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Celebrating Equal Pay, Part One

Here is how the first women’s cash prize came about.

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Celebrating equal pay in women's wakeboarding
World Champ Julia Rick made history as the first female wake park rider to win equal pay. Courtesy Wilfried Rick

The hottest news overheard en route to the 2018 Wakeboarding Hall Of Fame inductions, was that the World Surfing League would institute Equal Pay for women.  It was a polaroid moment that etched in memory with detail.  It took a few breaths to sink in, while a scent of hope lingered in the air. The Equal Rights Movement for professional women had gained immense momentum globally. But this was surfing, our big brother sport who was balancing the scales. It was a huge step forward.  

The archaic argument that female athletes get paid less than men because of an uneven retribution, had finally been outdated. The excitement was palpable. The plight from the IWWF towards gender equality had started to bear fruit.

With the hopeful intent to get our sport into the Olympic Games, (where gender inclusion is the standard) the IWWF had payed equal podium at the Wake Park World Cup in Aqaba Jordan a few months prior.

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After the WSL announcement, the bliss continued when the wakeboarding industry raised the bar by declaring that there’d be Equal Pay at the Wake Park World Cup in Shangai the following month. The WWA joined the equal opportunity endeavor and also had Equal Podium Pay at the 2018 WWA Wakeboard World Championships in Playa del Carmen Mexico.

That same year, at the Golden Globes, Glen Close sent a powerful message about equality to all women in her acceptance speech, “I can do that, and I should be allowed to do that”. 

Back at Surf Expo, watching Sara Cline and Tara Hamilton’s induction into the Wakeboarding Hall of Fame felt like a family reunion. It had been two decades since we’d seen each other and we wanted to reminisce. Hall of famer Sonja Scheffler, Cathy Williams, Sara, photographer extraordinaire Bill Doster and myself went to ride at “Cathy’s Bed” and shred.  We tried out the brand new Liquid Force wake surfers that Jimmy Redmond and Tony Finn gave us. Those same two guys who first sponsored Cline and myself back in the “Wake Tech” times. 

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Sara Cline hitting the wake
Sara Cline was in eighth grade catching a tan at her father’s dock in Lake Catherine when eighth grader Scott Byerly approached her and asked her if he could ride his bike off her dock. “Why don’t you do it off your dock?” She asked.” Your dock is longer.” Scott said and the deal was sealed. Sara Cline became the first girl to land tricks like the tantrum and the scarecrow in an infamously small bikini. Courtesy Sara Cline

Sara hasn’t changed much in the twenty years since we rode together. Today she is a stunning mom, whose fierce green eyes flash as she drops the handle and surfs towards the back of the boat effortlessly.

Looking at the wake I can’t help thinking it would’ve been nice to have a bigger wake thirty years ago, when it all first started. But then again, the thought makes my knees shake. 

Cathy is at the wheel, she hasn’t changed much either. From the times when we rode to contests, feasting on junk food in rented vans, and took turns driving while we built our sisterhood one road trip after the next. She just came back from Dubai and is the first woman to drive the boat in International competitions.

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Cathy Williams going airborne
Cathy Williams was a key supporter who helped “Performance Ski and Surf’s” owner Bill Porter sell the sponsored boards and turned them into the first woman’s cash purse. The following year she joined the girls on the tour. “The first time I ever rode was on lake Irma, my roommates had a ski boat and I was working at ‘Performance.’ I wanted to try it cause it look like fun, my roommate said it was ‘just a fad and it wouldn’t get anywhere.’ I got up first go and #instasmiles!!!! I loved it!” – Cathy Williams Courtesy Thomas Gustafson

It was not all road trips. Things got much better. 

At the back of the boat, Sonja Scheffler chews gum cheering at Sara. Sonja still has a six pack abdomen after having two beautiful kids. She looks on like a movie star behind her turtle shell colored sunglasses. 

A smile starts to build across my face, memories with Sonja in New York, San Francisco and London being followed around and filmed like reality TV stars. It was not all road trips. By then, we were flowing with the magical momentum. All of us girls, riding on our own girl boards wearing cute girl board shorts.

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Sonja Scheffler flying over the wake
“I was a sponsored kneeboarder with ‘HO Sports.’ I got a call from Eddie at corporate and he said “Sonja, we are coming to Florida to shoot this new wakeboard sport and we want a girl in the video. If I send you a board do you think you can learn to ride it?” I said sure, and that was it…love at first try!” – Sonja Scheffler Courtesy Sonja Scheffler

The force continued to escalate with staggering synchronicity. Soon the market exploded with sister apparel brands, like Rusty Girls, Volcom Girls, Billabong Girls and Roxy to name a few.  

The level of riding rose like the evolving boat wake, going from the mere jet ski spray, to a slalom wake, through cement, fat-sacks, water-tanks, wedges and into unforeseen dimensions.

We have come a long way.

Farah Dawson boosting
“My first time wakeboarding I was with Mike Weddington and Chris Bischoff. They were shooting for ESPN and went out and did a bunch of flips. Dana taught me how to wakeboard the day before, and I decided that I was as tough as they were. So they did a bunch of flips and I had never seen that before and I went out and went all balls out and hit the wake and completely killed myself and it was on ESPN bloopers for 10 years.” – Farah Dawson Courtesy Farah Dawson

Sara gets in the boat.  It’s Sonja’s turn, she rips on the Liquid Force wakesurfer until she’s had enough. She pulls herself up unto the platform with dry hair while the boat is still going, “like a pro” (don’t try this unless you are pro).

But there was a time when there were no pro-women on the Tour. Times before wakeboarding became a profession, that’d allow the girls to experience the same lifestyle and training opportunities as the boys. 

Much like an EKG, women’s wakeboarding has had its ups and downs, but beneath and beyond the impetus has always been latent.  Here is how the first women’s cash prize came about. 

The History of Pro-Women’s Wakeboarding

By the summer of 1996, pictures of girls doing inverts and grabs appeared in worldwide publications like Vogue, Glamour, Harper’s Bazaar and Seventeen. Thanks to the vision and efforts of action sports photographer and pioneer Kelly Kingman, who helped set in motion the professional Women’s Wakeboarding Era. 

Kelly had spent months in Florida shooting the top female riders and submitted her amazing action shots to the best women publications worldwide. Kingman received a great response from the media who started to feature her photos immediately. 

Dana Preble doing flips
“In high school, maybe the summer of 1990, a guy on our lake, Klinger Lake, in Michigan had a Skurfer that nobody could get up on! He invited me to try it since I was known for being able to ski on anything (i.e a canoe paddle). Everyone told me it was nearly impossible to get up on, so I just did a dock start and away I went! It was too fat and bulky for my liking, so I just stuck to water skis at the time. Later on, at Rollins College, I was in the library one night studying. My friend and coach, Russell Gay, invited me out on Lake Virginia to try his HO Waterboard- the big orange board with three fins on the back and strap bindings. That was a lot more fun than the first ride on the Skurfer! I remember jumping the wakes and doing ‘180’s’ and ‘360’s’ not knowing that this would turn into my passion and wakeboarding career!” – Dana Preble Courtesy Dana Preble

The first nod for a women’s cash purse started when Nautique Masters Waterski and Wakeboard Organizing Committee’s mentor Larry Meddock, and Wakeboarding’s First World Champ Eric Perez, signed a petition to include women’s wakeboarding in the traditionally gender inclusive event. 

They invited three wakeboarders to compete at the 1996 Masters in an experimental Women’s Wakeboarding Exhibition. The recipients of the honorary glossy invitations were Miss Donna Warren, Miss Dana Preble and myself.  

After the contest, the three of us walked through the lush greens of Cypress Gardens feeling like royalty with the first checks awarded to female riders.  An exhibition was no real contest, but it was a start.

By 1997, women’s wakeboarding was hot, and the year looked promising. In early spring, Tara Hamilton was featured on the cover of the avant garde “Launch Wakeboard” magazine, and the following month, I was the first girl to grace the cover of “Wakeboarding” magazine. 

The momentum had finally caught on. Both the “XGames” and the “Callaway Masters” had added legit cash prize women’s wakeboarding divisions, and Snow/Wake Contests like Boardfest and the Classic L.A. Open offered women’s cash prize. 

Andrea Gaytan on a Wakeboarding cover
“Back in the ‘no helmet’ days, pioneer photographer Tom King chose to ride an inner tube behind me for the shoot. After a gnarly failed attempt where I nearly took him out, he got the sequence that got me on the cover of Wakeboarding Magazine with a little Photoshop work to hide the rope burns on my neck.” – Andrea Gaytan Courtesy Tom King

By April, at the first event of the season, the U.S. Wakeboard and Waterski Pro Tour agreed to let the women have a separate division, but they offered no cash prize. A tour official suggested that the women pay a double entry fee so we could use the over paid balance as the women’s purse.

But the universe had a different plan…

Nicola Huntridge wakeboarding
“I was born in England, when I was 8 years old our friends had a speed boat and introduced me to water skiing. From the moment I popped up out of the water and slid over the wake on to glass water I was hooked! I felt like Jesus walking on water, I remember that in my mind so clearly (I went to a Catholic all-girls school)” – Nicola Huntridge Courtesy Nicola Huntridge

It started with a phone call to “Performance Ski and Surf” owner Bill Porter. To support the girls, Bill offered to trade the female contestants equipment for cash.  Within minutes, every girl was calling their board sponsor asking to donate a women’s board to the shop to participate in the women’s cash prize.

Firm believer in the female movement, “Fulltilt’s” CEO Bill Van Sickle, immediately sent down two new Supermodels.

Fireworks lit the sky, as the rest of the sponsors followed up like dominoes. 

The O.G’s

On a sunny morning at Orlando’s Crane Roost Park, a remarkable line up of strong and attractive women awaited for their turn. 

Fearless riders like Dana Preble, who’d be starting her pass with an infamous “Air Raley”, dangerous trick that has broken necks. Dana was the first girl to learn it, not long after Chet Raley invented it down in West Palm Beach, at the underground training school where coaches Mike Ferraro and Tanneguy Bennet were building champions.

The West Palm star studded mecca included the eminent Darin Shapiro who’d been coaching Tara Hamilton behind the scenes. The anticipation to watch her compete on her first pro contest was obvious.

Tara Hamilton big air
No rider had higher expectations placed upon their shoulders than fifteen year old Tara Hamilton. Before her first pro contest, she was already on the cover of Launch Magazine. But if anyone had the capacity to deliver was Hamilton. Darin Shapiro’s star student and protégée, who’d raise the level of women’s riding to new heights. Courtesy Tara Hamilton

A stunning trio of talented riders who’d transitioned from waterskiing also trained down in West Palm: England’s Nicola Huntridge, Denmark’s Marie Botved and trick skiing world record holder Britt Larsen.

Britt Larsen going upside down
Multiple time world trick champion and world record holder Britt Larsen, whose only challenger in the trick ski arena was often her twin sister Tawn, was among the first trick skiers to make the transition into the more extreme sport of wakeboarding. The list of top riders with a waterski background included her now hubby former Callaway Masters champ Jeremy Kovak, former World Wakeboard Champion Jeff Heer and trick ski specialist and pioneer rope designer Russell Gay. Courtesy Britt Larsen

Expectations ran high.

Marie Botved-Studd in the air
“I started wakeboarding in the fall of 1996 after having the best waterski season ever finishing 4th in jumping at the European Championships. While training in West Palm Beach Florida, I met a nice group of wakeboarders (among others Jeff Heer and Tara Hamilton) who were training there as well. I was intrigued and picked up the wakeboard, along with some other waterski girls like Nicola Huntridge and Britt Larsen. I got so hooked that the following year I was competing on the Pro Wakeboarding Tour instead and never looked back” – Marie Botved-Studd Courtesy Marie Botved-Studd

Leslie Kent was to be first off the dock. She stood wearing an unzipped short vest that left her mid drift exposed at her stellar height. Her long brown hair flew smoothly behind her as she calmly tried to untangle the knots of her thin and frazzled rope line.

Leslie Kent riding in a contest
A lanky fourteen year old girl, with the shape of a supermodel got introduced to the sport by pro rider and O-Town coach Charley Patterson. Sparks flew and her romance with wakeboarding ignited the moment she took through the air and poked out a big clean stalefish grab. It was pure natural talent. She went big, she crashed hard, she could do spins and she was trying back flips before Jeff Heer called them Tantrums. In mid air seemingly out of nowhere, her long arm would reach the board grab the rail holding on with fierce determination, sometimes all the way into a face-plant! She was the first to land many tricks, but earned the most respect when she landed the “Pete Rose”, back when only a handful of men could do those moves. Watching Leslie Kent, ride made you want to try new things. Her style was so unique, it was straight out from skateboarding. Courtesy Leslie Kent

Buster Lutgert closed her eyes visualizing her passes next to Sara Cline and myself who’d compete on our signature boards.

Kelly Kingman landing a trick
Kristin a.ka. “Buster” Lutgert. Never one to stand in her little brother’s shadow, Buster was the first girl to land a “whirlybird” and later landed tantrums to blind. She could stick them on the trampoline and was one of the first to implement trampoline practice to learn new tricks, back when there was no safety net; a mere tree branch to tie the rope would do. Buster’s style reflected the positive influence of her star-studded, lake-side mansion roommates, who included the likes of Scott Byerly, Gator, Dayle Cartwright and genius railslider innovator Brannon Meek. One thing was for sure, Buster’s boat always had the biggest wake. The back of her Nautique was loaded with a waterbed mattress filled to the max. It was nice to lay on, too. Courtesy Kelly Kingman

“Roxy” girl Tina Bessinger chatted anxiously with pal Jaimie Necrasson. Sonja Scheffler arrived, relieved from her autograph signing duties, while Southern Belle Farrah Dawson placed a lock of her blonde hair behind her ear and looked on with quiet concentration.

Tina Lee Bessinger wakeboarding in a Roxy ad
“In 1996, I was on the boat with Tony Bazile, Anders Almgren, Jon Lindsay and Charley Patterson. I was working at a ski shop called ‘Peter Glenn’ and I had just hired Jon Lindsay to work for us. I got ragged on many of times when they had tried to get all the employees to come out and try wakeboarding. I was dating Tony Bazile at the time and he kind of was the one who pushed me to go. I think I swallowed half of the lakes water and was getting very frustrated and then all the sudden I stopped trying so hard and I got up. It was riding a ‘Wake Tech’ board with huge boots on it. I got up and just rode behind the boat. I was hooked immediately!!!!! I was having the time of my life. Little did I know I would be competing four months later and that my life would be changing in so many different ways. I think I meet Andrea Gaytán a few months after starting and she was such an amazing supporter, helping me to land my first back roll.” – Tina Lee Bessinger Courtesy Tina Lee Bessinger

All eyes were on us.

History was about to write itself, with the first cash purse for the women’s wakeboarding division totaling 5,000 dollars.

Jaime Necrasson launching air in a contest
“My first time on a wakeboard wasn’t magical or exciting. It wasn’t some sort of pivotal moment in my life. It was driven by being competitive. Some people may know of my brother, Gregg. He was kind of a big deal. I had it in my mind if he could do it, so could I. I was fourteen at the time and I needed a boat driver. I enlisted my dad, Conrad, who prepped the wakeboard and pulled me off the dock for my first even session. I felt pretty cocky for approximately seventeen seconds before I was quickly introduced to my front edge. You never forget that first face plant. With my ego in check, and some encouragement and instruction from Conrad, I was back up and riding. Remember kids, bend at the waist, fall on your face!” – Jaime Necrasson Courtesy Jaime Necrasson

At the end of the day, three of us stood proudly on the podium, holding up the huge “Performance Ski n’ Surf” checks high above our heads in an ecstatic shared victory. 

For the very first time, we not only got a trophy to take home, but a cash prize. A defining moment in every athlete’s life, when what you are most passionate about, becomes what you get paid to do…

Andrea Gaytan on a new board
“The first time I rode on a lighter and shorter board, I learned many new tricks almost immediately! Susie Wirgau helped me design the graphics, we almost went for a cheetah print, then pondered a metallic green, it was like trying outfits on. In the end the ‘Supermodel’ stuck.” – Andrea Gaytan Courtesy Tom King

Turning pro is the athlete’s dream coming true.

To be continued… 

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