If we were to judge the book of Gunner Daft by its cover, he’d be an airhead with a penchant for firearms. And while that might be a funny life to tune into for the rest of us, it’s probably not how Gunner wants to live his. Fortunately for him — and us — there is much more to the wakeboarder than his unique name. As a kid growing up in Oklahoma, Gunner took to wakeboarding like most that age take to Pokémon and Sour Patch Kids. He progressed quickly and couldn’t get enough of it (if you can find his old MySpace page, you’ll see what we’re talking about). By the time he was 16, he was good enough to realize he had a future in the sport and somehow convinced his parents to let him finish high school online and move to Orlando, Florida, in pursuit of a pro career. That, along with some rad parents, takes gumption. With Gunner’s laid-back demeanor, it’s not always easy to see the fire that fuels his passion to ride, but it’s there, and it burns as intensely in him as with any other pro in the sport. Since he made that move, Gunner’s mission has been to make his own unique mark on wakeboarding, and even with the setback of a blown knee — not to mention the chance of being labeled a trigger-happy doofus — he has done just that.
You just got off the water shooting photos for this interview. What’s it like trying to ride under the pressure of a deadline and making sure you’re getting the shots you want?
Gunner: It can get a little stressful [laughs]. Honestly, this is only the third time I’ve ridden in a month. I’ve been taking some time off and spending more time in the gym getting my body ready for the season, so I was a little rusty. I think we got the shots we were looking for; it helps when you and the photographer have a plan and know what you’re trying to get.
What do you try to focus on when you’re doing photo shoots?
Gunner: I really try to make sure I get a solid grab in the right place and that you can see it where the photographer is shooting from. I also try to mix it up and be different, just so the photos don’t look the same as a bunch of others out there.
What was it like to get your first cover last year?
Gunner: Getting my first cover was amazing, especially after coming off an ACL injury and not planning on doing anything crazy like big contests. My riding felt good last year, but to get asked to shoot for the cover was huge. It really got things going again for me and got me pumped to get after it on my wakeboard.
How did being off the water with a major knee injury change your perspective on riding?
Gunner: My injury really made me appreciate riding a lot more. Riders can take riding for granted sometimes — just being able to get out and ride every day. When that gets taken away from you, it’s hard. You have to find other things to do to keep yourself occupied. I think my injury was actually good for me though. It made me realize I need to keep my s#&% together and stay healthier. I realized I couldn’t go out partying whenever I wanted and think that things would be fine. I’ve really gotten focused on staying in shape and staying healthy — I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in. It’s definitely a negative thing to get injured, but I think overall it’s been a positive outcome for me.
Is there any hesitation still with your knee, or are you feeling good physically and mentally?
Gunner: Physically and mentally I’m feeling better than ever, even better than before I was injured. With all my training and rehab, I know my knee is stronger than ever. I trust my body more because I know I have the strength to absorb big landings. Everything feels really good. I’m pumped.
What’s the most nervous you’ve ever been with wakeboarding?
Gunner: The most nervous I’ve been was probably a few years ago when I broke my leg. I did it riding a dirt bike, but when I came back to wakeboarding, I still had a plate and screws in my leg. That whole year after coming back, my leg was constantly in pain, and it started messing with me mentally. If I ever felt myself going a little too big or overshooting the wake, I would bail. I knew I couldn’t keep riding if my mind was constantly going to be questioning things. Fortunately, after having the plate and screws taken out and doing some more rehab, I was good again, but for that summer I was pretty nervous every time I rode.
You got to move to Orlando at 16 to pursue wakeboarding, which is pretty crazy. What were your first impressions of it?
Gunner: My first impression was crazy because it was a bunch of 16- to 18-year-olds living together. We were all living away from our parents for the first time, and we were partying all the time [laughs]. But we were riding every day too, because that’s what we wanted to do, and we loved it. The coolest part was just being in the mix and meeting everybody. We’d go to OWC (Orlando Watersports Complex) a lot, and every time we’d meet somebody new. The more we rode, the more riders we started to meet, and then you start to meet photographers and stuff and do photo shoots, which was really cool.
What are your impressions now?
Gunner: It’s still the same in terms of just being able to go out and ride with everybody. I just get more annoyed with the traffic and tourists than when I was younger and stoked on everything [laughs]. It’s definitely home now though. I love it.
Does it feel more like home when your roommate, Massi, is back in town?
Gunner: Definitely. It gets louder when he’s back, that’s for sure [laughs]. You never really know what’s going to happen with him as your roommate. You plan on going out for a quick dinner, and before you know it, it’s 2 a.m. and you’re trying to find an Uber ride home.
How was the offseason for you?
Gunner: It’s been really nice and mellow. I’ve been trying to learn how to make some music with Ableton Live on my computer. I actually just started an online class about music production, which has been cool. Over the holidays, I got the chance to go to Colorado and visit my brother, who lives out there. It was my first time snowboarding in three years, which was really fun. I’ve also been going to the gym a bunch to stay in shape and get ready for the season. And I’ve driven to Alabama a few times to see my girlfriend and [gone to] some functions with her sorority.
Oh, Greek life? Does that also make you a Crimson Tide fan now?
Gunner: Not a chance! [laughing] I was so happy when they lost the National Championship! I’m an Oklahoma State fan.
Have you always been into music? What got you into the production thing?
Gunner: I’ve always been really into music, and I pretty much listen to anything, from country to rock to rap. I’m trying to learn how to produce more electronic-style music. I’ve always been really into that, and a couple months after my injury I got to go to EDC (Electric Daisy Carnival) with Massi and Brandon Parker. Brandon was shooting video for one of the DJs, and we got to go backstage and see a lot of stuff. I was able to talk to some guys, and the whole experience got me into the idea of learning more and trying some myself.
What are your plans for 2017? Compete more? Film more?
Gunner: I’m looking to get back into the contest scene. The only one I did last year was Punta Cana, which was really cool. It will be fun to do a full year in the pro ranks and compete with all my friends. I’m also working on a video piece with Rathy. We started filming before my injury and got some pretty good stuff. He actually came to my surgery and shot some of that, and my recovery too. He’s pretty much shot stuff the whole way, so it’s going to be a video with a cool story.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve gotten to do because of wakeboarding?
Gunner: Probably when I went over to New Zealand a couple years ago. It was after Brad Smeele’s injury, and they had the Tairua Pipe Masters event for him. I got to ride in it, and it was such a fun, different experience. Hitting rails in salt water with tides going in and out and getting pulled by a PWC; it was just a fun time with a lot of really good people. And getting to visit for Brad and be part of the contest for him was really special.
What are your current thoughts on the state of wakeboarding?
Gunner: I think wakeboarding is going in the right direction. Everyone is starting to focus on style more and trying to do things their own way. I think that’s really cool and good for the sport. That’s always what I’ve tried to do because I wanted to set myself apart, and I see that more in younger kids now than I used to. Usually, they were just more interested in checking off the next trick or adding a 180, but now they’re trying to learn different grabs and variations of tricks. When you have more riders focused on making their riding unique, the sport becomes more interesting for everybody else to watch.
Your crew, the Conway Kids, have made some noise the last couple of years with magazine coverage, videos, and even Trick of the Year for Max Van Helvoort. Who’s gonna have the big breakout this year?
Gunner: Unfortunately, Max is still out with his ACL injury, but he’s looking strong and should be able to get back on the water by April. I don’t know who will have the breakout year. I think everybody is riding strong. Everybody is more focused than ever, myself included. Massi says he’s gonna win the PWT … [laughs]. (Massi in the background: “When did I say that?!”)
Who’s your favorite rider to watch right now?
Gunner: Jacob Valdez. He’s always been one of my favorite riders. Even though he doesn’t ride as much anymore, every time he goes out he kills it. He makes everything look so different; it’s really fun and inspiring to watch. His section in Dog Dayz was insane. Hopefully, we can link up again this summer and ride some more.
You’ve got a new lady in your life too. Who’s Charli?
Gunner: Oh yeah, Charli’s awesome! She’s my little French bulldog. I used to watch (videographer) Russell Spencer’s pug, Finch, all the time when he was traveling. When Russell told me he was going to move back to SoCal, I knew I had to get a dog. Russell and Finch actually came with me, and when Charli saw Finch, she loved him, so I knew she was the one. It’s awesome having her in the house now. She’s a ton of fun. Massi says he wants one now too, but there’s no way he can take care of one. (Massi in the background: “That’s because I’m focusing on winning the tour!”)