Pat McElhinney interview

How does that work? I mean, the sport's getting younger and younger and yet you're still progressing and, more important, not getting hurt. Are you just "The Man" or what?
I am the man. (Laughs.) That's one thing I do like about the riding side of it so much is that every year I have gotten better. There are tricks out there in my mind that right now I know I can do, maybe I haven't skied away from it yet, but I know I will soon. As for staying healthy, believe me, I beat myself up and down before I even learned a back roll, and the more I missed, the madder I got, the more adrenaline started flowing and I just wouldn't quit. Now if I try something five or six times in a row and still don't get it, I go away from it and come back later.

You've been around the scene since the beginning. One of the original "Dirty Dozen." How did you get started?
Wow, I can remember that day like it was yesterday. Lance Brug was a friend of mine in high school, and he was coming back from Hawaii to spend a couple of months in the summer. And he brought this board with him, it was a Kirk Hawaii, and as soon as I saw him on that board I knew that this was going to be the future of water skiing as a sport.

And then what?
Well, as soon as I started riding, I was hooked. I had never been a three-event skier, but I was a hotdog skier. The only thing I ever wanted to do was get air, whether it was on jumpers or a slalom ski or a kneeboard, so when this came out it was like I found my calling. After riding for a couple of years I went to my first contest, and I thought I was pretty bad, but then I saw Darin (Shapiro) ride and he totally blew me away. Man, they were doing stuff that made me think, "At 28, there's no way I can do that," and now, at 34 I'm learning some of those tricks. I don't know ... some people say you should stop when you get to be my age, but I just can't put it down when I still get so stoked to ride.

What's been the best thing that's happened for the sport, and what's been your greatest accomplishment?
One of the best things that's happened to the sport is that most of the original guys have found a way stay involved long enough to keep wakeboarding going in the direction they wanted it to go. That and the fact that everyone in our wakeboard circle is accepted. It doesn't matter if you first started riding an old Kirk or a Skurfer or if you don't even remember those days, it's all wakeboarding and nobody has any head trips.

And you personally?
When I first started riding I'd been running a construction company the last 10 years and was looking for a way to get out. I was 28 the day I saw Lance ride that board, and I knew that what he was doing on that board was going to be a sport and it was my goal was to somehow make my living in that industry. Thankfully, with help of O'Brien, I'm now in the position to do that and actually influence the development of the sport.

How long have you been with O'Brien?
This will be the sixth year, and I can honestly say there's not another company out there that I would rather be with. I truly believe that in a couple of years O'Brien will be the company that others look up to.
That's a big prediction.
Well, you know, last year was the first year O'Brien took wakeboarding seriously. The company changed hands and the new guys realized that the sport was real, and I told those guys, and I'll tell anyone, that if I had three years I could put us where we need to be, which is on top. So, last year was the first year that O'Brien has had a real wakeboard team that has showed up at every contest. That was a big step. We also have a really good board now and we have a team that is going to blow minds, so I still say in three years we'll be on top.

And one of those years is over.
But that's OK 'cause we're well on our way.

That actually puts you in a unique position. You're a corporate man, yet you're also a rider. How does that work?
Sometimes I feel torn in that fact that I grew up riding and that's why I got into this sport in the first place. For me, I'm still stoked to learn new stuff, but I can also see that this is a young man's game and it's getting younger all the time. I don't look at myself as a rider that wants to be the best rider in the world. I look at myself as someone who just wants to be a part of it, but more important than being a part of the riding is that all the guys treat me as one of them and not as a corporate guy. Last year was the first year that I actually had a corporate title, but everyone just thought of me as team captain, and that's all I really want to be with those guys. For me to try and change the whole O'Brien image, that's how I need to be looked at. That's how we're going to become a power player, not by me sitting up in Seattle pushing a bunch of paper around. That's not how O'Brien will grow, that's not how any company will grow. That's not even how wakeboarding will grow.

How will it grow?
It needs to break down into the grassroots. There needs to be more growth in the amateur level where 5-year-old boys and girls can go to contests in their city or county, so that by the time they are 15 or 16 they've already been through the network of contests and are ready - not just in ability but mentally as well. I think it's already started with the INT League, but we need more. Those growing pains that we're going to feel on that side of the sport are going to be just as intense as the pains we felt on the pro level, but if the grassroots level doesn't develop wakeboarding won't continue to progress.

Any advice, O Wise One?
(Laughs.) Actually, I do have advice for some of the younger riders. There are a lot of kids that are coming up now that are excellent little athletes and learn how to ride very well in a very short period of time. That's great but they're really impatient and if they don't think they're getting a fair deal with a company they signed with four months ago, then they're willing to break their word and jump ship just because someone else is going to give them a little bit more. Just because you can land a mobe doesn't mean you deserve $1,000 a month. You've got to show your worth, you've got to go out and give the company something. Pay some dues, give them a year, and they will take care of you. I promise.

Pat is sponsored by O'Brien, Bare wetsuits, Pure Juice, Hardcore Underground, Fly High, StraightLine and Rainbow Fins.