Josh Palma is a late bloomer — at least by pro wakeboarding’s standards. While most of his peers were chasing titles on the Pro Wakeboard Tour, Palma was pursuing a career in baseball. But after a shoulder injury ended his stint in center field, Palma decided to pursue his passion and took a belated shot at wakeboarding for a living. He’s made the most of it. After a top-10 finish in the 2010 King of Wake and new first-team deals with MasterCraft and CWB, Palma is enjoying his most successful stretch ever as a professional rider. He’s even set to appear on the silver screen this September, riding and grappling with animatronic sharks as a stunt man in the new horror flick Shark Night 3D. Though he was late to the party, Palma is poised to make his way in wakeboarding. In fact, Palma’s slow start might actually have helped him cement his future in wakeboarding. Words: Luke Woodling Photos: Bill Doster
How did you get into wakeboarding? You grew up in Orlando, right?
Yeah, I grew up on the Maitland-Winter Park chain of lakes. I had three older brothers, and we really didn’t have an interest in the lake. We played all the conventional sports — basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis. We were super-busy with all that stuff, so we never had any time to get into water sports. Then, one summer I was at Rollins College basketball camp and Joel Cahill invited me to try wakeboarding. That sounded interesting to me, so I went to his house and rode his HO skurfer with sandals. I got up pretty quickly and carved around. I started riding with him a lot the rest of that summer. I did my first wake to wake about a week later, and I was hooked.
How old were you at that point?
I would have been 11, almost 12.
How did your wakeboarding progress from there? Were you still playing those other sports?
Yeah, I played a lot of basketball and baseball. That was kind of my focus, but soon after I started riding with Joel, my parents got me a board for Christmas. I got a Full Tilt Mike Weddington Function 55, and I started riding. Fortunately, my oldest brother got into it with me, so I had someone to ride with when I wasn’t riding with Joel. At that point, wakeboarding was a passion and I loved it, but I never really thought it would be more than my favorite hobby. I just didn’t think it was something I would take seriously, much less make a career out of.
When I was about 15, Seth Olsen, who used to work for WAKEBOARDING magazine, saw me riding on my parent’s lake. At that point, I wasn’t great, but I had a good foundation. I could do all the basic inverts and 3s and 5s and I think I could do a couple of mobes. He and I rode together a handful of times, and he was just an awesome guy; he really supported me. He got me into Surf Expo and introduced me to some of the guys at Liquid Force. That was kind of my first foot in the door, and they got me on a product agreement. That was pretty much where things stayed for me for the next few years, even as I got into college. Right after I finished high school, I got into some of the Gravel Tour events, and my first time out I won overall in Outlaw. That kind of gave me the sense that if I got into this a little more, I could potentially do something. But that was a little tough because I actually went to Rollins College to play baseball.
What happened there?
I red-shirted my freshman year because I had some work done on my shoulder. I loved baseball, and I still miss it a lot, but after I had that work done on my arm, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to achieve what I wanted to in baseball. My sophomore year, I shifted my focus and decided to go all in with wakeboarding.
Was that the first time you really put wakeboarding first?
Yeah, I figured if I was going to do it, I didn’t want to do it as just a hobby. When I get into something, it’s either a hobby or all the way — there’s no real in between for me. At that point, I really started to try to make my riding look better and refine things. Plus, I wanted to start riding in some pro contests. Because the only experience I had was five Gravel Tour stops and a couple collegiate events, I knew that was going to be tough. I had very little contest experience and it’s not like I came up through Junior Men. I think at my first contest I had Shawn Watson and Ike Eisenhauer in my heat — guys I had grown up watching. I knew it was going to take a ton of work because I had a pretty late start and a different entrance into the sport than a lot of the guys, but I was willing to go for it. The first time, I did terrible.
Shortly after you started competing, you got hooked up with Shaun Murray and The Boarding School. How did that happen?
I had a friend named Tom Leonard who lived on my parent’s lake and was doing a bunch of real estate development out by Murray’s house. I did some clinics and lessons with him and his kids and he told me he had gotten to be pretty good buddies with Murray and he wanted to take me out there one day. Murray had been my idol since day one, when I watched High Wake Drifters and Fluid. So I went out to Murray’s house and had two of the best sets I ever had in my life. I did back-to-back whirly 5s and a couple 7s and just went big and had a blast. That was probably the best day I’ve ever had wakeboarding. It was just amazing to go out and ride like that with Murray and be at his house behind his boat. As soon as we got done riding, Murray called Hyperlite and told them to sign me right away. A couple months after that, I won buywake.com’s Global Rider search, so things just really took off for the next six months to a year. Murray helped a lot, and Chuck Morrow from buywake.com opened a ton of doors for me. I was really fortunate that I met some of the best and most influential people in our industry early on in my career.
You were still in school then?
I still had two years of college left, so it was kind of up in the air whether I would finish or not. I even talked to Murray about it. I think he thought I had what it took to stop school and go full-on with wakeboarding, but he didn’t really want to tell me that. I took school really seriously but because I was at Rollins, I was able to ride on Lake Virginia all the time. Yeah, I wasn’t able to train like I could have and I missed some contests because of school, but I rode a lot and I accomplished a lot those next two years. I graduated from Rollins in the spring of ’06.
What was your degree in?
I did psychology and I was in the pre-MBA track, so I took a lot of the core business classes too.
Josh Palma’s Top 3 Ways to Make It in Wakeboarding
1. Create a niche for yourself as a rider by forging your own unique style and skill set.
2. Focus on creating and maintaining long-term relationships with sponsors. Be willing to pay your dues and always make sure your sponsors get the most out of their investment in you. In the end, it will pay off for everyone.
3. Realize there is more to making it in wakeboarding than wakeboarding itself.