No Bull: Wakeboarding Finds Unique Audience

By Dan Steinberg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The similarities between wakeboarding and bull riding? They work the same muscle groups, hammering shoulders and abdominals.

The differences?

"When you're riding a bull, if you fall off they're coming after you," said Sean Willingham, professional bull rider and amateur wakeboarding enthusiast. "If you crash out on a wakeboard, you're just sitting there in the water. Water's not near as dangerous as a 2,000-pound animal trying to step on you."

Yet Willingham is part of a huge wakeboarding contingent on the Professional Bull Riders circuit, men who spend their offseason using the water sport both as relaxation and cross-training. Willingham estimates that more than a third of pro bull riders go wakeboarding in their spare time. Knox Vanderpool, CEO of SAYiWON'T, a clothing line that sponsors and promotes professional wakeboarders and professional bull riders, puts the number at about 50 percent.

"They're on 2,000-pound animals three or four times a weekend, riding for their life in essence, and they want some downtime but they also want to continue that," said Vanderpool, whose company helped introduce bull riding star Ross Coleman to wakeboarding nearly a decade ago. "Those guys are athletes and adrenaline junkies, and wakeboarding fits in."

Which helps explain the sport's appeal to other action sport stars. Motocross rider Chad Reed, for example, grew up wakeboarding in Australia, then spent four or five years away from the water while his motorcycling career took off. About six months ago he bought a wakeboarding boat and went out on a lake near his Florida home. Reed said he wasn't in search of a cross-training mechanism, but that the balance and vision required on the water translated neatly back to handlebars and dirt jumps.

"After 20 minutes on the wakeboard and a couple of passes, you find out that man, your back is aching, your legs are hurting, you're definitely getting a workout out of it," said Reed, who now wakeboards at least once a week. "The fear factor is equal -- whether it's water or dirt it all feels kind of the same at some point."

Willingham, a Georgia native who is ranked fourth in the PBR's top series, said it took him nearly as long to figure out how to wakeboard as it did to ride bulls. He bought a $36,000 wakeboarding boat last year, logged 173 hours of water time in 12 months and has wakeboarded nearly every day since the tour's spring break began last month, determined to join Coleman in landing a Raley. He said the sport keeps him in shape without having to sweat at the gym, and that he plans to keep hitting the water "as long as my body lets me do it."

"It's just another one of those sports that you get addicted to and you've got to come back for more," he said in a recent phone interview while driving to Alabama's Lake Weiss with several other bull riders. "Just some crazy cowboy out there trying something crazy."

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