2018 Rider of the Year: Guenther Oka
Most of the people who have won the Alliance Rider of the Year award had it coming. Just look at some of the names: Brian Grubb (2001), Parks Bonifay (2002), Randall Harris (2002 and 2007), Danny Harf (2006), etc. These are guys that, by the time they won, had developed and perfected their styles and unique approaches to wake not over a year or two, but in some cases, over a decade. Their paths to the ROTY are often stories of redemption, comeback, or just plain old grinding it out to the top of the mountain. For them, the award was an amazing recognition, but was often added to an already-stocked trophy case filled with medals, video credits and magazine covers. They were household names in wake.
In contrast, a few years ago the name Guenther Oka, our 2018 Rider of the Year, wasn’t only a little bit different, it was relatively unknown in wakeboarding circles.
“I think I got an email from one of our team riders about sponsoring a couple new up-and-comers about three years ago, and he was one of the guys,” said Slingshot Team manager Jeff McKee. “But he was still kind of like a little kid. So then about a year-and-a-half ago all of a sudden he was this tall guy with a bunch of style. And then I saw him riding in a contest on a Watson Classic with no fins, and he could do everything everyone else could do. And, you know, it’s really f***ing hard to ride with no fins. So all of a sudden it was like, “Geez, this guy’s insane!’ I mean … he’s good, man. Pete Rose, switch Pete Rose … probably the coolest Pete Roses ever behind the boat.”
That statement has a touch of irony, considering the trick was named for a Hall of Fame baseball player from Cincinnati, Oka’s home town. The 20-year-old knows he appeared to hit the big leagues out of left field, but credits his Ohio roots with a lot of his success. “Yeah, I come from a background of pretty heavy water skiers and show skiers. It’s big up there. My dad was a snow ski instructor in the winter and show-skied at Sea World in Florida in the summer, and my mom grew up on a lake house, so I kind of just grew up on the water with those two. Then when I started getting into wakeboarding, Wake Nation Cincinnati was right near my house, so I was on the water in the summer all the time, and then snowboarding all winter.”
Oka resides in sunny Florida full-time now, and the focus on wakeboarding alone has become obvious. But even within wake, he’s far from a one-trick pony. In the past year, he has won our “Wake Park Rider of the Year”, made the podium in almost every boat contest he entered and, most notably, blew up the competition on the way to winning the X Games Real Wake gold medal. If you haven’t seen that 90-second clip, watch it, and you’ll begin to understand why this year’s choice was a lock.
None of which is to say that it has been handed to him. Ask his peers and they will say his overarching characteristics are humility and a desire to work really hard to get better.
“Yeah, it’s really no surprise that he’s this year’s Rider of the Year. He excels at all facets of wakeboarding and does it with humility and style. Whether he’s riding in a contest or freeriding at home, he’s pushing the sport and doing it his own way,” said Grubb. “And he is just really naturally talented on a wakeboard.”
As for being chosen Rider of the Year, Oka’s modesty shows through: “It’s kinda strange ‘cause coming from my background, it was always just about having fun. In my mind, when I was younger, it wasn’t about winning things or doing all this stuff, I just got to wakeboard. To go from being a little kid that was just such a fan to this spotlight, it’s pretty crazy. I don’t know how to put it into words. It does feel… good, but … ,” his voice quietly trails off. And asked what the future holds after being recognized like this at such an early stage of his career, he can only offer a joke and some pretty good introspection for a 20-year-old, “I think I’ve definitely made it pretty hard on myself, haha. But yeah, it really does pose the question of, ‘Where do you go next?’ But it seems that wakeboarding as a sport is really growing in different directions with so many different two-tower events and full-sized cable events and all the boat events as well. So if I want to stick to competitions I still have plenty of goals to go after. Or maybe try to create something different — maybe create an event myself. It’s hard to tell right now, but, I don’t know, I definitely gotta’ keep on pushing right now.”
With all that said, we sat down with the newly crowned ROTY to pick his brain even more about what it means to him, what direction he sees himself and wake going, who he’s got his eye on, and everything in between!
Alliance: Guenther, congrats on a stellar year. I know it’s got to be hard to sum up, but what’s the best memory you have from these last 365 days?
Guenther: Thanks so much! It really has been a crazy year with so many different high points. But I’d have to say the peak of my year was this award! And the fashion that I found out in was even better. I was completely in the dark about the whole thing and the rest of my friends all knew. But when the day came, I drove around with Cole and Jeff to just film a little “day in the life”. From my house, we went to the gym and as soon as I walked up to the door, everyone came running out with champagne and that was how I found out I won ROTY. It was also 9 am so I was totally blindsided by it!
AW: You’ve been more well-known for your rail and cable riding skills in the past. How did it feel to really break into the boat contest scene and make an impact? You may not be a double flip machine but still managed to podium this year alongside the guys that are. What do you think that says about the sport?
GO: It felt amazing to accomplish what I did this year behind the boat. I set my expectations kind of low for myself because of how much cable riding I was juggling at the same time, and I was a rookie coming into all the events. But then after making finals at Moomba and grabbing 5th there, the door opened up and I realized what was possible. It really got me excited on boat riding because I realized I could be a threat by adding style to all the tech that goes down in the comps. I think it shows that a rider can take multiple angles at a comp run and it doesn’t have to be so cookie cutter.
AW: One of your highlights this year had to have been competing in the X Games Real Wake contest and winning the gold medal. How did you approach it this year and how did it feel to bring home the gold?
GO: That was indeed a highlight *laughs*. I really took a much more calculated approach to this year’s Real Wake. I had learned what worked and what didn’t when I attempted to film the project last year. So from there, it just came down to planning everything out and trying to run on a tight schedule in order to accomplish everything Taylor Hanley and I wanted to do. It was just so satisfying and honestly, a huge relief to get the gold. It’s unreal the amount of time that went into every second of filming and editing to produce what we did. It just feels good.
AW: You had the chance to fulfill a childhood dream and winch around your hometown of Cincinnati earlier this year when the Ohio River flooded. What was that experience like?
GO: The whole Cincinnati Floods trip was one of the highlights of my year that feels like forever ago. It was such a last minute trip and everything had to line up perfectly to make it happen. Having Jeff and Cole be able to drop what they were doing to come capture it all, having the weather and flood waters be perfect for the spots, and my family being all in to help made it so good. But the raddest part was just being able to ride all those dream spots I had seen growing up there and snagging my first cover of Alliance with it.
AW: Your part in Formats was amazing also. Is there a trip or trick that really stands out in your mind?
GO: Formats was so rad to be a part of. The composure it took from everyone to bring it all together and obviously the patience that Taylor put in to make it happen was amazing. But I think the trip I had with Taylor and myself back to Ohio was one of the most productive winch trips I’ve ever been on. Plus, most of my favorite shots came from that trip. My favorite would have to be the melan back mobe over the land gap and into the docks. It was just so big and so sketchy that I never thought I would actually be able to get it. Then it all came together and we got it perfectly.
AW: What aspect of the sport are you most stoked about right now? Where do you see things changing and growing in the future?
GO: I think what I’m most stoked on right now is all the different styles of wakeboarding going on. There are so many different riders taking the sport in all different directions. There’s hesh, tech, style, loose, tight, street; nobody is limiting themselves. I think it will just keep opening the door to the masses and they’re going to want to be a part of it. But cable is going to keep people coming into the sport based on its accessibility.
AW: Not only did you work with Liquid Force to come up with a pro model park board for 2019 but you also have a pro model boat board as well. What was the process of designing them like? Was it going to be two boards from the start?
GO: It is much harder than you think *laughs*. It started as just a park board and then it kind of transformed into an entire lineup. But getting to work with Jimmy Redmond and the team at LF really opened my eyes to what was possible to do to a wakeboard. They were open to each idea I brought to them and wanted to make sure we were creating the best boards out there. The process was grueling at times but it made me appreciate the amazing shapes I had been riding in the years prior and what we were able to produce.
AW: Now that you’ve been inducted into the exclusive club of ROTY’s, rubbing elbows with riders like Parks Bonifay, Randall Harris, the Shredtown boys, and more, what are your hopes for your riding and the sport as a whole as you move forward?
GO: Yeah, it is pretty crazy to become a part of this exclusive club so soon into my career. It seems that now I just need to keep on pushing and try to find new ways to reinvent myself. I know that gets a bit cliché at times but it’s the truth. You can’t get stale on yourself. But, I’m excited to see what style of riding will continue to get rewarded at contests and how we can continue to improve the events. There is something missing from them that may be holding us back as a sport.
“Most people at 20 years old are a complete mess focusing on partying. The few of us that were super dedicated to riding and pursuing a professional career in wake, still were not as mature as him. He treats his fans and dealers with the utmost respect, while being as professional as possible when speaking to them. Definitely a veteran attitude/maturity but at a young age.”
– Tom Fooshee, 2010 ROTY
AW: You live with some pretty progressive riders in Orlando. Cory Teunissen, Gordon Harrison, Tyler Higham and Max Van Helvoort to name a few, with plenty of others around the area. Do you guys feed off of each other when it comes to progression?
GO: We’ve got a jam packed house of shredders, that’s for sure *laughs*. Without a doubt though, we’re always coming up with crazy ideas at the house that normally sparks a chain reaction of all of us taking a little bit of it and making it our own. Gordon is pretty big into skating and surfing so we’ve got inspiration coming in from everywhere.
AW: Speaking of other progressive riders, who do you have your eye on in terms of up and coming?
GO: I don’t want to make this list too long. The kids are getting good quick nowadays, but only a few will have a lasting impact. But I believe each of these kids are bringing something good to the table for the sport: Luca Kidd, the Ditsch twins (Kai and Ulf), Liam Brearley, Fynn Bullock, Mikayo Mundy, and Mary Morgan Howell.
AW: With so much travel and everything else that comes with being a pro rider, what keeps the fire burning for you to continually go out and push the sport?
GO: Recently, it’s just been going out on the water and doing whatever comes to mind. Not having a plan, not worrying about contests, just doing what I do best and having fun. But I get a great sense of satisfaction from doing well in contests and teaching new people how to wakeboard. If I can keep doing that, then I think I’ll be alright.
AW: What’s a normal day in the life of Guenther Oka this time of year? Are you slowing down since it’s the off-season?
GO: I have decided to take a nice break from riding since Wake Park Worlds. I’ve been in the gym two to three times a week keeping the body in good shape, which has been a ton of fun. I’ve also been at the beach a good bit trying to figure out this surfing thing, which has also been very addicting. And really just looking back at the good times from this year, and forming a new plan for the upcoming year.
AW: Congratulations again Guenther! Are there any nuggets of wisdom you’d like to throw out there for us? Special thanks?
GO: Thanks so much for the honor, Alliance. I think all I can say is that you have to have fun with what you do and enjoy the process. It’s worked out pretty well for me *laughs*. Also, I want to get a huuuuge thanks to the following: Mom and Dad, Meagan Ethell, Taylor Hanley, RedBull, O’Neill, Liquid Force, the 5725, and of course Alliance Wake.