Surf's Up! - July 3, 2012

In the Westlake Picayune. Written by Esther Robards-Forbes.

Ten-year-old Raleigh Hager is already considered a professional in the sport of wake surfing with sponsorships and several competition wins. She plans to attend the World Championships this fall and practices her skills on Lake Austin.

It’s a blistering hot day on Lake Austin, and Raleigh Hager, a professional wake surfer, is shredding waves behind a tricked out boat she tries to perfect her 360 spin in advance of the wake surfing national championships in Orlando.

Like most pro wake surfers, Raleigh already has a slate of sponsors, but she’s probably the only one looking forward to starting the fifth grade.

The 10-year-old started surfing in the ocean when she was five. She and dad, J.B., would head down to the coast as often as possible to hit the waves. Then, Raleigh tried wakeboarding, which is where a rider is locked into a board and pulled behind a boat by a rope. Eventually, she got a lighter skim board and got brave enough to drop the rope, entering the realm of a new sport called wake surfing.

“It’s surfing, like in the ocean, behind a boat without a rope,” said Raleigh, who exudes a laid-back calm characteristic of surfers.

She makes it sound – and look – easy.

At rest, Raleigh looks like any cruising surfer as the boat’s wake pushes her along, caught in a swirling sweet spot that seems to defy physics. With a quick shift in weight, she’s skimming her board up the wake to catch big air.

“I never expected to be a boat guy,” said dad J.B. “I figured why not? She’s probably not going to want to hang out with me once she’s about 14 anyway.”

The two spent nearly every day of last summer trying to avoid the blistering heat and figure out how this wake surfing thing worked. Eventually, they ran into Billy Clark, who has been wake surfing since 1995 and designs custom boards for Austin Surf Company.

“All summer, I would see her do this awesome turn up the lake, but I could never catch up because she would never crash,” said Clark, who talks like a California surfer boy, and has worked with riders up and down Lake Austin.

Clark built Raleigh a custom board and began coaching her, taking what instinct and natural talent had given her and honing it to a professional edge.

“We created a monster,” said Clark.

Raleigh already has several competition wins under her belt and is sponsored by Austin Surf Shop and Sticky Bumps, a board wax company. She took first place at competition in Canyon Lake last year. This year, she’s competing against women twice her age and placed third at the West Coast Open Women’s Pro Surf, right behind the reigning U.S. champ, Ashley Kidd and an up-and-comer Korina Smyrek out of Switzerland. Raleigh went on to place third last weekend at the National Championships. She’ll be heading for the World Championships in September.

Not bad for someone who still has a curfew.

“It’s hilarious to see her show up to an event and they have the riders meeting and this little girl shows up and these women are like, ‘What the hell is this?’” J. B. Hager said. “It went from trying to ride without the rope to getting big airs and grabs and 360s. She’s doing all the tricks that the best females in the world are doing. “

When she’s not busy catching mad air on her board, Raleigh also takes horseback riding lessons and likes to skateboard. She’s also an avid turtle hunter and has been known to sneak off during competitions to catch turtles at the water’s edge to play with.

Raleigh doesn’t know how long she’ll stick with the wake surfing thing, but she’s not giving it up anytime soon. She hopes to see the fledgling sport gain some notoriety, and maybe a spot in the X-Games or the Olympics.

“It’s fun because it’s a little weird and a little unusual to do it,” Raleigh said.