When she sits down for her interview, Raleigh Hager doesn't respond to most of the questions directly. Rather, she turns back to her mom first, as if she's looking for some sort of approval for what she's about to say. Or, as likely, she's double checking what she's actually supposed to be doing here. Because she's only ten it's hard to fault her for not fully embracing the situation. Since when are pint-sized fifth graders, fresh off the playground, ever expected to fully ponder the depth of their actions and consider the extent of their potential anyway? Mom, a little help please?
Only, Hager's talent isn't just potential anymore. At the ripe old age of ten, Hager has landed herself at the top of a very distinct and emerging sport without really aiming for it. With roughly only two years of practice and seven competitions under her belt, Raleigh Hager ended up the 2012 Women's World Pro Wake Surfing Champion. When women and men alike, twice her age, are aiming for this distinction there's some explaining to do.
This young girl from Austin and professional wake surfing is an interesting mix, no doubt. And, for that matter, what is wake surfing anyway? After she patiently listened to the question, Hager gave her best, measured answer. “With wake surfing, you don't have a rope or like any boots attached to your board and you have big fat sacks in the boat that make a really big wake.” The fat sacks are “big huge sacks of water that make the boat tilt a little bit.” As she talked, a picture emerged of a big wave/wake being thrown up behind a boat leaning on its side. More discussion proceeded to bring up an image of a surfer, her feet loosely resting on a board, pulled to a standing position with a tow rope, then dropping the rope, until the surfer can skim along the continuous wake.
Perhaps more simply put, wake surfing is surfing on the back of a big wave made by a boat and it's pretty cool when some solid tricks are added. It's a sport that evolved from pushing the limits. People used to just surf. But what if the board could be shortened and what if it could be accelerated with the assistance of a boat? Wake boarding and knee boarding followed so that slowly, steadily, wake surfing unfolded on the scene in the mid nineties, gaining big traction by 2005. Hager entered on a similar trajectory of trying out all that can be humanly propelled on water, kicking up some seriously skilled moves in the process. The game changer here is Hager's only ten and already killing it, and that she only picked up the sport two years back.
What does the future hold for Hager in this sport? That's a pretty standard question to ask, but is it fair to put that kind of pressure on someone so young? The future already seems to be here: she's got a world title, so what more could be expected?
“Well, what I want to do,” Raleigh steadily put forth, “I kinda want to be like Kelly Slater, you know, how he keeps on winning Worlds and surfing and [I want to] kinda do that with wake surfing—just keep on winning and winning, and, like, have that title for a long time. But that's gonna be pretty hard.” What a truly refreshing response: When the rest of us wiser, more experienced folk are caught up in having it all, it helps to be served a little confidence and humility from this endearing young girl from Austin, whose only incentive to keep winning is to keep winning (well, that and to get a mini pig). Hager bargained for a mini pig as reward for her wake surf title. And if you don't know what a mini pig is, there's probably a video on YouTube.