About this series
Summer has given us the travel bug. But rather than explore the mountains or cross the pond to Europe, we thought about people who just head up in the air any way they can. Throughout June, we’ll be exploring extreme ways to take flight, whether it’s by jumping out of a plane or skimming across the water behind a boat. Hopefully, we’ll give your own summer travels a lift at the same time.
Catching big air, tweaking tantrums and doing whirly birds on glass is how Ryan Free and Cori Wagoner spend their summer days on Lake Lanier.
That’s wakeboard slang for some of the tricks the boarders do behind a boat typically running about 20 mph.
The friends, are two of the best wakeboarders who boaters will get a chance to see on Lake Lanier. Free, 19, placed fifth in the country in 2007 in the INT, a wakeboarding league. And Wagoner, 20, also competes from time to time.
The wakeboarding scene on Lake Lanier is small but growing and is part extreme sport and part just a party with friends on the lake. Free and Wagoner — along with their girlfriends and a boatful of spectators — fly through the air on their custom Hyperlight and Liquid Force wakeboards, listen to blaring rap music and just hang out.
"It’s awesome, the scene. I know all my best friends are really good and we all compete together, which is fun, and we just get together and hang out," Free said.
But it’s not all fun and games for Free; he still works hard on advancing his tricks and also teaches lessons. The lessons help supplement the cost of this extreme sport, which costs around $800 just for the boat’s gas each week.
"I actually made a trick — tantrum reverse — but I do it in a different style than other wakeboarders," Free said.
Free focused on competitions for a while, but he said he’s happy with free riding right now.
"Just going out and doing what I do cause whenever you have to start worrying about competitions you have to get a run and that’s all you do," he said. "We would literally go out there three times a day and I’d do my run, six tricks down, six tricks back. I could do that run with my eyes closed."
Free has been riding for about five years, Wagoner for four years. Wagoner said he didn’t have instant success on the water.
"It took a minute, but I just started going out a lot," said Wagoner, who said it does take a certain build to be good. "The smaller you are, the easier (it is)."
Both Free and Wagoner, along with former professional rider Bruce Clem, said Lake Lanier is a perfect setting for wakeboarding.
"The lake is so big you can always find smooth water," said Clem, who has lived in Gainesville for six years and placed second in 1996 wakeboard world championship in Orlando, Fla. "You can head up north of here on the Chattahoochee toward Cleveland and it’s butter (smooth water). Down on the South end it gets really rough."
Free added, "the best spots are Four Mile and Six Mile, and North lake."
Clem met Free about six years ago. He still wakeboards, but today is a professional photographer
Wakeboarding, Clem added, has changed since his days of competition and is even evolving into another sport entirely.
"The tricks have evolved about as far as they are going to go, and the different combos and doubles that they are doing. But I think a lot of it has switched over to wake skating," he said. "Wake skating is like skate boarding on the water ... the board isn’t attached to your feet so the difficulty level is kick flips, kick spins, a whole variety of different types of tricks that you can’t do on a wakeboard."
Until wake skating catches on, though, Free and Wagoner will be catching amazing air on their wakeboards.