Skimboarding phenom Austin Keen aiming to boost sport to the next level
- 05 August 2016 | Skimboarding
Austin Keen stands on the vast beach of Tybee Island, Georgia, scanning its tiny waves moments before two dozen groms join him for a three-hour skim session. There's nothing like Skim Tybee.
At low tide and just a couple hours after sunrise on a steamy July morning, these South Atlantic coastal waters are no comparison to the epic waves of his current coastal home near Laguna Beach, California.
But while their current is weak, their meaning remains powerful. It was these waves that turned a teenage Keen from a surfer to a skimboarder just to pass the dead time in Tybee's still waters.
It was these waves that made Keen the first East Coast skimboarding champ. It was these waves that inspired the now-professional skimboarder to take the sport beyond California's coast and into the public eye via viral Facebook and Instagram videos.
And it will be these waters where he hopes to inspire another generation of skimboarding champions.
"Hey, are you famous?" calls out a 10-year-old camper while Keen leads the kids through several stretches. "Nah," Keen says without hesitating.
But several of the older kids snicker. They know Keen is perhaps the most visible professional skimboarder in the country, thanks to his famous blond dreads, jaw-dropping airs, and of course, his viral YouTube videos.
Keen is to skimboarding what Tony Hawk was to skateboarding and Shaun White to snowboarding. One camper - a diehard Denver Broncos fan - even compared Keen to Peyton Manning for his humble nature, but the comparison easily crosses over to Keen's "face-of-the-franchise" fame.
But where Hawk, White, and Manning had organized competitions and major platforms to be ambassadors for their sports, Keen has had to be a lone ranger, pushing the sport he loves entirely through self-promotion and social networking.
"My biggest goal in this sport is paving a path for the future, for the next generation of skimboarders," Keen says. "I want it to keep its soul, but I just want there to be opportunity out there for professional skimboarders - and everyone from photographers to judges to anyone who has put so much into it."
His vision includes hosting major events that market outside the skimboarding community and draw spectators to the magic of a sport that showcases both the wave-riding skill of surfing with the crowd-wowing tricks of snowboarding.
"It's such a great spectator sport," Keen says, recalling his 2013 world championships when he technically had won enough points in the semi-finals to become the United Skim Tour (UST) champ, but then nailed the contest win by landing an epic air in the finals - the superman flip, aka "da Keen."
"There was so much energy, and the crowd was standing inches away from two guys battling it out to the end," Keen says, adding that the vibe was as strong as any X-Games finals. "I'm literally standing right next to the crowd and then running and getting head-high barrels just 30 feet away. It was killer."
So it's understandable that Keen is baffled the sport can't seem to take advantage of its major X-factor potential. "I just want people to see us do what we do on a professional, advanced level and have them know that is skimboarding," Keen says.
"You're killin' it out there, dude," Keen tells an awestruck 6-year-old camper working on his one-drop.
A few seconds later the world champ is helping another Tybee protégé perfect his 360 shuvit by demonstrating a few killer ones himself. On his way back to the beach, Keen advises a legally blind 13-year-old attending the camp how to improve his frontside turn. "Dude, that was much better," he tells him.
Campers spend most of the three hours just running in/out of the small waves, always hoping to be the one to catch Keen's eye and get some feedback. But if they happen to miss it, all it takes is a quick question to the skimboarding phenom, and they'll immediately have his help. And of course, there are always random demonstrations from Keen when he sees just the right wave.
This is the third year of Skim Tybee, a joint effort with his teenage friend Benji Sanders.
Sanders and his brother Toby met Austin and his best friend Brad as young teenagers waiting on the surf. The four nicknamed themselves the "17th Street Bros" and formed the second generation of Tybee surfers.
To pass the time waiting on waves, the 11- and 12-year-old surfers bought some cheap wood skimboards to slide across the sand. An older gentleman approached Keen and asked if he had heard of skimboarder Bill Bryan. The man gave Keen a VHS tape of Bryan, and it changed the young surfer's world.
"It totally opened my mind to the possibilities," Keen says. Immediately Keen, Sanders and "the bros" started experimenting with wave-riding, and not long after, they were the skimboarding pioneers of the East Coast. Their repertoire suddenly expanded from sand sliding to all degrees of shuvits - on the flat and on the waves - re-entries, rodeo flips… you name it; they tried it.
Though Keen was the only one of the group to really pursue skimboarding professionally, he knows the Tybee gang helped encourage him to stay with his passion.
"We motivated each other," Sanders agreed, and that's part of his ultimate goal with Skim Tybee camp. This year's crew had kids ranging from "never been on a board" to advanced wave riders working on 360 re-entries.
"The key was always the group. So much of our skimboarding was social," Sanders recalled, and Keen piped in, "Dude, remember our first contest?"
The two friends laugh. "We were like, 'whoa.' We had no idea," Keen says and shakes his head. "It opened our minds to what you could do."
At 16, Keen had an opportunity to visit California for a week to surf, which occurred just about the time his mom took a job in the Sunshine State. A 17-year-old Keen moved out to the West Coast with his mom to finish high school in California. Then he returned to Tybee and got a job.
"I took a dock construction job and immediately was like, 'what am I doing?'" Keen said. So a few months after returning, the West Coaster at heart drove back to Cali to make his life there for good.
But for the past three summers, he has been coming back to Tybee to run the skim camp with his longtime friend and try to spark the same passion for skimboarding.
"It's not even just about skimboarding," he says, matter-of-factly. "It's about being passionate to do whatever you love."
Keen admits that when he first returns to Tybee every summer, it takes some effort getting motivated to work so hard on the small Atlantic waves. Where he can use the energy of the water in Laguna Beach to boost his airs, Tybee requires a lot of running and doing the "monkey crawl" - a method of keeping all fours on the board to get to the waves faster and with more power, something Sanders and Keen have really brought to the skimboarding world out of necessity in small waves.
"It always takes me about an hour and a half to get motivated because I see Benji running his ass off for a wave," Keen admits. But then he watches his friend catch some air, and it's over.
"Benji motivates me to run for a wave, and then I do, and the kids are like, 'whoa,' and I'm like, 'well, I can do better than that," Keen says. "So that makes me go harder. Next thing I know, I'm skimming hard."
Keen also gets stoked to figure out new ways to teach the kids. So much of what he does now comes naturally and thinking through a camper's question helps him understand how he does what he does.
"They help me learn," Keen says, and that's why the world champ is pushing so hard to make the sport visible. "I just want to set up all this stuff now so it doesn't disappear, build some momentum and give back to kids who will be the future pros."
Building momentum has taken a ton of creativity and hard work from the self-made entrepreneur, but it's paying off.
After going to all the UST-sponsored contests in 2013 and being crowned the champ, Keen now tries to go to as many as possible while also building in trips around the globe where he can create eye-catching video content that tells stories of skimboarding in a dynamic and engaging way.
Branding himself has led to collaborating with different industries such as yoga and wakeboarding, planning skimboarding trips all over the world to places such as Spain, Haiti and Bali, and creating dozens of YouTube videos that Keen has recently begun producing himself.
"I'm working on being a professional athlete for this sport and not just a guy going to contests," says Keen, who has teamed up with his girlfriend Kerissa Glentz of Digital Career Girl to make sure his creative content is also hitting its maximum online reach with top SEO tactics.
Keen's goal is to move the sport in a more professional direction where younger guys coming up have a blueprint for marketing, producing social content and creating their own brands. "To me, that's the most valuable thing for our sport right now."
Perusing Keen's YouTube channel is like watching a highlight reel of everything awesome one can do in the water. Combining hit songs, quick clips, breathtaking videography and occasional commentary, Keen's videos are a testament to the adventure lifestyle - which is exactly what he's going for.
Keen's followers on Facebook and Instagram are nearing 100K each, and he's had at least 10 videos go viral as well as been featured on The Ellen Show and Tosh 2.0. He credits his crazy ideas plus an eye for engaging content with the success of his videos and social media.
"I have an eye for the right content and what people like to see," Keen says. "Mostly it's just doing crazy, creative stuff."
Whether it's shooting an ad for yoga mats while skimboarding, or designing a video entirely around a triple-board-transfer along a wave, or taking on wake surfing - skimboarding behind a boat wake - Keen is constantly proving there is nothing he can't do with a board and water.
In fact, a video Keen posted just last month featuring him skimming out from a beach in Vancouver to hijack a boat wake has had more than 12 million views already.
"It's a different vibe. It's fun-driven and laid-back, but it's not the lifestyle that's ideal for me," Keen says. "100 percent I prefer skimboarding over wake surfing."
The main drawback is his internal pull to be in tune with the ocean. "I can't be away from the beach. I've created a standard for myself that I won't allow it," Keen says, adding he would "freak out" if inland too long. "That's my life - surfing in the ocean, being on waves, being at the beach."
And if it were entirely up to Keen, the laid-back surfer from Tybee would probably just hang out at his backyard beach in Laguna looking for barrels all day.
But there are videos to make, a sport to promote and kids to teach, after all.
Camp is over for the day, and one kid asks Keen to sign his board, prompting a flock of requests for Keen's signature palm tree as the "t" in Austin.
"Way to kill it out there, dude," the world champ tells his youngest camper. Proud but a little shy, the young Grom smiles wide and understands he has indeed just been complimented by someone famous.
Words by Laurie Lattimore-Volkmann