When Keith Lyman reported to basic training at the end of April, he walked away from a dream he’s had since he was 13, but he also realized a dream he’s had for as long as he can remember. See, Lyman has been fascinated by the military since he was old enough to understand things like serving and protecting his country. And even though he fell head over heels in love with wakeboarding as a teenager and went on to an almost decade-long career as a pro rider, Lyman never let go of his original dream job. We talked to Lyman just weeks before he shipped off to boot camp to look back over his wakeboarding career and better understand his reasons for walking away from pro wakeboarding. Words: Luke Woodling Photos: Jason Lee
First off, do you want to tell everyone your plans in your own words? I’ve decided to retire from wakeboarding and join the military. Actually, I just got a phone call today, and my ship date has been moved up from the end of June to the end of April. So four weeks from now, I’ll be heading off to basic.
You’ve talked about joining the military in the past. How long have you been considering it? Joining the military has been in my brain for as long as I can remember. When I was 13 or 14, I fell in love with wakeboarding. I had a huge passion for wakeboarding, and that’s where my motivation was at the time. But my love for the military never went away, and I came to a point in my life where I realized, “Hey, I only live once, and I plan on doing everything I want in this one lifetime.” I’m lucky in the sense that I realized that now, and I definitely don’t take for granted the fact that I’ve had an extremely lucky life. Wakeboarding became a profession for me back in 2002, and I’ve done one thing I’ve really wanted to do for a really long while. Now it’s time to fulfill another dream.
Have you gone back and forth between wakeboarding and the military ever since you went pro? Kind of. Like I said, ever since I can remember I’ve been absolutely fascinated with the military and have always wanted to join. I moved to Florida in early 2000 and one year later 9/11 happened. New York isn’t my home, but I’m from the Northeast and that really hit me hard. I really wanted to do something about it then, but I was still focused on making it as a pro wakeboarder. I was torn, but I realized going pro was what I wanted to do at that time. I still always had a huge respect and a huge love for the military. Just about a year ago, I really made the decision that I’m 27 years old now, and I could continue wakeboarding for probably a couple more years at the level I am now and maybe continue getting better. But with what I want to in the military, I’m going to need some youth left, so I made the decision that now is the right time.
How much can you tell us about your goals for your military career? My goals are pretty simple. I’ve always wanted to serve this country. I really have a huge passion and love for this country, and it’s going to be an honor just to serve. What I’ve signed up to do is badass. It’s a high-speed job, and it’s exactly what I wanted. The contract I was able to get was pretty difficult to get with the branch I’ve chosen to go into. I’m looking forward to getting started and pursuing this dream.
During your pro career, have you had many opportunities to interact with the military or service members? Not as much as I wish I could have, but I was very lucky to meet some pretty badass individuals in the military, and I was able to do some free wakeboarding clinics for them. I was really able to connect with these guys and get them out on the lake. Getting to meet guys like that and thank them for what they do for our country has been a blessing for me. Luckily, I’ve kind of befriended some of them, and it’s been great knowing these guys and getting to share wakeboarding with guys who are heroes in my mind. I have a lot of respect for people who have sacrificed so much so I could be a pro wakeboarder while they’re taking care of our country’s business. I have the utmost respect for people like that, and I want to join their ranks. I want to do my part.
What does your family think about the change of professions? My mom and dad actually met through water sports, so they’ve always been extremely happy I chose wakeboarding as a profession. They have known that ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by the military, so it hasn’t been a big surprise for them. I think they always assumed it was going to happen at some point. I think my dad is very excited because it’s something he wishes he did at my age. I think they definitely have some concerns because there are two wars going on and times are pretty crazy, but they definitely understand how I am and how motivated I am and how focused I am. I definitely don’t do anything without calculating the risks first. They know exactly where my mind is at, and they definitely have my back.
Joining the military is going to end your pro wakeboarding career, right? I wish there was a way to have my cake and eat it too, but becoming active-duty military is a 100 percent commitment and so is being a professional wakeboarder. I wish there was a way to realistically maintain both, but there just isn’t. It wouldn’t be fair to my sponsors or the military. So I need to focus 100 percent of my efforts on what I’m going to be doing. I’m OK with that. Like I said, I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time and finally decided to pull the trigger on it. Will I ever stop wakeboarding? Probably not, I love it. But as far as riding at the level I have been riding at, I’m going to, unfortunately, have to stop.
Do you see yourself pursing a full-on career in the military? Right now, sitting in my nice, warm home, I would say yes, absolutely. I would love to serve as long as I can. That definitely could change once I’m in there. If you asked me 10 or 15 years ago if I was going to be a lifelong wakeboarder, I would have said yes as well. I can’t realistically say whether I will last the 20 years you need to be a career service member, but, yeah, I’d definitely like to serve as long as I can and do as much good as I possibly can.
A lot of readers will see you leaving what they consider the ultimate dream job and think “Is he crazy?” It is a dream job. The best way I can explain it is: I’ve met some people who have had other options. A good buddy of mine is in the military, and he had other options. He was in his senior year in college and he was a world-class soccer player. He could have done anything he wanted in life, but he wanted to serve and he joined the military and he is one of the baddest dudes ever. It’s people like that who really inspire me. It’s really hard to explain why I want to give up my dream job, and wakeboarding really is my dream job. Wakeboarding stole my heart when I was 13, and that’s all I wanted to do and all I could really see myself doing, but this desire to be in the military never really went away. If anything, it’s gotten stronger with time. People might not ever get it, and that’s OK with me because I’m doing exactly what I want to do.
Let’s take a look back at your career. When and how did you start riding? I came from a family that has always been into water sports, so I grew up around the lake and water. I never had a huge passion for it until I saw wakeboarding on the X Games. For some reason, that really sparked my interest. Shortly after that, I got a wakeboard, and I learned to ride. I was luckily enough that my father looked into a wakeboard camp and sent me to it. I learned a lot of stuff in a really short amount of time, and I just fell in love with it. I went from being an athlete in just about every sport to only concentrating on wakeboarding. From there, it just escalated. I convinced my dad to let me move down to Florida when I was 16 years old. He just knew I had the drive and the passion for it and I was picking up tricks really quickly. So he looked into a place for me to stay in Florida, and that’s how it all started.