Long Live the King
Can Shaun Murray keep riding — and keep us laughing — forever?
A couple days before I did this interview I went to see the Red Hot Chili Peppers for the first time since 1992. To my best recollection, they were just as good — maybe even better — the second time around. It got me thinking about Shaun Murray and how he’s been able to do the same thing. Not only has he kept riding, he’s continued to improve. He’s maintained his old fans while making new ones and stayed completely relevant throughout his more-than-20-year career. At 36, Shaun isn’t some kind of novelty you want to see or meet because it would be fun. He’s one of the sport’s rocks who you want to meet because he’s inspired you to be better on a wakeboard, and if you know anything else about him, he’s inspired you to be a better person too. Not too long ago, I read something along the lines of: “The creative adult is the child who has survived.” Shaun immediately popped into my head. He pairs a childlike imagination and enthusiasm with an incredibly hard work ethic. Sure, sometimes you have to reel him in a bit, but most of the time whatever he’s thinking about or working on is pretty awesome. But it’s not all fun and games with Shaun. When it’s time to work, he will out-hustle almost anyone in the world. He’s also an amazing friend and family man who would literally give you the shirt off his back. He’s that way with everyone, whether he’s known you for five minutes or his entire life. He takes genuine pleasure in meeting people, bringing smiles to their faces and seeing what he can learn from them in the process. That spirit has helped Shaun constantly evolve, and it’s always for the better. So if you think he’s good now, just wait.
Words: Travis Moye Photos: Bill Doster
You finished seventh overall in the 2011 King of Wake, including a fourth-place finish at the Colorado Springs Pro Tour stop. A lot of the OG guys are still riding, but none of them are actually still competitive. How are you doing it? That’s the thing I get asked about most. I’ve always kinda felt young at heart, and I think the thing people miss as we grow older is that we don’t play as much. When we’re kids, we jump on the trampoline or go play in the creek, but when we get older we just try to make time for our hobbies. So we have this weekend warrior mentality where we try to pick up where we left off when we were younger. I still try to play a lot. I still try to get on the trampoline, play on rope swings, play with my kids or run off the dock and do flips. I still try to play, so that’s part of it.
I know people are going to say it kinda sounds preachy, but I feel like God put me in a place to have a positive influence on people because it’s pretty unnatural to be wakeboarding at this age. I kinda know that, but I’m trying to beat the odds, I guess.
What’s it like riding against kids who are literally half your age? Or could be my children. I don’t really think of them so much as being younger — I just look at their riding level. But it’s weird to think that when I was first standing on the dock at a Pro Tour in ’95-’96 some of these kids weren’t born. That feels weird. But I guess it may feel weird to them, riding against someone who’s old enough to be their Dad.
You turned 36 two weeks after Wake Games. How much longer do you think you can continue to ride at this level? When I was 21, I thought maybe I’d be done at 26 and for sure done at 30. When I was 26, I thought no way I’d be riding at 35. But the way I benchmark myself is I get to the end of the contest season and ask myself: “How’d that feel? Did I do OK? Was I struggling to keep up with the competition?” Then I decide if I’m going to give it another shot. Even this year, I was like, “I guess I’ll go.” I’m riding pretty well, but I also know everyone else is getting really good as well. So, I’ll let you know at the end of this year if I’ll do it again next year.
A lot of people still think you’re getting better, but I’ve been working with you for almost 10 years and I’ve never seen you do a tweety bird. What’s up with that? Do I need to do one? Dang it, I guess I need to do one. Honestly, it’s because of board shape. Remember how hard you could carve on the old boards? Remember the old Shapiro and my old board and how narrow they were? The tweety bird is all about a really fast edge change. But that’s not to say it can’t be done.
If I get you a ’97 Fluid, will you do a tweety bird? The chances would be a lot higher. I think it could be done. I think I’ll probably get snapped off a couple of times, but I think I could do it, even on my new board.
A lot of guys, including Rusty Malinoski and JD Webb, have talked about wanting to emulate your career path. Do you see yourself as a role model for younger pros? It’s weird being in that position because when I was younger I always looked to the older guys, whether it was how they rode or how they conducted themselves at a photo shoot. Then I realized I just gotta be myself and I gotta be who I am. I’ve seen a lot of people gravitate toward that. Being a nicer, more genuine person is just a lot better way to get along in the sport. And it’s a lot more fun. I see a lot more guys doing that. I’m really impressed with a lot of guys. I see JD being really good with people, and Chad Sharpe, Parks Bonifay and Scott Byerly are really friendly with people. I think it takes a lot of people aback that most of the guys are really nice guys.
What’s the biggest piece of advice you could give up-and-coming riders (or their crazy parents)? Don’t ride to get sponsored. Ride because you enjoy the feeling of it and you enjoy learning stuff. Don’t ride to make a checklist of things you can do. Ride because you enjoy it.
Does that joy for wakeboarding come to you naturally? I enjoy wakeboarding when I ride well. I ride well when I ride frequently, but at the same time, if I ride too much, I’m not enjoying it. There’s a balance, so normally I take off a month or two or three in the winter. For me, it’s all about balance. I definitely have to pace myself to have fun. But then The Boarding School is a great place because I have fun when other people are having fun. The energy — you feed off of each other.
How big of a role has The Boarding School played in your longevity? Do you think it helps your riding itself and your stoke for the sport by being around it on a daily basis? I end up riding a lot of doubles sets with people, which helps me see a lot of things and learn a lot of things I wouldn’t otherwise. All of us learn from each other, and I know I have picked up things from you, Kyle Rattray, Jeff Langley and Josh Palma. Getting out there to ride and get people pumped up on riding has been a great motivator.
You finished second in this mag’s Readers Poll last year. Why do you think you’re still so popular almost two decades into your pro career? I’m not sure. I try to just take any moment I have with somebody — whether it’s the first or second time I’m meeting someone — to be genuine in the moment, to let him know I’m excited to have them be a part of the sport of wakeboarding. Because without all those people, I wouldn’t have my job, you wouldn’t have your job and the magazine wouldn’t be there. So I just like to let people know I’m thankful for them. But I don’t do it by saying, “Hey, thank you.” I do it by taking the time with them.
How much of your popularity has to do with your riding and how much of it is everything else? I think that’s what a lot of kids are missing these days. Kids want to go pro in the sport and think having that checklist of tricks is what you need to do. To have a career in the sport, you need to be a great rider to gain the respect of the companies and the fans and off the water present yourself in a way that people want to be around you. So many kids I see have so much talent, but when they get off the water they don’t communicate well. There is so much wasted talent because these kids haven’t learned to just have a good conversation with somebody, make somebody feel comfortable, even if they don’t know them, even if they don’t like them. Just by being a nice person, so many kids could go so much further in the sport.
The sport has changed a lot over the course of your career. Is there anything you miss about the old days? The rental car mayhem.
That doesn’t have to stop! Anything else? There have always been parents who are very involved and very supportive of their kids, but it’s really gotten big lately because parents see the potential of a successful career and that has really started to be the driving force. There are very few kids showing up and being successful without parents being the driving force. I’m not saying parents are a bad thing, because there are some great parents out there. They just sit back and watch their kids ride, and that’s cool. But there are so many parents who are just there being the motivation, laying out their kids’ runs, making sure they’re doing this and that. There’s a point when responsibility needs to be put on the kids to decide if they really want to do it.
What excites you most about the future of the sport? The new Super Air Nautique G23. You’re literally up in the air thinking, “I can go another 180.” I was pulling Jeff McKee today, doing some shots for Lipsmack, and he’s never done a toe 9 off the wake. Today, he tried a handful and made two of them. He did heal 7s, grabbed toe 7s, just tweaking like he’s never done before. It’s gonna be crazy when some of these guys get on that wake.
What worries you? The Parents. Without them, we wouldn’t have the kids coming up. But I want to tell the parents, “Let your kids ride when they want to ride, how long they want to ride, compete if they want to compete.” The other thing I worry about is some of the companies vibing together. You and I have the same belief that if everyone does his job and does it well they don’t have to spend time knocking somebody else’s product, somebody else’s business, and trying to take somebody out so they don’t have to worry about them. This is going to come across really bad. I just want to see everybody — whether it’s boats, boards or any product across the board —just do the best they can and stop vibing with everybody else. We are all trying to have fun and make a living at what we like to do so we can continue doing what we like to do.
What do you want to do when your pro career is over? I really don’t know. It depends on what “pro career” means. Whether that means I’m not competing or I’m not on a wakeboard. I like working with companies and designing products, so I feel like I will be working with Hyperlite, Nautique, Fox and Jetpilot for a long time.
How would you like to see your relationship with your sponsors evolve? Into a marketing position — how to make products better and how to get people’s hands and eyes on them.
Speaking of sponsors, you have stuck with most of yours for a really long time. Are they that good, or are you just really loyal? I think it’s a bit of both. I grew up riding Hyperlite, so to be part of it in the beginning was an honor. I’ve stayed with them because I believe in what they are trying to do, what they are trying to build and the people who are there. But, I will say it’s a bit of both.
With any relationship, personal or business, there are always bumps in the road but you grow with one another and learn from one another and move on. Is that something you and your sponsors have done? For sure. I think some of my strongest relationships are with the guys I have had it out with the most. At Hyperlite, I’ve gone toe-to-toe with Tom Curtin and Greg Nelson, and I feel like I have a really good relationship with those guys because of that. I’ve had some of the most difficult conversations of my life with Greg Nelson, but we have a good relationship because of that. At Nautique, I’ve gone through some gnarly discussions and head-butted with Bryan Sullivan, but I feel like I have a good relationship because of that. So yeah, there are fights within families.
Do you ever see yourself working for the Pro Tour? Doing what?
Would you consider judging when you retire? I don’t think so.
You don’t want to give back? Don’t say it like that.
Don’t you think the system will improve from guys who have been through it? For one, judging is gnarly. I’ve done some amateur stuff, even a couple of pro rounds. I don’t like that stress. I’ve lost a lot of hair. I’m getting a lot of grays, and I don’t need to create more. The other thing is, I like interacting with people. I know you have a great time out on the boat, but I like getting out to meet people on the shore who I normally wouldn’t get to interact with. I would love to be able to just go and do exhibition rides. But would I work for the Tour? Yeah, if there’s a way I could do something. It would be weird not to. I’ve been doing it for 20 years.
Often people who are really good at something have a tough time teaching it. How have you managed to be both a top-level rider and a top-level wake coach? I like teaching no matter what I’m doing. Whether it’s showing someone how to throw a Frisbee or play a guitar cord. Whatever it is, I like to teach. I like to show people how to open a banana properly. If you ever meet me, ask me. I say “properly” because there is a wrong way.
Who or what has been the biggest influence on your riding past and present? When you say influence, I think of what motivates me to try stuff. Danny Harf has been a big motivator, as far as things I see out on the water. Obviously, I’m not going to emulate Danny’s style. I’m gonna look like me, and he’s gonna look like him, but I like to look toward him. Keith Lyman has always been a big motivator. Rusty’s drive to be on the water is a motivator. Josh Palma’s technical side, his ability to break tricks down, is another one. I’d say you have been a big motivator because I like to perform well, whether it’s at the camp or in a contest. I like to have a good performance, so I always like to do well when you’re driving.
How old do you think you will be when you throw your last raley? I have always envisioned you as the crazy granddad wakeboarding. I’ve thought about that in the last year. Is it going to be like 60? Raley to tumble turn, easily into my 50s, as long as there’s no big accident or something or I die. I’m gonna draw that thing out as long as I can.
What do you consider your greatest achievement in your career? I have no idea. That I’ve been able to wakeboard for a living.
Any real disappointments? Wow, a disappointment. If you think back to the times when you’re just bummed, it’s usually a contest result. But the point is, I can’t even think of a specific instance. I say to all these kids who get so hung up on a contest performance that it doesn’t matter.
What are your top three most memorable moments? Giving my dad the keys to a truck when I won the Van Triple Crown; in 2003 when I was riding a bike in a parking lot of a sporting goods store in California and you called and asked if I wanted to start a wakeboard camp; and getting married to Kerri. I can’t just have three, though, because my daughters being born has to be one too.
How has having a family changed you, both as a rider and on your overall outlook? Having a family just brings perspective to what’s important and what’s not important. The biggest change for me is that I went from being busy to being really busy.
You have a lot of irons in the fire. How do you manage all of that? It’s easy to get overwhelmed by my schedule if I sit back and look at a year, a month or even a week. I just gotta do the best as I can every day and realize it’s gonna work itself out. Every now and then I get in a sticky situation, but I just do the best I can, one day at a time. But with a really understanding guy like Travis Moye, it makes it that much easier.
Does it make you sad that everyone you work with at The Boarding School has a luxurious head of hair? Would I like to pull my hair back in a ponytail? Sure I would. But I realize that’s not in the cards, so I just have to deal with what I’ve been dealt. But, yeah, I’ve noticed. I’ve noticed.
There are days at the camp when you will crop-dust the boat all day with stinky farts. Do you have no conscience? It’s kinda like when you’re on the airplane and you smell someone farted but you don’t know who did. You look around and think there are about five people it could be, but you don’t know who did it. You could think it’s me or you could think it’s someone else. Do I have a conscience? Yes, but some days I’ll get up and go coach from the back.
If there was a movie about your life, who would play you? Purely looks, probably Jason Statham. Pure awesomeness, probably Indiana Jones. Because I’m pretty cool for the most part, but when it comes to snakes, I really don’t like them that much.
So Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones playing you? Yeah, not like The Fugitive Harrison Ford.
That totally makes sense. If you could be in any band throughout history, what would it be? The Beatles. That’s an easy one.
Who would you be in The Beatles? Probably Paul McCartney. I mean, that’s a pretty big statement. That or Boyce Avenue. They’re really big on YouTube lately. They’re from South Florida (giggles). That’s just Internet humor. I’ve always admired Lenny Kravitz. He plays so many instruments, he has so much diversity and he’s cool. So probably Lenny Kravitz, but I would be able to talk like Snoop Dogg. He just talks cool, kinda like Byerly. I think he and Byerly are kinda the same. Don’t you think? That’s gold right there.
So many people feel like they know you from watching Detention. Is it ever weird having people come up to you and quote lines or think you’re “that guy”? I kinda am that guy. I guess I am that guy. It depends on which guy. There are a lot of different guys represented there.
You have a real issue with eating hot things, but your Dad on the other hand could eat a volcano. Why do you think he is so much tougher than you? Because his taste buds have been blown to oblivion. He has to put his food on fire to taste it. And smell is obviously tied into taste, because I can fart around him and unless he hears it, he ain’t gonna say nothing. Me, my sense of smell is spot on. I can smell someone open a can of tuna from three rooms away. But, as you know, my nose sweats when I eat spicy stuff.
Who is the best wakeboarder in the world right now? That’s a loose term. The person I enjoy watching the most? It would’ve been Keith Lyman, but he’s in the Army. Danny Harf, JD Webb, Josh Twelker’s doing some cool stuff and obviously Mike Dowdy is pulling out some mean ones. Bob Soven is looking good too.
What do you think makes the biggest difference between a good rider and a good contest rider? A good contest rider has consistency and focus. Contest riding is way different than free-riding. It’s also being able to deal with adverse conditions and being a balanced rider.
You are somewhat of an inventor. When do you think you will strike gold with one of your ideas? It’s been a while since I’ve had a good one. I think by the time I’m 45 I’ll have something hit the market — outside of wakeboarding.
What’s your worst invention? The Baby Crawler. I didn’t go public with it. Man, I was in the garage so long. It was basically a block the size of a shoebox that had wheels underneath it and sat flush to the ground. My thought was: You have babies lay on it and they kinda pull themselves across the ground crawling. I tried to put Hayden on it and pushed her, but she just started running over her fingers and it was terrible.
Why do you drive cars so slowly? Because I feel 5 to 10 mph over the speed limit is reasonable. Do you want to tell everybody how fast you drive? I have had some fast moments in cars — I’m just not that comfortable. But, yeah, Kerri gets mad at me too.
What’s the best and worst thing about working with me? We both have the same work ethic — when it’s time to work, it’s time to work. Also, you’ve really helped me focus on details. You are really good at knowing how to run a business, as far as “this, this and this needs to happen.” I’ve tried to pick up on that. But the worst thing? It’s sometimes scary having to deal with you when I have scheduling conflicts after I’ve already told you I will work.
What’s the next trick you want to learn on a wakeboard? I want to do a wake-to-wake 10, and I want to do some double flips wake to wake, maybe bring back the tweety bird. What’s the best and worst thing about working with me?
Best thing: You make me put things in perspective timewise. I’m easily flustered because the schedule is getting off or the day is getting off or someone’s an asshole. Worst thing: Scheduling.
Do you ever worry about the long-term effects of wakeboarding? In the words of Willie Nelson, these are the long-term effects. Of course, I think, “How am I gonna get around?” My left knee doesn’t bend all the way, and I get concussions real easily. So, it’ll do what it’ll do. I don’t know. When I get there, I’ll let you know.