People leave home for all sorts of reasons — college, starting a career, pursuing a passion or even joining the army. Not many, though, leave at age 11. An adolescent Meagan Ethell did; she packed her bags and went from Illinois to Florida in pursuit of a wakeboard career while the rest of the kids were watching cartoons and playing tag. No, she didn’t get in a huge blowout with her parents, run away from home, and hitchhike her way to freedom; it was a little more calculated than that. She was into wakeboarding, really into it. So much so that she left to stay with family friends in the wakeboarding mecca, Orlando, to get coached by the best and follow a pipe dream.
It would be easy to assume that the driving force behind an 11-year-old girl leaving home to pursue something so crazy was family pressure, but that wasn’t the case. Meagan’s longtime coach, Mike Ferraro, assured me that her success, drive, and willingness to do anything she can to become a better rider all come from inside of her. Growing up, she idolized Dallas Friday, craved pro-rider status, and did whatever she had to in order to bring that dream to fruition. If this seems like some far-fetched fairy-tale story, in some sense, it is. Meagan moved to Florida to become a pro wakeboarder before most kids learn how to ride, and it actually happened. She trained to be the best women’s rider, and she’s proving that. Now, at 19, Meagan rides and competes with her childhood idol, wins contests all over the world, and aspires to change the way we see how girls can ride wakeboards.
What’s up, Meagan?
Nothing much. I’m in Australia here, staying with some of the girls.
That’s cool. Are you down there for Moomba Masters?
Yeah, I decided to come a little early to adjust to the time difference and ride a little bit before the contest. I’m excited. It’s going to be fun.
I’ve heard that event is insane, people everywhere.
Yeah, there are like 100,000 people there. I think it’s one of the biggest events.
Have you been to it before?
I went to it last year for the first time, and it’s super crazy.
What’s been up lately?
I had a really good winter. Let’s see… I started my offseason riding a bunch and then shooting with Jason [Lee] for this. I trained in the gym all winter too. I train over at Clermont Crossfit, where Rusty [Malinoski] is. That was super fun, and then I’ve been back riding a bunch lately, getting ready to come over here. It’s always a little nice to take a break and take it easy, but now riding a lot has been cool.
I’m going to warn you, some of these questions are brain-busters.
OK, great. That’s why you wanted to do it over the phone!
Let’s start with the basics. Where are you from, and how did you get into it?
I’m from Illinois. I got into riding because my family had a lake house in Michigan. I tried up there and really liked it. There was a coach up in Michigan, and that’s how I really got into it. He told us about a contest in Florida, so we came down to Florida and that’s how I met Mike Ferraro. It all pretty much went from there.
How old were you when you first rode?
I was 8 years old. Pretty young.
And what about when you first moved to Orlando?
I was 11 when I moved to Orlando. I lived without my family for a few years until they moved down when I was 14, almost 15.
Wait, you moved down by yourself at 11?
Yeah, I lived with another family.
Wow. Really? Who was the family?
Well, you know Jake Pelot. I lived with his family. That’s something a lot of people don’t know about me, actually, the fact that I lived with another family for that long.
I mean, that’s pretty crazy at such a young age. Did you have a tough time?
It was really hard being away from home at such a young age. There were so many times where I missed my parents. If I was 16 and moving down to Florida, I would be stoked because who wouldn’t want to be 16 and move out? So being that young, I had some tough times, but I wouldn’t go back and change it, because it got me to where I am today. I always think about where my riding would be without moving down here at such a young age.
Who did you look up to in the beginning?
Well, definitely Dallas [Friday]. Of the guys, I looked up to Parks [Bonifay] and Shaun Murray, but as a girl, it was mostly Dallas.
So do you remember the first time you met her?
Yeah, of course. I was probably 10, and I met her at an event at OWC. She was there and I got to take a picture with her, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever.
Do you remember the first time you rode with her?
Well, I didn’t ride with her for a long time after that. [I was] probably 13 or 14.
Well, you guys shared a coach, Mike Ferraro. Was it with him?
Yeah. He was both of our coaches, and he would always use her as kind of a motivational thing for me. He knew I looked up to her. He would say, “If you can do all your tricks without falling, you can go ride with Dallas” and stuff like that.
Wow, the ol’ carrot-at-the-end-of-a-stick method!
Sometimes I would do all my tricks and fall on the last one and get so upset. I mean, he would always use that because he knew I’d do anything. All I wanted to do was ride with her, but I didn’t actually get to for a couple years after being in Florida.
How’s the state of women’s wakeboarding these days?
Well, I feel like it’s progressed a lot, and I think it still is. Cable park riding has been progressing more lately, I think. The thing is, we don’t have that many women involved pushing the riding behind the boat. A lot of the older girls and women compete behind the boat, but we don’t have as many younger girls coming up and pushing the boundaries there. A lot of them are just riding at the park.
Being a younger female boat rider, do you try and help push that?
Yeah. I mean, I don’t coach, but I do like doing stuff for any younger girl that likes to ride. I like riding with the Shred Sisters and supporting them. Whenever any girls want to ride with me, I like doing that, but right now I don’t coach.
Who are the Shred Sisters?
It’s just a little group of younger girls who love to shred. It’s all about just having fun being behind the boat with other girls. They have an event every year and get together, and we all go out and ride together. It’s cool in that sense. I see a lot of parents being hard on their kids when they’re so young, and that kind of takes the fun out of wakeboarding. That’s kind of what the Shred Sisters is about: go out and have fun and show parents that’s what wakeboarding is, and not take it too seriously … especially at that age.
You took it pretty seriously at a young age, though, right?
Um, yeah. I mean, yeah, my dad was a little hard on me, but now he’s not nearly as involved. He knows that I can take care of everything myself. I’m hard enough on myself. If he was too, that would be too much.
Do you think your dad being hard on you helped, so that now you have higher expectations for yourself?
Yeah, for sure. I think a young child shouldn’t have to deal with the stress of taking it too seriously, though. They should be motivated a different way, like by just how fun wakeboarding is.
I agree. Have you been trying to ride at the park more?
Last year, yes. After taking some time off, though, I’ve just been concentrating on my boat riding and getting ready for the season and consistent for Moomba. I love riding at the park. It’s so much fun for me. I do it whenever I can.
How much do you ride at home in a typical week?
Boat or at the park?
Boat, probably six times a week. I usually have to take one day off and rest so I’m not always tired; that’s how you get hurt. And usually that one day off the lake is glassy. [Laughs.]
Yeah, of course it is. What about the park?
Probably four times a week.
Wow! That’s a lot. Do you train with Ferraro a lot too?
Yeah, kind of. I will every once in a while, like right before a contest to make sure I’m on the right track with stuff. Not as much in the offseason.
Which women athletes in other sports do you look up to?
There’s a bunch. Lindsey Vonn is a really good person and works really hard. She deals with her injuries really well, which is inspirational, being in a sport where stuff can happen so quick. I think Ronda Rousey is a pretty big badass. I look up to different women for different things. Ronda because she trains hard, knows she’s the best, but then someone like Lindsey because she’s really humble and handles everything so well. I like to follow those kinds of people on Instagram because they have good things to say. Sally Fitzgibbons has a really good positive attitude, and this weightlifter named Mattie Rogers is really determined too.
What are some of the challenges of being a girl who rides?
I mean, anyone can obviously tell that magazines and brands and stuff don’t post as much about women. I feel like we all work really hard but don’t always get credit that we deserve. We don’t get paid as much, either; there’s a significant difference [between] our pay and the guys that get paid to wakeboard. I understand it too, though. If there were like 30 more women and more pro riders that were pushing women’s wakeboarding, it would be different. Women’s wakeboarding would be growing that much faster, and I think we’d see a lot of changes, but there’s not as many women that ride. Getting more women involved and pushing the women who are involved would help women’s wakeboarding so much.
Yeah, I’ll take that one on the chin, and it’s an interesting topic for sure. I don’t disagree. We’d probably be covering women a whole lot more if there was a massive push of more women out there killing it, rather than just a handful.
Yeah, that’s why I was really stoked for this feature and this issue. I feel like I’ve worked really hard, I had a good year last year, and it paid off. It’s not easy, though. For the women that are pushing the sport, they should definitely be getting the coverage they deserve, whether there are a lot of girls in wakeboarding or none.
What do you want to do for the sport?
Well, I know it sounds simple, but I want to bring it to more people. I want to be the first to land some stuff too, and really want to progress my riding. I want to be good at boat and cable. I want to work on stylish tricks. I really don’t like to see anything done in a bad way, so making hard tricks look good is a big thing for me now. Just landing them isn’t enough.
So what’s on your hit list for tricks?
I mean, there’s a lot that I want to do. I want to be the first girl to do a double flip behind the boat. I don’t know. We’ll see.
How do you balance contests versus free riding? For the most part, you’re known as a contest-only rider.
Contests are always a fun time, and I enjoy traveling to all the different places that we get to go to, but I enjoy free riding even more, and going out and concentrating on my riding looking good, rather than [doing] the same tricks that I’m used to. But contests are how people get to know who you are and find out about you. But once I do that, I’d like to show them how cool I can make it look with my free riding.
What do you enjoy about contests?
There’s a lot that goes on in your head, with all the nerves and stuff, but once you’re out there competing, all that goes away, and I like that about it. You don’t have time to pay attention to whatever you were worrying about five minutes ago.
What’s your least favorite thing to do as a wakeboarder?
Riding in cold, windy days in the winter, when it actually does feel more like a job. But even then, I can think about all the other cool stuff I’m stoked to do.
And your favorite?
I’m so lucky to be able to do what I do. I love the free-riding part of it, figuring out how to make my toe 3 look good, or doing something different and not trying tricks [just] because it’s the next thing I should try — when the cameras are off and messing around isn’t just messing around, because you can actually figure out how to make something cool. I feel like that’s what wakeboarding is, you know? It’s just wakeboarding…
For no reason.
Right. [Laughs.] Not for a contest, photos or a video.
Thanks to my sponsors Nautique, Red Bull, Liquid Force and Performance Ski & Surf for all the support. Also my dad, and my coach, Mike!