Flipping out over Erika Lang

Courtesy of Erika Lang

Erika Lang is known for getting big air on her tricks, and boasts front flips that are unique in her sport.

Erika Lang was 2 years old the first time she tried water skiing.

She doesn't actually remember the moment, but there are photos, so it almost feels as though she does. She was standing on the shore, and her parents held her upright on her skis. As the boat gradually pulled away, Randi and Patrick Lang walked their toddler into the water, helping her to balance. Then the boat took off, and little Erika was up and running -- first try, of course.

"Yeah, I don't even know how," Lang, now 17, said recently, laughing at the oft-told family tale. "I guess I just did it."

She has been on skis ever since.

Lang entered her first competition when she was 5, learned her first flip when she was 9 and became the first female trick skier to land a front flip when she was 13. She is known for catching major air on her board -- trick skiing uses one small, oval-shaped board -- and already owns the U.S. record (9,320 points), which she set in September 2012. Lang now has her eye on the world record (10,040), currently owned by Clementine Lucine of France.

"I have the tricks it takes to break the world record right now," said Lang, who stands 5-foot-3. "I just have to get faster with them."

Trick skiing consists of two 20-second runs, during which a competitor tries to squeeze in a combination of skills, all of which earn a certain number of points. "I need to speed up a little bit to get all of the tricks in," Lang continued. "Then I'll break the world record."

Richard Abelson, who began tutoring Lang a couple of years ago (she also still works with longtime coach Jim Townsend), said she has the strength, skill and dedication to break the world record -- and possibly even the 11,000-point mark. "It's really just a matter of her continuing to go through the cycle and cleaning up her tricks, so they fit together tighter and faster," Abelson told espnW. "It's hard work, but Erika doesn't mind hard work."

Courtesy of Erika Lang

Erika Lang would like to pull off a particularly big trick: bringing more attention to water skiing.

It's almost as if Lang was destined to become an action sports star. Her mother and father each grew up on a lake, and met at a water skiing competition. Erika's cousin, Grete Eliassen, is a freestyle (snow) skier who has won six medals at the Winter X Games.

Today, the Lang family lives on a man-made lake, built specifically for skiing, in Gilbert, Ariz., just a short drive from Phoenix. "They got me into it," Lang said of her parents. "And now I love it. I don't think they knew exactly how far I would go. I guess I was a natural."

She credits her background in gymnastics for developing many of the key elements that go with trick skiing: balance, flexibility and strength. (Lang was a Level 10 gymnast when, in the eighth grade, she decided to focus solely on skiing.) She still goes to the gym a few times a week to work on her core, and she routinely runs laps around the lake in Gilbert, which is about a mile around.

Lang's repertoire includes two tricks no other female skier can boast: a front flip and a back-to-front front flip. "It's like a front flip that you start backwards, and then in midair you do a 180-degree turn and front flip out of it," Lang explained. She learned both moves earlier in her career by just doing them on the water until she got the hang of it. She estimates she missed the front flip 30 times before nailing it. After that, the movements became a sort of muscle memory.

Trick skiing doesn't incorporate quite as much creativity as some related sports, such as snowboarding or skateboarding, mostly because so many tricks are packed into so little time. But there is still some room for an athlete to show his or her own style. "Every flip, and every trick, you can do differently," Lang said. "Skiers definitely have different styles."

So what's her style?

"I go so high compared to anyone else," she said. "People tell me I need to go smaller to save time. But on my tricks, when I flip, I just launch it so high. I don't try to; I just get a lot of pop off the wake."

Lang recently returned from Colombia, where she placed second, behind Lucine, at the World Games. And in November she travels to Chile for the world championships. She counts traveling and meeting new people as her favorite things about competing. The sport has taken her around the globe, thanks to her parents and her sponsors (Ski Nautique 200 and D3 Skis).

The main thing Lang wishes she could change about water skiing is how it always seems to fly below the radar. "It's such a cool sport, but not as many people know about it as I wish they did," she said. "Everyone within the sport is trying to get it more exposure."

And if anyone can pull off that trick, it's Erika Lang.

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