Culture Some kind of speed-freak heaven

Among cable pulleys, fiberglass, and the occasional compound fracture, wakeboarders find nirvana

Herein, Zales and Banana Republic outlets cohabitate with RV “resorts,” ostensibly legal fireworks concerns, and an enormous inflatable beaver.

(At least I think it’s a beaver.)

Texas Ski Ranch sports two man-made lakes, a Motocross track, and a skateboard park on 70 acres. Above, ranch owner Blake Hess busts a move. (Courtesy photos)

If you’ve ever made the drive from San Antonio to Austin with your eyes open, you’ll back me up here: Those 80 miles of highway yield a more impressively disparate assembly of oddball shops and incongruous establishments than would David Lynch after a marathon session of Sim City. Drive about half an hour, and you start running into the Protestant churches. Drive another half, and you hit the porn emporiums.

Tucked somewhere amid all this Twin Peakery — past the Snake Farm, the show-yards teeming with concrete reindeer, the vasectomy-reversal billboard with the money-back guarantee — is New Braunfels’s Texas Ski Ranch. Or, as I like to call it, The Last Thing You’d Ever Expect to Find in New Braunfels. Billed as an “Action Sports Complex,” TSR yawns across 70 acres and houses a virtual wonderland for the helmet-and-pads set: two man-made lakes for water sports (complete with “kicker” ramps and stunt rails), a skateboard park, a movable rock-climbing wall, and a Motocross track. It’s the sort of place Tony Hawk’ll go when he dies — if he’s been good.

“This was something we always wanted to do,” says Blake Hess of the Ranch, which he and his wife Holly co-own with another family, “but not `necessarily` to this scale. I didn’t picture it turning into a theme park.”

Open since 2002, TSR has become something of a mecca for extreme athletes foreign and domestic — particularly so for practitioners of the waterskiing-meets-snowboarding hybrid known as wakeboarding. This development, says Hess, is by design.

“There are a lot of good wakeboarders here in Texas,” Hess says. “We wanted to make a place where they could come and train and grow the sport without having to leave their roots.”

Spawned from “skurfing,” a mid-’80s combo of skiing and surfing, wakeboarding is a relatively recent bit of evolution wherein a rider, his feet anchored to a fiberglass board, uses the wake created by a towing boat to propel himself into the air and perform a vast catalogue of tricks and maneuvers. TSR not only has a lake for boat-drawn riders, but is one of only four sites in the country to boast a boatless cable lake, where as many as six riders at a time, towed by an elaborate pulley system, can use rope tension to slingshot themselves as high as 15 feet into the air.

“I really like cable, because it’s basically become the skate park of wakeboarding,” says Tom Fooshee, a 21-year-old Texas State student who leads a second life as one of central Texas’s most celebrated pro riders. “You can ride longer and it brings in the new side of wakeboarding, with the rails and kickers and jumps.”

Gabe Lucas flies above the rail.

Seeing the cable lake for the first time is an experience unto itself. Five towers suspend a length of cable around the lake, with six “carriers” traveling along the cable at approximately 20 miles per hour. Riders wait on a dock, gripping a handle-and-rope combination attached overhead. As a carrier comes around, the cable operator hits a button and the carrier picks up the rope, launching the rider from the dock and pulling him briskly along the water’s surface. That is, if all goes as planned.

Imagine my delight, then, as I’m informed upon arriving at the inaugural event of TSR’s 2006 season, an annual late February festival appropriately named “FreeZRide,” that everything’s ready for me — a decidedly un-X-Games-ish cub reporter — to try out the cable lake myself. (By “delight,” of course, I mean “palpable terror.”) With water temperatures hovering in the 50s and no sun in sight, I’m introduced to T.J. Boulware, a friendly, 20-year-old Texas State student (there’re a lot of ’em around the Ranch) and TSR employee whose unenviable charge it is to ensure that the scrawny, nosy dude with the notepad gets a taste of the action without eviscerating himself. (To wit: It’s only after signing the pink paper with “INJURY,” “DEATH,” and “PROMISE ... NOT TO SUE” printed in all caps that I’m handed my helmet and heater shirt and invited to change.)

But how dangerous is wakeboarding, really? Ask enough people around TSR, and you’ll eventually get the same answer:


It’s a story everyone seems to know.

“There’s this girl Jami that came out of a kicker...”

“... she was doing a railey ... challenging trick, and she landed one ... ”

“ ... and she was coming down, caught her toe-edge ... compound fracture of her tibia, fibula ... ”

“ ... she landed funny, and her bone popped out of her leg.”

“Jami” is Jami Jacobi, 20, a Texas State student (naturally) and one of the relatively few female wakeboarders that frequent TSR. She’s about 5 feet, 5 inches, a petite girl with smallish features and one heck of a scar on her left shin. She tells her story calmly, matter-of-factly; it’s one she’s clearly grown used to relating.

“I came down wrong on my landing and caught an edge, and my foot didn’t come out of the binding,” she says. “It just snapped both of the bones toward the inside ... `My leg` was just kind of hanging there.”

“There are a lot of good wakeboarders here in Texas. We wanted to make a place where they could come and train without having to leave their roots.”

– Blake Hess

Though she manages nonchalance about it now, Jacobi admits that the injury was traumatic, and says she’ll probably “never hit that kicker again.”

“I just screamed ... No one should ever have to see something like that,” Jacobi says. “If it weren’t for most of the guys out here that handled it, and helped keep me calm, and kept me conscious, it would’ve been a lot worse.”

Despite a two-week hospital stay, four surgeries, a lost semester, and “a really big possibility” of amputation, the recipient of the most infamous injury at TSR is rarin’ to go.

“I’m going to be able to ride again — that’s all I really care about,” says Jacobi.

“I just love it. Makes me happy.”

It’s an oft-echoed sentiment at the Ranch. While injuries on the scale of Jacobi’s are a rarity, stitches and blown knees are fairly common, and nearly everyone has a war story. But everyone is addicted.

Stefan Shriewer rides the rail in the cable lake at Texas Ski Ranch.

“It’s like a disease, for sure,” says T.J., smiling. “Once you catch it, it’s over.”

That’s not as crazy as it might sound. The four or so seconds this reporter managed to stay upright and out of the frigid water were breathtaking (and this from someone who’s still sore as of this writing).

There’s an odd peace to be found amid the snarling of motorbikes and the splatter of gnarly wipeouts at TSR, and moreover, an overwhelming kinship. This is, in the sincerest sense, a family. A moderately crazy family, perhaps, populated with scar-sporting, righteously banged-up action-heads, but a family nonetheless. They tirelessly push each other, support each other, think of new ways to maim each other. Witness: the Polar Grind, in which riders are pulled from a 40-foot pool, over rails, and into the lake by a high-powered truck winch. Why? It’s just what they do.

“This is my life,” says Josh Wright, 25, another top Texas wakeboarder. “I have to work a job to pay the bills, keep the girlfriend happy. But this is my life. This is my passion.”

By Brian Villalobos


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