“Gator and Byerly were doing something that had never been seen before, which was hitting the double up. I, and every other wakeboarder after that was like “That is what we’ve got to be doing.” Greg Nelson
Resisting the pressures of the day, both in riding and business, he was both the figurehead of the world’s first truly ‘rider run’ board company and the world’s very first ‘freerider’. Ahead of his time, he pioneered many aspects of the sport that we take for granted now; from the spinning movement, to the Come and Ride tours, he was a major influence on our sport in its transition from water-ski’s baby brother to a stand alone board sport. He is considered in the upper echelon of our sport’s forefathers; and it can be said about few others, but it is true that the sport would not be the same without him. Long time friend and freeride advocate Reece Jordan sits down to talk about the past and the present of GREG NELSON.
Named in Transworld Wakeboarding Magazine’s “8 Most Influential Wakeboarders Ever,” Greg Nelson is considered a progenitor of wakeboarding style. Having begun his riding career in 1991 Greg Nelson went on to be an integral part of the seminal wakeboard movies Spray, Hit It and Mayday; the latter still considered one of the best movies of all time, even when stacked up against today’s standards. Most people know Greg as the founder of Double Up Wakeboards, the first rider owned and operated wakeboard company; and subsequently the world’s first freeride board company. Now working as VP in marketing for Hyperlite and Byerly Wakeboards, he walks past wakeboarder kids who don’t even know his name, let alone his legacy. If you are one of the aforementioned, get yourself an armchair, because you are about to meet the one and the only Greg Nelson.
What was the sport when you first started wakeboarding? It wasn’t much; back then before the skurfer it was just standing up on kneeboards. But even before the skurfer there were a lot of other types of boards, before compression moulded boards. You know, there was one called a wakeski, but when the skurfer did come out that was the one that we were all like “Ok this is the one we can ride and progress on.”
So when you first started progressing, what were you thinking could be done on it? Were you thinking of grinding docks or skate style tricks immediately? No, it wasn’t until a couple of years later I think, after we asked the Wiley’s company (a waterski binding company) to make us high wrap boots for our boards. I was on the K2 board—that is a K2 wakeboard, believe it kids they made them early, early, early on. You know then you finally had enough control over the board to start to think “I could put this on something like a dock.”
Was that when they shot the film Roadkill? Marshal Harrington and I were just talking about that the other day. Yeah. So K2 had an association with company called ‘Fall Line Films’ (FLF) from filming ‘Riders on the Storm,’ which was an old snowboard flick, released in 1993, I think. So we went down to do a K2 promo video for wakeboarding and the footage ended up in ‘Roadkill,’ which was amazing. To be known in the snowboard world before there even was a wakeboard world. Before there was a wakeboard movie or magazine or even culture; before any of that, we had exposure in the snow industry. In it we were hitting docks and features or whatever because it was one of the closest things we could do on a wakeboard to emulating what was happening on the mountain.
Let’s move forward a little to the days of Spray, Gravity Sucks, and the early wakeboard movies. Where did you come up with the idea that you wanted to make your own wakeboards? Essentially, how did Double Up come about? So at the end of Spray, Gator and Byerly were doing something that had never been seen before which was hitting the double up. I, and every other wakeboarder after that was like “That is what we’ve got to be doing.” It was really big at the time, and because of it Spray had a really good response. Then working with the guys at FLF, who were making these films, we were like “We’ve seen the promotion that these films provide for snowboard companies like Burton, Lib Tech, Sims… guys like that,” and we were like “Shit, if we’re going to start making films that people in the wakeboard industry like we should make our own boards too.”
You started Double Up? Yeah, see at that point none of the waterski companies would listen to a wakeboarder, they all thought they knew everything about water and how it reacted, you know. They ‘knew’ everything about design and technology already, “Why would we listen to these kids?” … Well they didn’t listen to us, so I was like let’s combine this knowledge that other companies don’t even want to hear. With the exposure we were getting with these videos it was the perfect timing. We were lucky enough to find an investor and Double Up was born. Artie and Jerry of FLF were partners in Double Up and so was Robbie Myer. Robbie and I focused on the biz plan, Artie and Jerry helped secure the venture capital to get the brand started, and off we went. Ron Depp was an integral player on the sales side of things and helped us find our first sales manager, Patrick Bridgford, known as P-Town.
Then what happened. Why did you get out? After about four years we were really close to breaking even on the company, and this was before Chinese manufacturing had come into play—I look back and think had we had Chinese manufacturing prices we would have been different, it would have been profitable. But after about four years, the investor says “You know I think I need to put my money elsewhere,” and I had to respect that. Even though it was mine and Artie’s (FLF) blood and sweat, we had to sell it. By 2001 we had been seeking another source of capital for almost three years, we got close to securing a deal with like-minded investors but never closed the deal. Finally, with little to no good option we had to sell to a guy who I didn’t see eye to eye with. To him I was just a line in the budget; he was asking about me “Why are you paying this kid?” He had no idea what the essence of Double Up really was. But the sale was going through; so I got off the road, got off the tour. I wasn’t a part of their plans for moving forward and I was like “Well f**k you, if that’s what you think, I’m out.” But you know it is what it is, and truthfully, after losing Corey Kraut who drowned while wakeboarding in Texas on the Double Up experience, and all the hard work I’d put in, and then to lose it all… it burnt me out. Not only on riding but the business side too, so I sold Double Up and took some time away from the sport. The rest of the Double Up remained and kept their jobs for a while but it was time for me to move on. The company has changed hands a couple times since then though, funny thing is I do see eye to eye with the guys at DUP now, and I’m happy they are running it the way they are.
To be at cable parks or on the lake, and see that the brand you started still does exist, how does that make you feel? I take a lot of pride in that. I read a couple of articles last year, the one in Union and the other in Unleashed, and both talked about the origins of the company starting as a freeride mentality, referencing me. You know, just reading that in today’s print means a lot. And like I said, I like what Ian and Johnno are doing at DUP now, they are keeping true to the roots of the brand—a free ride brand born from a passion for the sport and for pushing the limits through video and media exposure. It was cool to see a good presence in Australia no matter what wake park we were at.
So what did you do after that? I got married and took some time away to get my mind back on it. Then I worked for almost seven years managing a chain of pro shops on the west coast, we had a few different store names and the online shop was Boarders-Paradise. I don’t miss that job, but I’m glad I experienced the retail side of our business; it was like earning your master degree in the sport. But when the economy went to shit and the writing was on the wall it shut down. But through managing that store, I developed a good relationship with the boards companies that I was dealing with, especially the guys at Hyperlite, so I started to approach them. I went to them and said, “I’ve got some board shape ideas.” From there I was hired for product design and marketing and now I am Vice President of marketing for HO, Hyperlite, and Byerly.
Is it hard to see some companies using gimmicks to sell boards, when as a true rider you have ideas of shapes that you know work or don’t? And then as a marketer you know you have to try to sell the boards too, is it hard mixing the two requirements? As far as gimmicks go, I try to withhold judgement on any new product. The reason I say that is that so many people wanted to talk shit about our (Hyperlite’s) baseless system binding from the get go. At the time Hyperlite bindings needed a spark, that was the reason system binding got the go-ahead. But I never thought of it as a gimmick. I have a snowboard background and I knew it would work; and it has turned out to be really, really good. But what I learned from that is that all the talk and scepticism is useless. Now learning from the reaction to the system, when something else comes out, even if it looks like a gimmick, I am like “Let’s go try it for ourselves before we start talking about it.”
Hyperlite in the 90’s had a reputation as a competition company. A lot of riders may still see it that way, is this something you have tried to address? Honestly. I think the time you are talking about in Hyperlite’s history is when they had Darin Shapiro, Dean Lavelle, Jeff Heer and other trick-skier type guys as the main representation of the brand. But you know when Paul O’Brien signed Scott Byerly; I think that alone was one of the biggest things to happen in the sport. Honestly. So I think that alone changed Hyperlite’s image. Scott put a stamp on it that said ‘this is a true board company.’ But that was all well ahead of me joining Hyperlite. When I joined, Hyperlite was in a transition. The O’Briens had just left and started Ronix and they took a core group from Hyperlite with them; and, yeah, through that we had some challenges, but I think the brand got stronger, and what is in place right now is great. Our rider, Trever Maur is a true freerider, he could care less about competitions, and he does his video edits with a truly unique style. Still, Hyperlite maintains top-end comp guys because, you know, guys like Rusty Malinoski are amazing. Not to mention older guys like Shaun Murray are still killing it. So I have a lot of respect for the athletes we have and I’m excited to work with every single one of them. It’s a really varied group of riders, spanning every aspect of the sport, which is the way it should be.
What about you? Do you still ride? I’ve ridden more these past three seasons than I have in the previous ten. Evelyn (Greg’s wife) is still killing it and it’s fun to ride with her and watch how well she rides; our son Luke is getting after it as well which is a total blast. It’s become a family adventure and I couldn’t be happier. I’m not pushing myself technically, I’m enjoying what I can do and trying to do it stylishly, it’s super fun. Evelyn and I even have a crew in Austin called the OWC, but it stands for “Old Wakeboarders’ Crew” and our logo will somehow include a walker or wheel chair, it’s fun.
What about the evolution of cable parks? This is not something you had back in your riding days. I am thrilled to see what these kids are doing. There are pro wakeboarders now who have never been behind a boat. Like James Windsor, he’s a perfect example of what a cable parks can do for somebody.
Yeah, there are kids now, even riders I’ve signed up, who don’t really know who I am, or my history; they just think I am some grey bearded manager. But time moves on… a lot of the kids that we sponsor today weren’t even born when Spray was released or when wakeboarding magazines first started, that’s 20 years ago. Things change, honestly I’m thankful to be still working in the industry.
Like my dad always said, “In order to move forward you’ve got to remember the past.” That’s why we have done this interview. Well, I agree, and thank you.