Weekend Warriors: Jennifer Currin's surprising rise to the top of wake surfing
Jennifer Currin never intended to be a competitive wake surfer.
She simply rode waves behind the family boat for fun almost every weekend on Florida's Lake June, where she and her husband, Peter, have a small lake house they use as an escape from their busy, plugged-in lives in Sarasota.
But one day about three years ago, a friend of the family who was helping run a local wake surfing contest couldn't get enough entries for the women's masters division. "So he literally looked at me and his wife and he said, 'You guys are competing,' " she recalls. "He kind of gave us a push."
She calls her debut "horrible," but laughs about it. "I came in last," she says.
She had a good time, though, so she entered in other tournaments and evolved to become far from horrible. She worked on her skills, added more difficult tricks and started to come up big in big events.
In 2015, she ended the year as the Competitive Wake Surfing Association's No. 1 surfer in the women's masters division (35 and over) world rankings. She won the U.S. and Canadian nationals and finished No. 2 in the World Championships.
It's been a surprise for Currin, 43, a senior medical science liaison for The Medical Affairs Company. Her hectic weeks are filled with three or four days of travel throughout the Southeast. She's always been an active and fit person but never considered herself a competitive athlete.
"I'll be the first one to say I'm uncoordinated," she says. "But people have said that's not true."
And, needless to say, she had no clue she'd ever hold a No. 1 world ranking in a sport she did just to relax. "Not in a million years," she says.
Wake surfing has been around for decades, but didn't begin to grow into a more sophisticated and competitive sport until the mid 1990s. The first World Wake Surfing Championships was held in 1995. Now, wake surfing events are held across the globe, usually on lakes or rivers where surfaces are more consistently flat.
Specially configured inboard-motor boats, cruising at about 11 to 12 mph, produce a large wake. Surfers are towed behind the boat via a rope. They let go when they've reached the right speed, and then surfers can ride an endless wave, carving up and down its face and doing tricks while being constantly pulled forward by the wake.
Currin first tried wake surfing about seven years ago. It was something she and her family did after a long day of wakeboarding because it was less stressful on their bodies. "It just kind of evolved that we ended up doing more wake surfing than wakeboarding," she says.
I'll be the first one to say I'm uncoordinated. But people have said that's not true.Jennifer Currin, wake surfer
Even in the short time she has been competing, the sport has evolved rapidly. There are more participants, and top surfers have equipment sponsorships and fight for prize money. There are pro, semi-pro and amateur divisions, and each is tougher the next season, says Currin. That includes her own, which she calls "the old lady division."
"The tricks that people were doing five years ago in pro are now being done by amateurs," she says. "It's evolved very quickly, the technology has changed, the boards have changed, the boats have changed a lot ... to accommodate a great wake that you can do tricks on."
In competitions, surfers are judged on their performance over two 60-second rides. It's all freestyle. Some ride larger, more buoyant boards up to 6 feet long; others, like Currin, ride shorter "skim" style boards that are more maneuverable. Currin's is just 48 inches.
In her division, surfers do 180-degree spins, ride their boards forward and backward, walk around the edges of their board or reach down to do board-grabs or sit or lay down. "There's a friend of mine who does "The Coffin," where she literally lies down on the board and then gets back up," Currin says.
Currin's best trick is the 360, spinning her 5-foot-3 body all the way around. She likes to add a more challenging trick each year, and is currently working on a 540. She says learning a new trick is just hours and hours of repetition, and unlike some other action sports, crashes are minimal. She'll sometimes bruise her shins, hitting them when she falls off her board, but that's the worst of it. Her family coaches make suggestions and video her rides so she can see what she's doing.
It's often hard to balance work and travel with exercise, but Currin makes it a priority to do a long power walk every day, either on the road or a treadmill, where she multitasks by reading medical journals. She also does core exercises and light weightlifting.
When Fridays come, she and Peter generally drive about 90 minutes to the lake house to relax and wake surf for two days. If the kids (Casey, 17; Samantha, 23; and Samantha's fiance, Mike) come, it's a blast. "It's an individual sport, but there's a big social component to it, either at the competitions or out at the lake," she says. "We typically load up the boat, we have music going and somebody's surfing. It's a lot of fun."
They use vacation time to compete on the wake surfing circuit. In addition to Currin's second-place finish at the World Championships, Samantha was second in the women's amateur skim finals and Casey won the men's outlaw (semi-pro) skim finals.
But despite the accolades for herself and her family, Currin says she has no specific goals for the 2016 season beyond mastering that 540. She still looks at wake surfing as a lifestyle first and a sport second. She's competitive, but only with herself. Once she's done with her run, she cheers her competition. "The goal is to have fun, enjoy it, make sure the kids are doing well," she says. "If I get on the podium along the way, fabulous. If I don't, that's OK, too."