Slender and shirtless, with dark shades and a golden tan, Justin Smith is an unusual sight — a bona fide surfer dude in board shorts and flip flops in Paola, Kan.
Music plays as a warm breeze tousles his light brown hair on a beach beside a nearby lake, and you can just imagine him flashing a smile and saying, “Hey, bud, let’s party!”
But on this day, it’s all business for the 36-year-old manager of KC Watersports, who teaches kids of all ages to skim over the lake at the only cable wakeboarding park from here to Oklahoma City. As he stands on a wooden dock during a recent Learn to Ride program, Smith instructs newcomers on the basics of the sport, which he describes as “snowboarding on the water.”
Riders grab onto a handle and learn to balance on wakeboards (small boards with ski-style bindings) as they’re pulled around a lake by stainless-steel cables on a large pulley system. After helping a few older riders learn to stand on their boards on the “bunny lake,” Smith turns his attention to a 6-year-old boy who is next in line.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
“Dwu,” says Drew Arnett of Leawood.
“Drew?” Smith says. “All right, little dude! Are you ready to learn how to ride?”
“I’ve never done it before,” the boy says in a small voice.
Smith bends to Drew’s level and lays his large hand gently on the boy’s back.
“Well, that’s what Learn to Ride is all about,” he says with a reassuring smile. “Teachin’ newbies!”
Drew scoots closer to the water until his legs — attached to his board — dangle over the edge of the dock. He watches as Charlie Mowrey, an 8-year-old Olathe girl just ahead of him, gets up on her board, then wipes out as the cable begins to pull her.
Smith cups his hands to his mouth as he shouts first encouragement
“THERE YOU GO, CHARLIE!”
“TRY TO STRAIGHTEN OUT THAT BACK LEG A LITTLE BIT MORE, OK, CHARLIE? YOU GOT THIS!”
College students and adults watch with kids as they wait their turn. If you want to learn how to ride a wakeboard in one day, Justin Smith is your man.
KC Watersports, which opened in 2004, is three miles east of Hillsdale Lake. Smith, who learned to wakeboard behind a boat at Lake Powell in Utah, has worked there since 2011, after moving from Colorado. He came for the job after his friend, Sean Hollonbeck, bought the place.
His skills have grown since he arrived. While he does not compete seriously, he does take part in fun competitions at the park. In the winter he works part time at KC Watersports, goes snowboarding in Colorado and visits family in California, where he surfs.
But isn’t it weird to be an avid surfer, snowboarder and wakeboarder — in Kansas?
weird,” he said. “Kansas is a place I never considered myself being. If it wasn’t for this job at KC Watersports, I wouldn’t have considered leaving Colorado. But when the job came up, I had to jump on it. It just seemed to be such a perfect opportunity.”
The park has a small, one-rider-at-a-time learning lake for beginners. On its 7.5-acre main lake, up to six experienced riders can be pulled in a 3,000-foot circle by a five-tower German-designed cable pulley system powered by a 50-horsepower motor. The cable pulls riders at 19 miles per hour, which Smith says is an ideal speed for wakeboarding. It moves slower for beginners.
For expert riders, the park offers a challenging set of ramps and other water features to slide over and jump off, as well as wakeskating (like skateboarding on water), kneeboarding (riding a smaller board on your knees) and paddleboarding (standing on a board, and using a paddle to move). But it specializes in wakeboarding.
“One of the misconceptions of wakeboarding is you gotta have a boat, or you’ve got to know somebody with a boat, or you have to pay a lot for gas,” Smith says. “The cable system is a great alternative because anybody can come out. All you need is your swimming suit. We’ll provide everything else.”
Including the training. Even if you’re 6-years old.
Sitting on the dock, Drew Arnett gazes up at his instructor.
“Did you just dig a hole and put water in it?” he asks innocently.
“Wedid just dig a hole and put water in,” Smith says. “But see that grass in the water? That means there’s no fish. That’s why there’s no grass in that one, cause there are
fish in the big lake.”
Drew says, his big eyes widening.
“There’s only alligators up here.”
Smith smiles broadly, then bends down.
“I’m just kiddin’ Drew!”
He returns his gaze to the lake, where Charlie Mowrey is back up on her board again.
“WAY TO GO CHAR-LIE!”
After she finishes, Smith helps Drew into the water. As the boy rides — then falls — Smith swims alongside him to render in-the-water instruction and make sure he’s safe.
“Let those arms out straight,” he tells him. “Just like that, dude.”
One of Drew’s three sisters calls encouragement from the dock.
“You can do it, bud-dy!”
“Oh you can do this for sure, man!” Smith says.
He helps Drew stand on his wakeboard. “You want to be in this position,” he says, adjusting Drew’s body. “Just like that.”
The cable begins to pull him again. Again he falls.
All part of the process.
After everyone goes once on the bunny lake, Smith walks to the main lake, where he helps launch riders off the dock on the large, and much faster, cable system. He cradles the riders as they wait for their cable line to come around. At the right moment he gives them a huge push onto the water just before their cable tightens and — who-oosh! — begins pulling them with a strong jerk.
“I’m making it as easy as possible for them by lifting their front legs so all they’ve got to worry about is keeping that handle in tight,” he says.
He launches Heather Athon, a 21-year-old from Prairie Village, and Nitin Kanukolanu, a 19-year-old from Overland Park. He launches light kids and hefty adults.
And one day, he hopes, he will launch 6-year-old Drew.
Drew is one of four Arnett children learning to ride on this day. His parents, Jim and Nancy Arnett, also brought their daughters — 12-year-old Gabby, 10-year-old Alyssa and 8-year-old Mary Kate.
“The guys who own this place are just so friendly and accommodating,” says Nancy Arnett. “They’re really good with the kids, and the kids enjoy coming out. This is where they learn the basics of wakeboarding. Then we go out to our place at Lake of the Ozarks (where) they do it off a boat. It’s a good challenge, and they have fun with it. It’s just a unique place to come and do something different.”
For Justin Smith, it is home.
“I’d much rather work outside than behind a desk,” he says. “Being trapped inside when it’s beautiful out is torture! But out here? We teach fun.”