Featured in the Sept 17th 2012 Austin American Statesman
Local pro, 10, will compete with the big girls this weekend By Pam LeBlanc
Turns out you don't need an ocean full of waves spit out by Mother Nature to hang 10 when you've got a lake and a boat.
Surfing in Central Texas even boasts some advantages over more traditional meccas: No sticky salt water, skin-shredding coral reefs or men in gray suits, otherwise known as sharks. Factor in plenty of easy lake access and warm weather, and voila — Austin's becoming a Hill Country Honolulu.
"Our scene crushes everybody else," says Billy Clark, who teaches lessons through his business, Austin Surf Company, and manufactures lightweight wake surf boards.
Wake surfing isn't entirely new. Water skiing came first. But as far back as the 1950s, land-locked surf bums hit the lake, dragging their unwieldy long boards behind boats. In the 1990s, shorter, fatter wakeboards took over, and a whole culture of high-flying tricks evolved.
In Austin, wake surfing debuted in the early 1990s. In 2005, it heated up. Today, wake surfers around the world know Austin as a place where surfers shred and music blares. Along with Switzerland, Spain and France, it's become an epicenter of the sport.
This weekend, the Big Barrel competition will take place at the Steiner Ranch Lake Club. First held in 2008, it was one of the first tournaments in Texas and remains one of the biggest.
Riding the tip of that trend in Austin is Raleigh Hager, daughter of MIX 94.7 radio disc jockey JB Hager and his wife, Erin, who mostly sit back and marvel as the 10-year-old pro wake surfer spins 360s and launches her hot pink custom wake surfboard in the air.
Raleigh started wake surfing about three years ago, after taking traditional surf lessons during a family vacation to California. It took too long to get to the beach, so Dad eventually bought a boat and a wake surfboard.
They haven't looked back since. In the year she's been training with Clark, Raleigh has cannonballed onto the national scene, placing against women two or three times her age.
"There's no other 10-year-old doing what she's doing," Clark says.
She surfs Lake Austin four or five days a week.
"It's like you're walking on water," Raleigh says.
Wake surfers use a tow rope to pull themselves up on specially designed boards, then drop the rope when they catch the continuous wave created as the boat plows through the water. They still get to do tricks, but they're done at slower speeds, which makes the sport less physically taxing and wipeouts less painful.
Proper surfing vessels are equipped with sacks that look like miniature waterbeds. Filled with lake water, they serve as ballast, sinking one side of the boat deeper into the water to throw off a beefier wake.
To demonstrate wake surfing, Clark fills the water sacks on his boat and Raleigh jumps into the water. She places her feet on her board like they're resting on a coffee table, knees bent. As the boat surges forward, the board tilts up, and she pops up to standing. A 4-foot, V-shaped roller forms, and she glides to the steepest part of the green tongue of water.
Magically, she skims along just a few feet from the back of the boat, a lake version of Gidget. She dangles her back hand in the water for a few beats, then coolly tosses the short tow rope back to the boat.
"720-ville," Clark hollers in the lilt of a California surf dude. "It's happening right now. No timeouts."
Raleigh gathers herself, then spins the board beneath her feet like a twirling pottery wheel. It's nonstop spins and rail grabs — and some frothy wipeouts — for the next hour or so.
During competitions, wake surfers get two minutes to pack in as many tricks as possible.
Early on, older competitors looked somewhat askance when Raleigh showed up. After all, she's the only fifth-grader in the bunch. She's probably also the only one who likes to hunt turtles (the baby ones, because the big ones have long toenails and can scratch), watches "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" and periodically begs her parents to buy her a tiny pet pig.
Now some of those older surfers opt not to enter a contest if they know she's competing. They know they won't have a shot.
"I'm proud of her," says Erin Hager. "It's awesome. I love that she doesn't fall into that traditional girl mode."
Raleigh has won several local competitions. She took third in the 2012 West Coast Wakesurf Open, nudged out by Swiss pro Korina Smyrek and U.S. champion Ashley Kidd. She'll compete in the upcoming Big Barrel, then head to Arizona for another international competition.
"She's doing all the stuff that the 20-somethings are doing," Clark says. "She's basically the future of the sport."
Raleigh isn't alone. Sail and Ski, an Austin boat shop, sells as many wake surfers now as wakeboards.
"That's definitely a change from even three years ago," says Bonnie Starrak, event and marketing coordintor for Sail and Ski.
It used to be that we'd sell boats to dads to drag their kids around and they'd ski now and then. Now everybody in the family can participate. It's low-impact, and you're not shattering your body every time you fall."
After watching Raleigh, I hop in the lake. In an hour, I can drop the rope and surf the roller behind the boat for a few minutes, proving another advantage of wake surfing over ocean surfing — it's easy to pick up the basics in a single session.
You don't have to frantically paddle to catch a wave, either, and because it doesn't require super smooth water, there's no rising before dawn to catch the flattest water, like I do when I water ski.