I’m gearing up for a wakeboard session in Liverpool the morning after Red Bull Harbour Reach.
In front of me, the course the pros were shredding the day before – including a gnarly XL kicker in the shadow of an 100 year old long ship. To my right, a small boat hosting wakeboard pioneer Parks Bonifay. No pressure then. No pressure at all.
Safe to say, I steered my way clear of the gargantuan kickers when I hit the water, although I may not have avoided the embarrassment of face planting in front of the world’s most iconic rider.
“They were taking the cable too slow to get going properly,” said Parks, offering me an out as we sat down for an interview. Who knows? Maybe I’ll be taking on those kickers sooner than I thought.
I may not have proved much of a specialist on the board, but the man sitting next to me certainly fit that description. Parks is the most influential wakeboarder of all time, an innovator spoken of in the same breath as Mat Hoffman and Tony Hawk, riding for the love of his sport and progressing it massively as a consequence.
The guy became the youngest person to ever water-ski when he was just six months old. That meant he was riding water before he could walk – and he still holds the Guinness World Record for his efforts.
“That was the peak of my career,” laughs Parks. “It was all downhill from there!”
It may sound like mayhem, but when you note that the rider’s grandfather was jumping waterskis in the 1940s, and that his dad was the first person to ever water-ski on his hands, it becomes slightly less surprising that Parks was on the water so young. Although the emphasis on ‘slightly’ must be strongly noted.
The rider continued: “I wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen the footage myself. I’ve held six month old babies and I’m like, ‘What the hell were you thinking, mum?!’
“I was born right into it though. My first memories are from water-skiing, and wakeboarding came around when I was like 12 years old. I was one of the first juniors that got into it in the early 90s.”
For Parks, the progression was a natural one. Wakeboarding gave him access to a whole new world of freedom, and his water-based background meant he already had the basics pinned before he stepped on a board.
“I always loved doing flips and getting air, so the appeal was there right away. When I skied, that was all I wanted to do, so wakeboarding was right up my alley.”
By the time he was 14, Parks was winning contests on the Pro Tour, and making use of a fake ID to get into the after-parties.
When he took gold at his first ever X-Games in 1996, still 14 years old, it was clear that he was doing something special in the sport.
“That was pretty sweet,” he remembers. “I had won a couple of events leading up to it and I was riding really well at the time, so I thought I could win going in.
“All the guys I was up against were my idols. I grew up watching them from when I was little, so it was really cool just to be on the podium with them.
“I know what the other guys felt like now though, because little 14 year olds are coming up and whipping our asses!
“Luckily I was able to get into the sport at a super young age, and the sport was really young as well. It meant the book was wide open waiting for tricks to be invented. It was a really great time to be involved.”
If the pages of the book were empty before Parks got going though, he certainly went some way towards filling them up.
The Temper Tantrum, a double heelside backflip, the Whirlybird 720, a tantrum with a backside 720, and the 1080 rotation were just some of the tricks that were coined by the rider.
“It was a real cool time,” admits Parks. “I wanted to learn every trick that I could and just keep trying every kind of double flip and everything I hadn’t done before – just to see which ones I could get close to.
“People got to name tricks as they invented them as well, so we were trying to come up with the most bonkers names we could think of.
“My brother named the Tootsy Roll and the Dum-Dum, and I got the 911 and The Vulcan… It was ridiculous.
“When I landed the 1080, it was really just the third one I had tried. We were doing a story on the 900 at the time – because we had just started doing them, so I was doing nines and feeling good. I thought I’d try a 1080 and ended up making it. It was pretty cool.”
As Parks grew, the sport seemed to follow him. The rider developed from a top pro sprung from water-skiing to an outrageous boarder with an abundance of style – bossing rails and showing flair in the air.
2003 and 2004 saw new competitions and new big name brands get involved in the sport, and Parks was consistently at the centre of the action.
Whether it was bossing contests, creating crazy concepts or riding something as completely unconceivable as an Argentinian iceberg – Parks career stepped from killer to legendary as the sport blew up.
These days, the rider is part-owner of Ronix, a top wakeboarding company that also happen to own their own lake in East Orlando. It’s an enjoyable life.
In case the day-to-day isn’t already exciting enough though, Bonifay occasionally invites Travis Pastrana and the Nitro Circus team over to liven things up.
Parks continued: “I met Travis at the X-Games and we kept in touch. When he started doing stuff with Nitro Circus, he would give me a call whenever water was involved – I’m the H20 dude!
“Just recently they were up at Ronix Lake, and we jumped a tube from the top of this pool about 20ft high down to the lake. It was like an 80ft jump.
“They’re always doing bonkers shit! That group is absolutely crazy.”
It’s not all tube jumping and hanging with Travis though. There’s a serious future ahead as wakeboarding continues to grow at a rapid rate, and as a figurehead of the sport, it’s an exciting time for Parks Bonifay.
He’s quick to highlight the creation of the cable system, which lets boarders ride without a boat, as a crucial factor in the progression of the sport – and one that could see it turn Olympic in the not so distant future.
“The sport has come so far from when I got into it – we didn’t have cables or floating skateparks like we have now,” he says, looking contentedly over at the Harbour Reach course.
“The system 2.0 cable changed the sport. It lifts the rope up, so you can build all kind of crazy jumps that you wouldn’t have been able to hit behind a boat.
“The future? Hopefully the Olympics, I guess. But there’s not an Olympic sport with a motor in it and I just don’t see wakeboarding being the first. I do hope so though.
“It’s hard to put a finger on it. Every time you try and predict where wakeboarding is going, something new – an invention or a rider – comes along and blows your mind. It’s a cool sport, and it’s always changing.
“I’ve been doing this for 20 years this year! My knees have gotten slowly worse and I think I’m getting shorter every time I land! But the sport has always been changing and always growing.
“I’m just privileged that I got into it at such an early stage and helped influence the sport. It’s been really cool.”
Certainly, whatever direction wakeboarding eventually travels, and however much it grows, the name Parks Bonifay will be alluded to thankfully with every progressional step.
From the catalogue of tricks to the crazy concepts being constantly enhanced, the wakeboarding scene is thriving like never before, and for that simple fact, it owes a lot to the style of this water crazy kid from Orlando.