May 02, 2019
Austin Keen: Million Dollar Man
World champion waverider reveals how he launched a career as the most creative man on the water.
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Austin Keen gets more dap on the beach than Hasselhoff.
He’s hard to miss, with his signature blonde dreadlocks, as he fearlessly sprints towards a heavy wave just before it breaks onshore. In stride, Austin drops his skimboard beneath his feet and slides out to meet the wave. With a thrilling mixture of both aggression and grace, Austin carves a rapid turn beneath the lip of the wave and rides down its slope back towards the beach. A few beachgoers who are unfamiliar with skimboarding look at each other in disbelief, like they’ve just witnessed a specter. Others whisper, “that’s Austin Keen.”
In a niche sport that is overshadowed by surfing in the media landscape, Austin Keen has taken promotion into his own hands by tapping into social media to grow a following and obtain sponsorships. With a variety of tricks in his skimboarding arsenal, from pop shove its, to ollies, big spins, and even Superman McTwists, Austin has been leading the progression of the sport for nearly a decade. Austin cleverly utilizes his social media engagement as a feedback loop to develop new creative ideas based on what his audience responds to. His outside-the-box ideas transcend the sport. In a series of viral videos, Austin transfers from board to board mid-ride, hijacks a boat wake and even commandeers an “unsuspecting” jet ski rider in the vein of Jack Sparrow.
“I want to continue being the world champion of fun, living an action sports lifestyle and inspiring other people.”
Austin’s dedication to the sport and his innovative on-board stunts that are destined for action movie getaway scenes continue to inspire others to work hard, make sacrifices and think differently to pursue their dreams. At the age of 17, Austin drove his 1975 BMW across the country from his home in Tybee Island, Georgia to Laguna Beach, the birthplace of skimboarding nearly a century ago, and the location of one of the biggest skimboarding competitions in the world. Austin won the eight-stop international United Skim Tour Circuit in 2013 and followed that with a win at the 40th Annual Victoria World Championships of Skimboarding in 2016. Austin went from waiting tables and working a plumbing apprenticeship to living an action sports lifestyle–traveling to far off places like the Philippines, Australia, Bali, Japan, Mexico, Costa Rica, Chile, and Brazil. He even developed his own signature skimboard with leading brand Exile Skimboards.
“He’s the biggest man in watersports.” – Marco Thompson
Now 28, Austin has established a career as a multisport athlete–a hybrid waverider balancing skimboarding and wake surfing–who shares his exotic travels and daring stunts with his loyal fans around the globe. In 2018, he won the GoPro Million Dollar Challenge after sharing a clip of himself gliding under the water next to a dolphin. Out of over 26,000 submissions, Austin’s clip was selected as one of 56 winners to split the million dollar prize money, and his clip made the cover on all competition press.
What is skimboarding? Try sledding down a snowy hill on a plastic saucer…while standing up. How long would you last? Next imagine that an avalanche is coming not from behind you, but straight at your face. This is the sensation of skimboarding. You’re sliding on a finless carbon-fiber board that is just ⅝ of an inch thick with no foot straps and no pads. Heading towards a wave feels like hydro-sliding towards an oncoming car; if you time it wrong, it will either plow into you or launch you into the air. Most people who try skimboarding for the first time bust their backside within the first half hour–when the board hits a dry patch of sand and stops, but their body keeps going.
Technically speaking, the aim of skimboarding is to maintain speed. As Austin approaches a wave, he transfers his running momentum onto the board as smoothly as possible, keeping a low center of gravity and reducing drag as much as possible. Timing a wave is a skill built on years of experience. In addition to the traditional way of stepping onto his board, Austin is also known for his signature style of getting on the board, called the “Monkey drop,” where he uses all four limbs to crawl onto the board at top speed. As an analogy, that’s like riding your bike with the handlebars down at the same height as your toes.
“Anything on a board, I just feel limitless.”
In 2015, Austin branched out into a new sport–wakesurfing. Within a year, Austin signed with the world leading wake brand Liquid Force. Wakesurfing is similar to wakeboarding on a continuous wave behind a boat, except Austin uses a skimboard, which is more difficult to control because it is finless and thinner than a wakeboard. Wakesurfing opened up even more opportunities for Austin’s creativity to shine, with daring antics like high-speed bungee whip-ins. The action sports star even released his own signature line of hydrofoils with the brand based on custom specs that allow him to optimize his balance over the waves.
The Outdoor Journal connected with Austin to discuss what crosses his mind when he’s racing toward a giant wave, his path from being a teenager in Tybee Island to turning pro in Laguna Beach, how he built an audience by pushing the boundaries of wave riding and winning the GoPro Million Dollar Challenge.
BECOMING WORLD CHAMPION
TOJ: When you get to the beach and you start warming up, do you do anything to change your mindset or to cultivate that mental state of flow?
Keen: There are times when I walk up to the beach and the shore break is just insanely heavy. It makes no sense that I’m about to run full speed and skim into this insanely huge shore break wave that’s about to break right on the sand. I have to tell myself that I know how to do what I’m doing and I just have to commit to it. It’s not until I start actually running and riding waves that I’m in that flow state. And once I’m doing that, that’s all I’m thinking about.
TOJ: What does it take to win a skimboarding competition?
Keen: The thing about skimboarding in competitions is you have to pick the right wave, and you don’t know exactly know what that wave is going to do, and you don’t even know if you’re picking the right wave until you’re literally skimming out to it and you’re on the wave. So every wave is different. You have to be ready for whatever situation the wave brings. And that’s what makes competition so stressful. If you go for the wrong wave, now you’re in the water and the guy that’s on the beach is about to catch the perfect wave for him and he’s going to get a higher score. So it’s really about wave selection and being consistent on your board in the elements. I try to connect to the feeling when I’m skimming and nobody’s around.
TOJ: Even though you’re the world champion at skimboarding, do you still find yourself having to explain exactly what the sport is to people?
Keen: Oh, of course. Yeah, all the time. It’s easier if I take my phone out and show them rather than trying to explain it.
TOJ: Growing up in Tybee Island in Georgia, was there something special about the conditions there that allowed you to get good at skimboarding quickly?
Keen: I think I just had a gift for riding sideways on a board. I didn’t have a skate park within two hours from me. The closest place that I could surf a wave that was over head-high was two hours away in Jacksonville, Florida. I didn’t grow up with a ski lift anywhere near me. In Tybee Island, the wave conditions were so small that it definitely helped me become a better wave rider and it forced me to learn the very basic foundations of balance that maybe some people would be able to bypass if they’re skimboarding that best conditions.
TOJ: When did you first realize that you actually might be able to pursue a career in skimboarding?
Keen: I always knew since I was a kid that I wanted to do something big and I wanted to be well known for my talents. Skimboarding was never even something I was going to pursue competitively–surfing was. Eventually, I quit the surf contests and I just started skimboarding just for fun. And I guess, since I’m naturally competitive through skimboarding, I just started seeing other people skim and I felt, “if they can do that, I can do that.” I felt limitless on a skimboard. I just felt like I had full control over and it. I liked the feeling of being on a finless board that’s really thin. You kind of sit into the wave instead of floating on top of it. And then, as I got more into competitions, I moved out to California, and I thought I could maybe be the first guy to live off of skimboarding. I wanted to focus all my attention on being the best I could be at my sport. And there’s a couple of milestones I wanted to achieve, like winning the United Skim tour, the tour of eight events. I wanted to win that. And then I also wanted to win the Victoria World Championships at Laguna Beach because that contest had been around for 40 years, even before the tour.
BUILDING A NOT-SO-NICHE AUDIENCE
TOJ: How were you able to gain exposure in a sport that gets minimal media attention compared to surfing?
Keen: I realized that we’re never going to get TV coverage. There’s not a whole lot of structure in the sport and it’s always been overshadowed by surfing. So when Facebook and Instagram came along, I realized I could start creating an audience of my own. And that’s what I did. I realized that if I come up with creative video ideas, they got a lot more shares. And so I started doing creative videos based on what people liked to share the most. I stayed consistent with it because I knew that was a way for me to create an audience.
TOJ: What’s it like to live the lifestyle of an action sports athlete?
Keen: Well, I’ve always been a big advocate for at least the past 12 years of making what you love to do a priority and not just working to live. Don’t get me wrong, I had to work a lot of shitty jobs. I was working dock construction back in Savannah, Georgia. I’ve been a plumber’s assistant in Laguna Beach. I’ve done every job in a restaurant you can think of.
TOJ: How did you create a career that allows you to earn a living at skimboarding?
Keen: There was no path for it, so I’ve had to carve out my own path. When I won the world championship of skimboarding in 2013, I was still bartending and serving and there was a moment where I was at this restaurant, filling up tea and coffee at 10 in the morning, and I thought, “What the hell am I doing?” I said to myself, “if I’m going to make this a career, this is going to be my moment.” I committed to doing it for one year so I could be happy with myself for the rest of my life that I tried it for at least one year.
TOJ: How do you coordinate with sponsors to create new business opportunities?
“I think I’ve grown beyond what the industry can offer me now.”
Keen: I’ve had a lot of people say they want to help me and they send a couple of emails on my behalf, but never really stick around. And then there was this one guy, Reed Morales, who came up to me right after I won the world championship and we started talking about music and guitar, because we both play guitar, and although he was working in automotive sponsorship sales at the time with no athlete management experience, he’s now been my manager for the past five years. I thought, “Any minute now he’s going to realize there’s nothing in it for him,” but in addition to his full-time job, he kept organizing sponsorships for me, by explaining the value that I bring for partners, while it wasn’t even paying one half of a percent of his bills. Now, after taking me on as his first client, he started his own agency, Agency 113, and that’s his full-time job. Just like me, Reed seems like a person that should be working for himself and not for somebody else.
TOJ: What have you learned about marketing through your longtime partnership with sponsor Exile Skimboards?
Keen: Exile is the best skimboard brand in the world. They’d done a lot for the sport. They’ve supported me as much as they can. I’m definitely grateful for that. They’re the ones that have sent me all over the world.
I think I’ve grown beyond what the industry can offer me now and that’s why I’m looking outside of the industry and collaborating with other athletes and working with non-endemic brands that aren’t exactly contained to a niche sport or an industry and can still benefit off the content and endorsement of my sport.
BALANCING MULTIPLE SPORTS
TOJ: Now that you’ve added wakesurfing as part of your career, what is that lifestyle like and what are the benefits of wakesurfing over skimboarding?
People ask me all the time, which do you like better, skimboarding or wakesurfing? I can’t answer that question fast enough: skimboarding without any hesitation. It’s just that wakesurfing allows me to ride a wave nonstop and turn the wave on anywhere I go. The only benefit of wakesurfing over skimboarding is the continuous ride. I’ve always been jealous about skateboarders and snowboarders because in those sports, you go up a vert ramp and you come back down and you’re ready to get air again because you’ve got another ramp on the other side. In skimboarding, you have to put in all that energy and effort to reach the wave and you only catch air for that small moment and then you have to go out, pick the right wave and do it again.
TOJ: How do you balance the time commitments being a multisport athlete?
Keen: Last year was the craziest year of travel I’ve ever had. I was gone almost every weekend for seven months straight. I’m traveling for wakesurfing more than I’m traveling for skimboarding and it’s crazy because I don’t even really compete in wakesurfing that much. I competed for the first couple of years just to learn the scene and learn the community. But, I realized I’m popular for wake surfing because I do creative stunts like jet ski whip-ins, boat to boat transfers, wake transfers, skimming out to boat wakes and bungee whip-ins with the boat. I basically took a whole new approach to wakesurfing. The only thing that does suck is when I have to go travel for wakesurfing when the waves are firing at home. That is the most frustrating. If I have to go to Minnesota to wakesurf for a demo when there are head-high, perfect waves at home, that’s definitely painful.
TOJ: When you decided to enter the GoPro Million Dollar Challenge, did you fly to Turks and Caicos with the specific goal to try to get that “Million Dollar” shot?
Keen: Yes, and I didn’t know what shot it was going to be. I just said, “Hey, I’ve got a week left on this deadline and I’m going to go to the most beautiful place that I know of that I can wakesurf in. I had been there once before, so I knew it was beautiful. The first morning we were on the boat, within the first hour and a half, we got the shot. We have you split the money with 56 people who’ve made it into the promo. You end up with about $17,800. I’m splitting that in half with my buddies who run the water sports charter who helped me get the clip.
A WHOLE NEW CREATIVE PERSPECTIVE
TOJ: How did the concept come about for trying to hijack a boat wake?
Keen: When I got into wakesurfing, I felt like I had limitless opportunities with the continuous wave. It gave me all these creative ideas. There was one day in San Diego when Marco Thompson, the first guy to ever take me out wakesurfing asked me, “What if we ride the boat next to the shore and you skim out to it?” Well, I’ve always thought of that, but I just didn’t think I would have the opportunity, and I didn’t know if it was bad etiquette to like skim toward the boat. On the third try, the boat drove by and I skimmed right onto it.
TOJ: It seems like that move would be a great getaway scene for an action movie, like Point Break.
Keen: That’s been my goal for probably three years now as to try to get some of my stunts, like the hijacking a boat wake into an action movie. And it’s funny you say that because I have it written down right next to me because the hijacking boat wake would be an excellent getaway. Especially that one and my hijacking the jet ski video, these are things I’ve been made famous for doing and they would be really cool stunts for an action movie because you see the same stunts all the time.
TOJ: How much do you think having your dreadlocks has helped you gain interest with having that signature look?
Keen: It’s definitely helped me to become more noticeable, especially in a niche industry, which has been great. It’s funny because growing up, I always got all this hate and negative feedback for having long hair and having dreadlocks being from the south. And now I get a lot of love for it and appreciation. Now it’s a big part of my trademark image.
TOJ: What personal input did you have in the design for your signature hydrofoil series with Liquid Force?
“The foil is a whole different monster.”
Keen: The foil is a whole different monster. You’re not riding the board, you’re really essentially flying the wing–the foil wing that’s underwater. I’ve seen the foil technology evolve just in the past three years and I’m stoked to be a part of that. Now I’m at a spot, as of just recently where I can look at a wing and I can tell you whether it’s going to work or not. I can also now give advice to Liquid Force and about wing lift and maneuverability. But, I don’t actually physically design the wing. There are guys who are spending a lot of their time focusing on wing design.
TOJ: What are your future plans?
Keen: Being a world champion at skimboarding was something I wanted to do for myself and I’ve done that. I have a lot of fans who enjoy watching my content. So I just want to continue being the world champion of fun, and living an action sports lifestyle and inspiring other people.
Keep up with Austin on social media: