened, but I didn’t want to tell anyone. Slingshot was pursuing me so intensely that they began offering to buy me out of my remaining months at LF. So instead of continuing to beat around the bush with them I figured I needed to tell them the reason behind not signing with them. They were really cool with my decision and basically left me alone for a while.
When I finally signed my enlistment contract at the end of the year I realized I would have six months before I left for training. So I began thinking of things I could do to help the time pass. I began thinking about how Slingshot was actively pursuing me and what kind of company they were. I knew they were the only company in the biz to really be making their boards with different materials than everyone else and I became an even bigger fan when I found out that they were making their boards here in the US! I started thinking that maybe they would be interested in letting me have some input on a board, so I contacted Jeff Logosz. I told him exactly what was going on with me and when I was leaving and asked him if he was interested in me helping them design a “big wake” riding board. To my amazement he was stoked on the idea. I had to tell him a couple times that I had already enlisted and would be gone by May and that my professional career was pretty much over, but he was still very excited about the idea.
It’s getting real! (photo: Cortese)
A: How did you come up with the board? Can you tell us more about the special program it’s being built for?
KL: We began to talk about everything I liked in a board and I agreed to ride some of their shapes and see how I felt on a true flex board. Jeff began talking about building a “Lyman” board and I was once again caught off guard. He told me that Slingshot would love to build me a pro model that was “Lyman approved” and how they would give me royalties from it. I told him I was honored, but asked if they would be willing to donate some of the royalties to the Wounded Warrior Program on my behalf. He was ecstatic with that idea. Slingshot actually took my idea one step further when they sent me the contract and in writing said that they will match each royalty per board sold and donate it as well to the Wounded Warrior Foundation. I was stoked on that! So basically now for each Slingshot Lyman board sold $10 will go to the Wounded Warrior Project. WWP is a non-profit foundation that helps our wounded men and women of the armed services. It’s a foundation I truly believe in and am extremely happy to be in a position where not only I can help, but all of my fans can help by purchasing my new Slingshot board.
A: What ultimately made you decide to enlist, even though you had some good sponsorship opportunities on the table?
KL: It was time for me to become a man. The calling over the past couple years has been stronger than ever. The timing couldn’t have been any better with one exception. All of my contracts were set to expire at the end of 2010 and one of the companies that I had worked hard for in years past was deciding to let me go as they felt I was the least valuable rider on the team. So I felt that if I were to enlist then, I wouldn’t have to worry about voiding any contracts and potentially making my exit messy.
Lyman always boosted harder than most (photo: Cortese)
A: You did just sign with Axis though. How did you resolve that?
KL: Right, Axis Boats had been my first boat sponsor since 2004 and I had signed a two-year deal with them. Adam McCall (founder/team manager) and I became really good buddies and everyone that Adam has surrounded himself with at Axis are just plain great people. Their life skills are awesome! Very humble people who are making such a positive impact in this sport with the product and mission they stand for. The team only consisted of Randall and me, which was awesome because I got to know my original hero a little more and was stoked to find out how hard that guy works both with his riding and his spirituality. The kid truly is a bad ass!
When I told Adam that I had enlisted and that it meant that I was going to have to break my contract with Axis he totally understood and said something that shocked me. He wanted to keep me on the team, even though I am retiring as an athlete and most likely won’t be around. He told me that I was part of the family and that I always had a place to ride! That was something that really got my guts turned up and then he took it a step further and told me he would like to do a Lyman commemorative edition Axis. So look out for that in the near future!
A: What is your ultimate goal for your military career? Do you see yourself staying in the military long term?
KL: I can see myself staying in for as long as they will let me. I definitely have my long-term and short-term goals set. I know exactly what I would like to do and where I would like to go within my chosen branch. I have been lucky enough to have some really good friends who are quite knowledgeable about how the military works and what’s available out there so I have a pretty good idea as to what I need to do.
Style. Some have it, some don’t. Keith does. (photo: Lee)
A: How nervous are you about possibly being deployed to a war zone?
KL: I wouldn’t be joining the military during this time of conflict if I were scared of being deployed to a war zone. I don’t think anyone really wants to witness the horror of what happens in a war zone, but to say that I want to go through the training pipeline that I have chosen and not put those skills to use, would be spoken form a coward’s mouth. I am not a coward. I pray for the strength and intellect to do my future job and to do it well.
A: What are you most nervous about as far as starting your military service and all that it entails?
KL: I really don’t fear anything but failure. To me failure is not acceptable so, it’s not something that I worry about.
A: What do you think your legacy is in wakeboarding?
KL: I believe legacies are something that are given to individuals who defined themselves without claiming what they are/were doing. I have done exactly what I have wanted to do on my own terms and it was both a good thing and at times a bad thing. I was brought up with a sense of humility and to be courteous, I absolutely can’t stand and do not put up with cocky, overly confident people who are not courteous. I have bumped heads with several other athletes as well as other industry personalities over the years because of this.
As you can imagine being a professional athlete is not only awesome because we get paid to do something we love, but a good amount of fame comes with it as well. Our fame is not on the same level as huge rock stars, but unfortunately some of the athletes in this industry don’t see it that way. They think their asses don’t stink and feel that they can get away with anything. I hate it when people think they are better than just about everyone else. I have had no problem throughout my career of calling athletes and personalities out on this sickness and unfortunately this industry is too small and the egos within it are too fragile to be telling it how it is. I have come to realize that it’s not just the professional wakeboarding community where this takes place though. I equally would have no qualms with telling a rock star, rapper, baseball player, or Donald Trump exactly how I feel about their sickness. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you!
Contemplating (photo: Lee)
A: What do you want your legacy to be in life?
KL: Again, that’s something that I feel is hard to say. I will let history dictate that.
A: Looking back over your career do you have any regrets?
KL: Absolutely not. I’m sure some people may be shocked that I am saying that, but to be honest the mistakes I have made are invaluable. I have learned from them and I feel that they have made me stronger and smarter. I wouldn’t have changed anything.
A: What was the proudest moment of your career?
KL: I have had several; it’s really hard to narrow it down to just one. But I guess I am the most proud of my career right now (as I’m leaving). Being able to look back at what I have done and where I came from makes me the most proud. I have been very blessed.
A: What was the darkest moment of your career?
KL: I think the darkest moment of my career was 2002. That was the year that I lived with another pro rider and he had a lot of other pros over to the house to ride on a pretty consistent basis. Through that experience I began to see not only how some of my heroes acted, but what they really thought about themselves, and I did not like what I was seeing. For a while I tried to see if I could think/act like them because I figured maybe that was the way you are supposed to think as a professional wakeboarder. I became pretty depressed and realized that I could never be that way. It was fine that they all were the way they were, but that mindset was not for me. I was brought up to be a levelheaded guy and that’s what made me happy. One of the things that I am most proud of though during that time was that I stayed away from drugs. For most kids to witness their heroes doing drugs right in front of them it would have been easy for them to start, but I never so much as tried any of it.
A: There have been some crazy rumors about you over the years of your career:
1. Is it true you slept in a tent in your backyard so Ben Greenwood would have a room in the house when he moved to Orlando from New England?
KL: Yes, that is correct. At the time I was living in a three-bedroom house in Windermere with my sister and her friend from college. Neither one of them really had a whole lot of time to dedicate to pulling me. It just so happened that I ran into Ben at the 2000 Surf Expo and we hung out the whole weekend and I invited him to come ride at my house. I had only met Ben twice before, but I thought I would ask if he wanted to move to Florida and ride every day. He was totally for it and a week later he was headed down. I decided to put a large eight-person tent up in the backyard and move my entire bedroom into it so Ben could have my room in the house. I figured if he got down to the house and had to share a room with a 16-year-old kid he wouldn’t stick around very long and I needed a riding buddy (laughs). So I did what I had to do and it totally worked out. Ben and I became best friends and still are today.
2. How many boats have you really sunk?
KL: I’ve got great excuses for both (laughs)! However I will admit that I was pretty immature at that time of my life and didn’t really comprehend how easy it is to sink a boat. Both were due to storms. The first one I was out of town for X-Games in 2003. When I got back the boat was tied up on the beach right where I left it, but totally underwater. My roommates didn’t know what happened. My guess is the bilge burned out and a storm came through and sent water up over the back.
The second boat was because of a hurricane. I didn’t know anything about hurricanes and didn’t know how powerful they could be. I actually tried getting my boat out of the lake that day, but there wasn’t a public launch ramp, so I had to try getting it through the backyard with my two-wheel-drive truck. Needless to say that didn’t work. I tied it up as well as I could, but Hurricane Charlie unleashed some serious damage. I actually stood outside to watch the boat and watched as trees were ripped out of the ground. When it got really scary I ran inside, but it got even crazier. The glass windows and doors were flexing, a tree branch got launched into my bedroom, my ears were popping and it sounded like a freight train was driving by. That super craziness lasted for about ten minutes and then dropped off significantly. I ran outside to find the boat in a mess. I was devastated.
Although both incidents could have been avoided if I had just taken the boats out of the water, I learned a lot from them. Unfortunately those lessons came at the cost of my boat sponsor, as well as people trash talking me throughout the remainder of my career, which directly impacted me gaining any new boat sponsor. I understood I had messed up in a big way, but to have been shunned as badly and as long as I had been it really took a toll on me. It’s funny, ‘cause there have definitely been other pros that destroyed boats (from the same manufacturer and others), but no one was talked about more for what had happened to them than me.
In 2007 I came to the conclusion that no boat company would ever pick me up again, so I bought Gerry Nunn’s 23LSV Malibu. I took great care of that thing for four years and it must have shown Axis that I was able to care for a boat again because they did what I thought was never going to happen again: they signed me to the team and gave me a boat in 2010.
3. Do other pro riders really hate you?
KL: Probably not as much as I hate them! (laughs) Just kidding… sort of (laughs). I don’t really care if the other athletes hate me. In this sport if you are not a partier you are listed as “anti-social” and are basically cast from the tight knit pro rider circle. It is like those kids in high school that thought they were cooler than everyone else. If you didn’t conform to their ways then you were not going to have a seat at their lunch table. I found that out quite early and basically took my seat at the table and brought it with me to do my own thing. I never wanted anyone to follow me. I have always been very outspoken as to “do what you want to do.” I just hated how it seemed like the other athletes tried to push their lifestyle onto you. It was the gnarliest peer pressure ever. To witness some of your idols trying to push beliefs, personality traits, and other things (that you didn’t believe were good) onto you, was very tough to turn down and I began to despise them for it.
See ya soon, Keith (photo: Lee)
A: Are you giving up on wakeboarding?
KL: Nope, I have had my fill though. I started getting to the point where I was taking it easy so that I wouldn’t get hurt and potentially risk the chances of a future military career. At that time I knew it was time for the switch. Like I said before, the calling has been stronger now more than ever.
A: What would you like to say to all of the fans that’ve supported you over the years?
KL: Thank you so much! You guys have been awesome and I am glad I have gotten to meet some of you! I decided to do this interview because I want my fans to know how much they have meant to me over the years. I have been told that I have a cult like following… That might be a little extreme (laughs). I like to think of my fans as being as passionate for this sport as I am and on that level I feel that I connect with each one. I have been lucky to have some of the best fans in the world and to not have said goodbye and to thank them for their years of support would kind have not been cool on my end. So fans, THANK YOU SO MUCH for your love and support! I wish you all the best in your endeavors!
A: Any parting words for the wakeboarding industry?
KL: Goodbye. Thanks for the love! Thanks for the memories! Thanks for making me stronger! Thanks for my friends!