pushing boundaries: a q&a with professional wakeboarder steel lafferty
Meet Steel Lafferty, pro wakeboarder & all-around rebel on the water. We traveled down to Florida to spend a day with Steel and catch up on wakeboarding, life philosophies, and his golf game. Here's what he had to say.
Tell us about the first time you put a wakeboard on your feet. Was it love at first sight or were there some real challenges with learning the sport?
When I was nine years old we'd go to our lake house for the summer. My dad brought a wakeboard at home one day and said, "Hey try this out; I think it's the cool thing to do now." So that's what we ended up doing as a family. Then that next summer I blew up my eardrum and I couldn't ride. My older brother got better than me at wakeboarding, and I was not having that. I'm super competitive. So the first time I ever rode wasn't love at first sight; it wasn't anything like that. I realized my brother was going to be better than me and so the next summer I decided to train to be better than him. And after training, I was. I was way better than him. I was doing flips and I thought, "I actually really like this", and I stuck with it. So it was more along the lines of being too competitive and then figuring out I loved it after I knew I was better than my brother.
You stopped competing a couple of years ago. What keeps you motivated to continue wakeboarding?
So back in 2017 I decided that I wasn't going to do as many contests. Growing up I ground through the tour (15 to 20 contests every year) and it wears you out. Even something that you love, if you are grinding every day, three sets a day, you're going to get tired of it. That's kind of what happened to me and I fell out of love with wakeboarding. So I decided to step back from doing so many contests and only compete in a few of the major ones a year. This gave me more time to focus on my riding and progression of the sport! I also love creating content and being creative so I focused on that as well. That year I ended up winning those four contests--a double-up contest and X Games-related contests, and I landed two tricks that have never been done before. I won Trick of the Year and Rider of the Year that year, so it proved to be successful for me. Doing this was huge for not only my growth in this sport but also for me to actually love wakeboarding again and want to push myself and compete and do what I wanted to do rather than being forced to do a bunch of contests.
The list of firsts that you own on a wakeboard is really impressive. What's another first, on or off a wakeboard, that you dream of owning?
Leaving your footprint in the history of the sport is unbelievable, and that's something I always strive for when I'm wakeboarding. Doing something where everyone's going to know "Steel Lafferty did that first"...that's the cool thing to me. That's why I've strived to do tricks. But having a first outside of the sport of wakeboarding is hard for me to think about because every time I think hey, how can I make history? How can I do something cool? I always revert back to wakeboarding. That's kind of where my heart is and that's what I love. So the focus for me is really on how can I progress this sport that I love and get more than just the industry to see it. I want everyone to understand the lifestyle and how much fun wakeboarding is and just get more and more people involved. The more people that I can bring to the sport the better it's going to be for everybody, and we're going to make their lives better for getting them out on the water.
Walk us through the process of creating a trick. Is it more evolution or engineering? In other words, are you taking tricks that others have invented and developing them or are you inventing tricks from scratch?
When I'm creating tricks on a wakeboard and trying to be the first to do something, a lot of the time it starts with someone that's done a trick similar to it and them how I can progress that trick. Or often it's something that a lot of people have thought about but they don't think it's possible and then I'll go do it. I want to be the first to do it. There are people that don't think you get enough air or hang time to do tricks, but with the progression of the boats and the progression of everything in wakeboarding, there will be a day that I'll be able to do whatever they think can't be done.
What's one professional regret you have?
I don't really regret much of what I do because once you start regretting something that you've done or tried you kind of fall into a hole. So for me, I know I'm gonna fail a bunch and I'm okay with that. I'm okay with you know falling hundreds of times before I land a trick, and I'm okay with maybe looking dumb trying something that wasn't gonna be the coolest. But I'm gonna see if it is cool. And sometimes it turns out good and sometimes it doesn't but at least I know. So I don't regret anything because to me, you have to push the boundaries and see what's out there.
What is your vision for the future?
I always try to plan out each year or what the next few years are going to look like, and it always ends up way different. Something that I try to plan for normally doesn't happen and something better happens. And I know that's kind of hard to explain but I'm just doing what I want to do and taking risks and creating things that I think are worthwhile and wherever that takes me, I'm down to go. I'm not gonna try to plan out where I want to be in five years or ten years or whatever. I'm just gonna keep doing what I'm doing and keep having fun and keep promoting what I love and see where that can take me.
You're more aware than most that you can't do these things forever. So as your roles change with age and time what do you hope to be doing 10 years from now?
Action sports are a young sport, and it's getting younger and younger. You're seeing 12 to 13-year-olds at X Games now competing on a pro-level because they know once you're past 30 gets harder. It's hard to compete against 15 and 16-year-olds. Bones are different, muscles are different, so being twenty-seven, it's weird to say but I'm getting old for my sport. My role in the sport is a little different, and now that I'm not grinding on the contest scene, the I'm able to take the breaks that I need and be in the gym and do what I need to do to get my body right so I can be on my board for as long as possible. I'll never stop wakeboarding, I'll never stop being on the boat, and I'll never stop having fun. But it takes an awareness of where your body is and you have to make sure that you're good to go. So whenever I'm sore, not having to push through for a contest and being able to take that time off is been so helpful for me. You can't wakeboard forever right. I'll still be on my board but I probably won't be doing double ups when I'm 50 or 60. Maybe I will. Who knows.
From an outsider's perspective, it seems like most action sports athletes specialize in one activity (skiing, wakeboarding, etc.) whereas you seem to excel at pretty much everything you try. Did you grow up participating in a lot of different sports or are you finding skills from wakeboarding to easily transfer others to other activities?
I grew up competing in everything. I played any sport I could get my hands on. And then when I turned 13, I decided to just focus on wakeboarding. But I never stopped playing. I would always play football or basketball or whatever whenever I got the chance. So that worked out for me a lot because that's how I would work out. Instead of just going to the gym and lifting weights, I'd rather go play another sport. And I think that that athletic ability crosses over into wakeboarding. A lot of cross-training is the key to it all.
When you're not wakeboarding you golf a lot. How'd you get into it?
I wasn't great at wakeboarding at first and I don't think really anybody is. But that's kind of what drew me to it was that it was something that I was not great at but that I wanted to perfect. I don't think you can ever perfect wakeboarding--it's something that continues to progress and that's what I love about it. Wakeboarding and golf are really similar. Golf is something that you can't just pick up and be great at. I like that it's similar to wakeboarding in that way but it's also a completely different sport. So I can get away from the whole wakeboarding scene in golf but still compete and that's why I fell in love with golf. That's why I've wanted to get as good as I can at golf. My grandpa taught me when I was young and he was a big influence in my life. One thing I've always told people and one thing I said at his funeral a few months ago was that I'd never beaten him in anything. He was the most competitive person I've ever met. He wasn't crushing me at everything, but he's gonna try his hardest to beat me, and that made me grow as a competitor more and more. He was a big mentor in my life and being able to share golf with him was huge.
Talk to us about your team and your support system.
Wakeboarding is a solo sport. You have to go and perform on the board at the right time y yourself, but it really takes a team. I have so many good friends that are willing to help me do whatever I need to do to push it to the next level. Whether that be throwing a frisbee or doing a golf trick shot or standing out in the sun for hours filming, it takes a crew to do it. It's never about "I did this." It's "We did this." Being selfish isn't fun. You don't have anyone to share it with. You gotta get everyone involved.
Talk to us about your current phase of life.
Right now, in this phase of my life, I honestly don't exactly have a plan. I have a general idea of what I'm trying to do. But at the end of the day it's really about just always having fun and you know being serious when you have to be. Progression takes time and it takes perseverance and dedication. But if in between the work you're not having fun with what you're doing, then what's the point of doing it? Create something that's never been done before. You only have so much time on this earth. Make sure you're having fun doing what you're doing. And that's how I live my life. I just make sure that no matter what I'm doing, I'm going to have all my friends involved. I'm gonna have fun doing it. And if in that time I can create a legacy, then awesome.