Wing works to bring wakeboarding to the masses
Amber Wing knows the drill. She meets somebody new, in a coffee shop, at the grocery store or the lake. She engages in a polite, get-to-know-you conversation. She's a bubbly Aussie, joking that her flowing red hair matches her carefree spirit and sense of humor.
Things typically go well until the other person asks, "And what do you do for a living?"
The answer, as least in her mind, is quite clear.
"I'm a wakeboarder."
Then the conversation usually takes a turn in one of two directions: she's either enthusiastically recognized as the top professional female rider in her sport, or the person grows confused and responds, "What's a wakeboarder?"
"Seriously, it's like you either totally know me, or you have no clue about any of this -- there is no middle ground -- I find that still quite funny," Wing said. "It reveals a lot about where we are in terms of growing women's wakeboarding: either you've seen us compete and have become a fan, or you have no clue what wakeboarding even is.
"I never get mad if they don't know me or what wake is, I just explain it's like waterskiing mixed with snowboarding. We just ride behind a boat and do tricks off the wake on the water, and we're professionals at it. That seems to work, and they're actually surprised I make a living doing this."
Wing, 29, is the face of the growing women's wakeboard tour. There are eight competitions this year on the Queen of Wake tour in the U.S., taking Wing from Florida to Texas to the Midwest over the next six months. Women's wakeboarding is trying to break into the mainstream and attract more sponsors, television and online viewers and brand recognition.
Wing said there are 10 to 15 female pro riders who hit every tour stop. Others compete when the tour stops close to their hometown to save on travel expenses, and the rest are still too young (teens in junior and senior high) to commit full time.
She's seen a slow, but steady, growth in popularity, while serving as the sport's most visible star for the past decade. She has been competing professionally since she was 19, and jokes that she's the "old grandma" of the professional women's scene. It's true that she has 10 years, sometimes even more, on her competition. But they know this "grandma" is still the best on the water.
"I forget how old she is because you look at her and you don't see that," said Nicola Butler, a 19-year-old native of South Africa who is Wing's friend, training partner, and many times, opponent in the final. "She's so strong, she's always looking for ways to push herself, push us, to innovate and take wake to an even higher level. I really respect and admire her. She's just so together out there."
Wing admits she never thought her life, especially at 29, would be about wakeboarding. She was on a completely different path growing up, hoping to reach the 2000 Olympics, held in her hometown of Sydney, as a gymnast. At 17, she reached level 10 in the sport and was preparing for the Australian Olympic trials. But a shattered ankle during training derailed her dream and ended her gymnastics career.
She still wanted to be an athlete, and looked to channel her energy and creativity into something that fulfilled her as much as gymnastics. She had grown up waterskiing, and along the way, discovered wakeboarding. She quickly found the body control, skills and core strength she honed to an elite level in gymnastics transferred beautifully to wakeboarding.
"I'll admit it -- I became kind of obsessed with wake," Wing said, laughing. "It gave me the same rush that I felt when I was gymnast. I still could use a lot of the things I did best, just move them to the water. Having that body control that I practiced so much in gymnastics is a huge asset for me.
"Riding just makes me so happy; it's still great to be out on the water with my friends, behind the boat doing what we do."
Wing's left a lasting mark on wakeboarding, becoming the first woman to land a 900 and 720. She's also racked up multiple Australian national titles, Queen of Wake, Wakestock and Pro Wakeboard tour top-three finishes, as well as being named female rider of the year twice.
She splits her time between Australia and Clermont, Fla., following summer and the competition seasons on each continent. Wing loves her career and doesn't think she'll retire anytime soon. When she's done, she wants to remain active in wake, serving as a business manager and mentor to up-and-coming female riders. She's learned a lot in her career about how to manage the business side, which most pros do themselves because agents and representatives are expensive.
She's carved out a nice living, upwards of $100,000 a year, with her winnings and endorsements and wants the same for her fellow professionals.
Wing is very much in competition mode, keeping her skills sharp by training with the male pros. The men's tour has more depth right now, and she said they push her into trying new, higher-difficulty tricks.
"I love my girls, and ride with them, too, but the boys just force you to really be on your game," Wing said. "I watch them ride, then it's my turn, and I want to top them, show them what I've got. It's really collaborative great. The boys on the tour really respect us."
But Wing knows the respect for female wakeboarders wasn't always there. In the early days of her career, she said she faced skepticism as to whether women were strong enough to be riders.
"That was around because we weren't yet at a skill level that showed how good we were or could be," Wing said. "We're all getting better, stronger, doing more incredible things out there. And as we progress, the respect comes."
Wing is in the process of producing and starring in a documentary, slated for release in 2013, that will focus on the women of wakeboarding. She has invited her fellow competitors to be featured in the movie, showing off their biggest air and most elite tricks. They're plotting out their moves and practicing, and Wing hopes the short-length feature will thrill new and existing fans of wake alike.
"I really believe once you get exposed to wake, you're hooked, you're a fan of what we do," Wing said. "That's how it was for me. Once I got into it, it was part of me."