The old 'extreme'' watersports have been left in the wake
By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
Charles Darwin was born 200 years too early.
The noted naturalist could have learned a great deal about mankind by studying the evolution of so-called "extreme sports."
In the beginning, a kid, probably playing hooky, nailed some roller-skate wheels to a plank of wood, sat a milk carton on top with some handles sticking out, and the scooter was born.
Then some other kid, probably also playing hooky, got bored, ripped the milk carton off and inadvertently created the first skateboard.
Surfers liked the new contraption because it gave them something to do when waves were flat. Then one noticed water skiers didn't need waves, hills or empty swimming pools to catch a ride, and the "skurfer" was created.
"The original skurfer looked like a fat slalom ski," Steve Levine of Largo's Watersports West said. "Everybody had a blast with it. People just went crazy."
A couple of windsurfers expanded the idea by adding foot straps, which allowed skurfers to "catch air" as they jumped the wake behind a boat, and skiboarding was a hit.
But the average person still found it hard to get up on narrow skurfers. Herb O'Brien, a well-known figure in the water-skiing community, made a wider, neutrally-buoyant, compression-molded board.
His innovation, along with boots centered on the board, spawned massive growth in the sport, which soon became known as wakeboarding.
Boarders, be they surf, snow, mountain, wake or skate, are an adventurous bunch. So it didn't take long for wakeboarders to begin borrowing from the original extreme sport, skateboarding.
"The wakeskate is the hottest thing happening in watersports today," said Levine, who has worked in the sail/ski/dive/board industry for more than 20 years. "It combines the best elements of skateboarding and wakeboarding."
A wakeskate is a little smaller and less expensive than traditional wakeboards. The most noticeable difference is the lack of boots. The rider stands barefooted on a surface of foam or grip-tape, similar to that used on a skateboard.
"It's real easy," Levine said. "Anybody can learn to wakeskate."
Anybody? Even a 41-year-old overweight outdoors writer with a bad knee?
"Sure," Levine said. "Even you."
They say the secret to staying young is thinking young. My mind buys it, but unfortunately my body doesn't always agree. I could get hurt, falling at a high speed behind a boat. I would be much smarter to bring a test subject, my own little NASA chimpanzee.
"No problem," 13-year-old Cody Chivas said when he saw the board. "I'll tear it up." Cody, an accomplished angler, surfer and wakeboarder, is more agile, but I'm wiser. That's why he went first.
"You get up on it just like you do a wakeboard," said Tristan Seley, one of the state's top riders brought in to see if an old dog could be taught new tricks. "Just relax and go."
Levine gunned the engine, and my protege took off. Ten minutes later Cody returned, characteristicly unfazed by his mastery of this new watersport.
"It's cool," he said. "Think I'll get one."
It was my turn. Seley showed me how to position my feet and handed me the rope. Levine asked if I was ready, and I gave him the thumbs-up. He gunned the engine, and I went head over heels.
"Are you okay?" Seley asked. "This time relax."
Be young, be cool, I thought. Levine gunned the engine, and this time I was up. I carved back and forth, getting the feel of the board, then tried to take it to the next level and jump the wake.
The subsequent impact forced about two gallons of water up my nostrils and down my throat. I emerged from the water coughing and gave my instructor the thumbs-up.
"You looked good," Seley said.
"I was working on a new move," I said.
Next time somebody writes about the evolution of extreme sports, they may mention my trademark maneuver with the "air rallie" and the "butter slide," two wakeboard staples.
"I think I'll call it the "face plant'," I said.
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