The Newest Wave Arrives With a Wild, Wacky Splash

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The Newest Wave Arrives With a Wild, Wacky Splash

Lim Hun is standing like a crane, right foot propped against his left knee. He leans left, then right, balancing by straining against a rope connected to the side of a building. He jumps and spins in the air, switching his grip from left to right hand in a flurry of flailing limbs. "Wait until you see him wakeboard on the water," says Jeong Ji-seok, one of three dozen people on the dock by the Han River.

Summer may be nearing an end, but the clear air and blue skies have inspired this group of wakeboarders to come to the Designer Club, a sports club in Jamwon-dong, on a weekday. Mr. Lim is here to train for a contest later this month. It will be his first time competing in a sport that, according to wakeboard fanatics, is about to overtake waterskiing.

Over the past year, many of the water-sport facilities by the Han river have added wakeboarding to the lessons they offer. Park Jeong-hu, a manager at Designer Club calls the sport, "the new evolution."



It started with television. About four years ago, Lee Jae-hun, one of the members of the pop singing group Cool, was hanging out with friends when he noticed a TV spot that was part waterskiing, part skateboarding, part snowboarding and had stunts like nothing he had seen before. "Now that is a babe magnet," he said about wakeboarding.

Mr. Lee went to Orlando, Florida, for a month of lessons, then returned to Korea. Unable to find an inboard boat, Mr. Lee tried wakeboarding while being tugged by a outboard boat. On the generally smaller outboard boat, the engine is clamped to the back of the boat. Wakeboarders prefer the steady pull and even wakes of an inboard engine. "It wasn't fun at all," he says of his first wakeboarding experience in Korea. "Without big waves, there was nothing to ride on."

Mr. Lee and six others are inside Designer Club, loading up on carbohydrate-rich ddeokbokgi (spicy rice cake). A lanky friend across the plastic table from Mr. Lee leans over and says, "But it was definitely a magnet. No one knew what wakeboarding was and people would stop and ask, 'What is that?'"

Mr. Lee gave up on wakeboarding with disgust, and returned to jet skiing, which he considers a more fun sport. But wakeboarding became firmly meshed in the young sports-minded generation in Korea.

"No, no, no," another person breaks in. "Lee Seung-ryeon was taking hops on water skis before you brought wakeboarding to Korea." Lee Seung-ryeon recently won the national jet skiing title for the fifth time in a row.

According to the Korea Waterski Association, wakeboarding really took off about two years ago. The Korean importers of Liquidforce, a popular brand in wakeboarding, reported an increase in sales over the same time period.

Wakeboarding began in 1985, according to organizers at Pro Wakeboard Tour, one of three major professional competitions in the United States, when a San Diego surfer named Tony Finn developed the Skurfer - a hybrid of a water ski and a surfboard. In the 1990s, Herb O'Brien started tinkering with Skurfers and created the first wakeboard, the Hyperlite. A surf board is generally 167 to 213 centimeters long, while a wakeboard is 124 to 146 centimeters long.

Both internationally and nationally, wakeboarding is an up-and-coming "extreme" sport. On the Korean Daum community Web site, there is talk of creating a wakeboarding association. As of yet, there are no superstars or highly experienced coaches, and the competition in September is one of few local events. Estimates of the number of boarders range from 500 to 1,000.

Mr. Lim, who runs a karaoke club at night, admits that the lack of professional competition places him in good position to claim a prize at the competition. Mr. Lim only began riding in the summer of 2000. Having snowboarded for five years, he picked up wakeboarding with relative ease. He used to waterski, but found the acrobatic stunts of wakeboarding more thrilling. In July of 2001, he broke ribs doing a stunt that involves spinning in the air.

One week later, he was back on the water. "I healed quickly," he said, "and I wanted to ride really badly."

This time, after stretching and practicing some jumps on land, Mr. Lim takes off a necklace and hands it to one of his friends. After rolling his head from his right shoulder to his tatooed left shoulder, he takes a plastic bottle, sprays water on his feet and slips them into the straps of his wildly decorated 143-centimeter-long Liquidforce board. Mr. Lim owns three boards. The 143-centimeter board is his largest, and creates a solid momentum for big stunts. The smaller the board, the quicker the rotation while in the air.

Mr. Jeong gets into a boat, throws out the rope, and slowly starts driving. Mr. Lim picks up speed and glides across the water, jumping from wave to wave, sometimes pulling his knees in to hold on to the board mid-air. When he loses his grip on the handle, Mr. Jeong drives the boat back toward the wakeboarder and throws the rope back out. Mr. Lim catches it and as he starts again, reaches down to touch the water.

After basic grabbing stunts, inverts and spins, Mr. Lim pauses to cross himself. He whispers, "Dear God above, look kindly upon me."

At the top of a wake, he launches into a heelside front flip. It looks like a 360-degree cartwheel in the air, but with a blind landing. He lands on his head. He tries a couple more simple stunts, but a headache forces him to stop and go to the hospital. There, a doctor says he has eardrum damage, but it should heal in three days.

Two days later, Mr. Lim is back on the water.


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Tow Be or Not Tow Be

The newest water sport on the Han River is wakeboarding. Most places that offer windsurfing also provide wakeboarding. For more information, the following is a guide to schools, costs and Web sites.



WHERE

Banpo: 02-535-3362. Lessons available.

Icheon: 798-9632. Lessons available.

Jamwon: 02-594-5441. Lessons available.

Ttukseom: 454-4651. Call beforehand and they will find you an instructor.


COST

Lessons average 50,000 ($38.50) won.



WEB SITES

Wakeboarding has a following across Asia. If you are planning a vacation and want to check the action

beyond Korea, check out these Web sites:

Malaysia: www.wakeboard.com.my

Singapore: www.wakeboard.com.sg

Thailand: www.air-time.net

Japan: www.wakeboarding.co.jp (Japanese only)

by Joe Yong-hee

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