I stood on the pebbled shore of Arizona’s Lake Havasu, pressed in among a throng of onlookers, teammates, friends and families of the freestyle riders (“freestylers”?), with the “all access” media pass hanging around my neck (that I waited two days for) clearly meaning close to nothing. It was noon Sunday, the last day of the IJSBA World Finals, and the final motos of the Amateur and Pro Freestyle had been going on for what felt like hours.
Even after countless repetitive backflips from competitors with almost unpronounceable names, the crowd was never more densely packed than when the freestyle hit the water, and rightfully so. And this Sunday, all those in attendance would be rewarded for their vigilance.
The previous year, England’s Lee Stone executed a no-handed, one-footed barrel roll aboard his featherweight Revolver that silenced announcers and brought hundreds to their feet. Stone had successfully completed a “Scarecrow,” a trick previously only capable by those freeriders charging the ocean’s biggest, most hollowed-out surf, and had done so in less than two-foot lake chop.
With the bar successfully raised higher than ever before, the weight of expectation almost thickened the air. Stone, piloting a two-toned Revolver of his own design, exploded from near still waters into a backflip. Using superhuman speed and upper body strength, Stone, pulled himself out of the tray, double over, bringing his feet wide out of the tray and together in a split-second heel-clicker, before re-entering and landing the flip.
I was on the beach that afternoon as the crowd erupted into incomprehensible madness. I was there, standing between Justin Stannard and TC Freeride’s Taylor Curtis when freestyle history was made. Although I knew my applause was muted by the din, I still felt like clapping. I needed to.
There is no, and I mean literally no other, form of PWC competition that draws an audience like freestyle. Yet, freestyle is treated with little more regard than rodeo clowns being herded in during lulls in racing. For whatever reason, the disparagement in how promoters handle quite possibly their single greatest spectator-drawing asset is an often forgotten side note. Rather, attention is almost always focused on racing, an already dwindling demographic of the total PWC industry’s interest.
Endurance racing is almost exclusively anti-spectator, as riders vanish into the horizon, only to return an hour later. Coverage is nearly entirely after-the-fact with helicopter film footage being the only reliable source of content. Closed course racing explodes from the starting line in dramatic fashion (LeMans starts are even more crowd pleasing) but it too is often too far from shore to be wholly riveting.
Freestyle, on the other hand, is immediate, upfront and dramatic. Between the showmanship of freestyle and the immediate spectator interest it brings, and how jet ski racing event promoters mishandle this asset, I was left wondering, why isn’t there a National Freestyle Series?
“Great question,” Philip Clemmons of P&P Performance replied. “Anthony Haro tried a year or two ago to start a series called the ‘Flatwater Throwdown,’ but it never got off the ground. There was one event that had 15 or so riders. It’s a small group of hardcore guys. I think they devote their funds/effort to the National Tour for sponsor exposure. Lots of guys go to freerides, but no one has put a series type thing together. It could possibly work, but would need someone to do all the work. Insurance and logistics can be tricky for a small group.”
He continued, “Every year at the Nationals we do a Friday night show for an amphitheater full of people with boats docked all around and live music. It’s way more fun than the actual competition! I’ve gone just to go to that performance.”
Derrick Kemnitz Jr. of Hurricane Industries was a little more pointed, “There’s no promotion. Promoters don’t care about us, but the spectators sure as hell do. We go to the Parker event each year mainly because it’s a good vacation spot… But when the freestyle event comes around, the promoter has us finding our own judges, freestyle doesn’t get trophies or payout like racing, and as soon as everyone’s done with their 2 minutes, they start the races back up. We don’t find out scores until the sheets are posted. Inside the sport, freestyle is the half time show.
“And I really feel that makes it discouraging for newcomers, they see that it’s all pushed to the side and doesn’t look appealing to them. Plus with promoters only offering the two classes, there’s no room for a newcomer to even have a chance at feeling competitive.”
In regards to the two classes, Derrick continued, “Even the entry-level class they have right now is pretty much like a ‘Pro Lites’ class; the skis cost the same, the skill level is the same, just slightly less power. No one’s going to want to spend in a new sport unless they think they can be good at it, and when they’re seeing that my brother’s Amateur class ski was a tad over $35,000, you lose pretty much everyone that’s interested.”
I wondered whether keeping a National Freeride series exclusive to existing jet ski racing venues was the way to go. If a promoter with enough vision and drive to do something different stepped up, I’m certain most athletes would show interest in a national points race – if you had judges and a tech inspection at each event – regardless if the events were at music festivals or outdoor waterfront fairs. By inserting a professional freestyle competition in with a major social festival but have judges, announcers and a tech inspector, so that the freestyle riders accrue points for a national title, all the spectators would know is that they get a great show.
Derrick added, “We’ve done some stuff like that before, local city events on the waterfront. A city rep would come to my dad’s shop and ask us to do a couple of 10 minute shows and the crowd always loved it. I’ve even done shows inside a local Six Flags park before…so we are getting those shows, but I agree that it should be a more common thing for us, especially for how unique jet ski freestyle is.”
Ultimately, freestyle remains the most under-appreciated form of PWC competition despite its obvious crowd appeal. The style, flair and drama of the sport is unlike anything else and deserves to be shown to an audience larger than the scant few who attend traditional racing.
Go Get Wet,