At a very young age he became the wakeboard world’s favorite rider – Byerly’s Wake Tech protégé; with a ‘f**k you’ attitude, limitless ability, and an enviable style.
He was one of the most respected riders on the water back then. Now, he’s undeniably one of the all-time greats. But what good has that done him? ‘Vandall’ has always been in a state of fluctuation, alcohol and drug addictions have plagued both his personal and his riding life.
Struggling with a lifestyle that hasn’t always been healthy, he has had his share of up and downs. With or without sponsors, with or without peace of mind; pushing and pulling against the sport that he loves and the industry that surrounds it; cast as an ornament; held as a symbol; kept under lock and key.
Randall has few peers in wakeboarding terms, so interviewing him is a cautious process. Yes, we had a thousand questions flood into our mind, but when it came to actually writing them down… they vanished. I mean, this is the Randall Harris, and as this article’s title already proclaims, there will never be another rider to equal his reputation. So I approached with care. ‘Don’t worry about offending me. Feel free to ask the questions most people wouldn’t. Address the rumors, my lack of sponsors or whatever else readers might find interesting.’ So we talk of his entire journey and what his future from here may bring – the wild days, the stabbing, the born again, the retirement, the comeback, the retirement, the comeback…. but don’t read this if you don’t have the time to take the time. ‘Cause there may not be another article quite like this. For there will definitely never be another Randall Harris.
“A legacy can come in many different forms and we have no idea what the future holds. But I have noticed throughout my twenty years of wakeboarding that the average attention span of a wakeboard enthusiast is about three years. This means athletes have to re-prove themselves every three years at a minimum. The most effective path to take for this is a constant inundation of media. There is no room for complacency or resting on your laurels. Most of the people currently following wakeboarding don’t really have an awareness of my position in the sport, or my past accomplishments. It’s just the nature of the beast. This is why every single thing I do I give it my all. There are some die-hard enthusiasts that have been down with both wakeboarding and my involvement in it for many years, even decades. It’s exciting to continually work for the attention of a new fan base, but when times are hard it’s the love I get from long term fans—who I call friends—that really lifts my spirit enough to ride another day.”
It feels like every board company you’ve ridden for has gone under.
Yes, I rode for Sound, Wake Tech, Thruster, O’Brien, Gator Boards Inc., Company Wake, and Mutiny. That’s seven brands. They all went under except O’Brien. O’Brien fired me the year I got Alliance Rider of the Year and dropped Natural Born Thrillers the wakeboard movie. Mutiny was more of a project to make and sell a limited quantity of boards, so you can’t really say that they went under.
Everyone of the companies that went under were pure wakeboarding, it seems like a love of wakeboarding is not enough—you have to make ‘watersports’ gear for the masses too—is that frustrating from your perspective?
It’s frustrating because as a wakeboarder the last thing you want to see comin’ down the waterway is a tube, or what’s more common now and even worse than that—wake surfers. On the flipside though, the demand is there, so someone is going to supply it. If we hate on the evolution of watersports and the necessary evils that come along with it then we’re no better than the hatin’ ass skiers that attempted to oppress wakeboarding in the first place. Live and let live. If wakeboard brands have to sell those products in order to survive and continue selling wakeboards and progressing the sport, then they gotta do what they gotta do.
“Live and let live.”
Does it ever make you wonder why?
Clearly board brands going out of business has been a problem for me because I prefer to represent the underdogs. As far as other categories of sponsors my problem has been that their involvement in wakeboarding doesn’t produce the sales results they expect to achieve so they pull their wake program. Here are some real life examples. Quiksilver had a great team and wake program. Quiksilver ran into financial problems and wake was the first thing they cut. Vans was in the wake industry back in the late 90s. They didn’t get the sales results they wanted and they pulled their wake program. Vans came back around 09/10. Didnt get the sales results they wanted and decided being associated with wake wasn’t good for their image, pulled their program. Same thing with Arnette. End of 2013 they canned me, Scott and their whole wake program. They decided their new focus was “mainstream music” instead. So it feels like its not me who has struggled to keep sponsors but the sport of wakeboarding that has struggled to keep sponsors.
Given that, how do you see the rider/sponsor relationship?
The sponsor/rider relationship can be easy and long lasting or it can be difficult and short lived. Some sponsor/rider relationships are so great that they don’t even feel like business. That’s how I would describe my relationship with Rockstar. It’s easy and beneficial for both parties. They let me be me without judgment as long as the results are there. They’ve been a godsend for my career. Athletes need to do the best they can to be educated and informed in industry politics and standards. Sometimes athletes have to take a stance to change outdated industry standards. What was the norm ten years ago doesn’t always work for both parties as the norm today.
And it’s important to get support because the sport is so expensive. That is one thing I’d like to see happen is new sponsors/advertisers bringing some more money in. Our sport has a very high operating cost. These wake athletes work just as hard—or harder than—athletes in any other category of action sports, yet most of us don’t make enough money to start our own business, let alone retire after a long career.
Have you ever made money out of wakeboarding? I made a lot of money by 17-year-old standards. I had a truck and all the CDs I could buy, haha. I never started wakeboarding to make money though. I never made decisions based on financial longevity, but the fact remains that I do wakeboard for a living. A lot of people claim ‘ride or die,’ that concept is very real and tangible for me—don’t ride, don’t eat.
You’ve been riding for a living for 17 years, yeah? You became a pro rider at 16?
The same weekend I turned 16 I turned a pro as well.
As a 16 year old, you didn’t handle it well?
I just asked my brother if he thought I handled it well; he said “F**k no!” I handled it like an asshole. It’s not that I didn’t specifically handle the “fame” or notoriety well, because if I was ever famous or had a big name, I never got the memo. I wasn’t even aware that what I was doing on my board was being appreciated until much later. In Huntingon Beach and Southern California at the time, no one knew enough about wakeboarding to care if someone was a pro or had dope video sections. I just didn’t handle anything well at that point in my life. I started using and drinking at 13 so by the time I was 16/17 I was already seriously struggling with a full-blown drug addiction. I was bouncing from HB to Canyon Lake when I was home and traveling most of the year as the sole West Coast wake athlete. It was very difficult for me to manage and it showed. I think part of the reason I started West Side Riders was to get a sense of belonging to a specific group of friends and to have a foothold amidst the chaos I felt I was living in. By the time I was 19 I had been stabbed multiple times and went to rehab. The trials and tribulations definitely didn’t stop there. The stabbing and other street issues I dealt with aren’t even the darkest times. I have many war wounds. I’m a real drug addict/alcoholic. Shit gets real in the field. Alcoholism is a disease for which I’m genetically predisposed. I was raised in the perfect family. My parents are the raddest parents and I’m very blessed to be born to them. Unfortunately, due to my disease I caused much suffering and pain for my family and others around me. I’ve since learned from my experiences, and I’ve been given the tools to cope with my issues, but not without slip-ups. It’s been a lifelong war and I haven’t won every battle. Right now I’m focused on positivity, so I’ll save the details of those dark times and battles for my book, haha! Long story short I’m not ashamed of my past because it has made me the strong man I am today. The fact that I’ve overcome the struggle of addiction and had a notable career as a professional athlete says a lot.
Riders look up to you, but it seems that you are misunderstood by the industry. Do you care to be understood?
I would say that I made it very difficult for the industry to get behind me. The industry has gotten behind me as much as my behaviors allowed. To say my business dealings were at times unpolished is an understatement. A rabid dog would be more spot-on.
I never feel misunderstood because I don’t concern myself with what other people think. I can’t control anyone else so why would I worry about their thoughts? I do get told quite frequently, by people who get to know me, that I am highly misunderstood. I don’t spend time figuring out how to interpret that statement. I am who I am and that’s all I’ll ever want to be. Having respect from the riders that I look up to and admire is good enough. Truth be told, that doesn’t even matter to me as much as staying true to my vision. I tried and achieved being a pro wakeboarder, but on my own terms. I did it my way. I didn’t follow the typical path of a pro wakeboarder. I’m not saying my path was better, just different. I have a different perspective and different goals. What you’ve gotta realize is I’ve been running a marathon. This ain’t no sprint.
Continued in Part 2…