Before the Red Bull Wake Open consumed Garrison Channel at the Tampa Convention Center, Tampa Bay Sports Commission Executive Rob Higgins said it was a postcard opportunity for the city and the wakeboarding community.
To say it was a success would be an understatement.
After being drenched by rain seemingly everyday since the arrival and departure of Tropical Storm Debby a couple of weeks ago, sunny Florida somehow migrated back to Tampa just in time for the Signature Series event.
On Saturday, with nationally televised coverage on NBC, an estimated 25,000 onlookers lined the area around the convention center, the bridge leading into Harbour Island and everywhere around Jackson’s Bistro, to check out 40 of the world’s best wakeboarders competing in an event many deemed as a “once-in-a-lifetime experience.” With the innovative Sesitec System 2.0 cable system pulling riders along a “skatepark in the water,” riders from eight different countries showcased their elite skill set in the Big Air and Park disciplines with Canadian-native Raphael Derome sweeping the competition on Friday and Saturday to claim the overall title.
“This was epic, to say the least,” said Derome, who has a private lake set up with a backyard cable park system. “Red Bull created something unique for the wakeboarding competition and it gave the riders an opportunity to show the fans what we’re capable of doing. This was an amazing place to have this happen and it was an amazing turnout.”
The Sesitec system allowed riders to launch themselves 50 feet in the air in the Big Air competition and grind along rails to do gnarly tricks in a creative way in the Park event. It gave spectators who either knew of the innovation or had no clue of the technology an opportunity to see the new age of the sport.
“This is cool for everyone to get out and do something different,” said Chris Wittherinton, 36, who grew up in Tampa and learned how to ski and wakeboard at the McCormick’s Waterski Wakeboard and Cable Park in nearby Seffner. “The cable system allows an event to be done in a setting like this which is pretty cool for this area. To have it connected to downtown Tampa and Harbour Island is pretty cool. It shows off Tampa and shows how active this region is and how impressive a place it is here.”
It also gave the riders a chance to compete in a unique event.
“I’ve always been trying to ride all three events; boat, cable and rails,” Derome said. “I love all three aspects, and to ride a contest that is actually rewarding that kind of riding is a really big opportunity for me.”
The Saturday competition was the type of party Red Bull typically puts on for its multitude of events and the type of festive atmosphere that usually shows up in Tampa for celebrations like Gasparilla. With music blaring and wakeboard legend Parks Bonifay hosting the event, athletes zoomed along the water at 40-mph and ripped off tricks on a back-ramp, pipes, rails and finished off by launching themselves in the air off kickers.
Before the athletes competed in the Park event, they exhibited a different side to professional sports by signing autographs for at least 30 minutes.
“It’s pretty impressive they would do something like that,” said Tampa-resident Rawley Fox, 32, a sales rep for a local clothing company. “It’s cool they’re here because it gives you incentive to follow them on NBC throughout the year as they compete in other events around the world.”
A floatilla of boats with spectators joined the thousands on land to watch as well.
“It’s good to have other sporting events besides just football and baseball in this community and it gives people in the area something else to do,” said Bill Wagner, 79, a Tampa-based lawyer. “It’s nice to show people around the country who are watching on t.v. how impressive a place that Tampa is. It’s a great turnout and a great event.”
Tampa-resident Shannon Magrane, who finished in 11th-place on the 11th season of American Idol, sang the national anthem to get things started on Saturday.
“It was an honor to sing in front of a hometown crowd,” said Magrane, who attends Blake High School. “This is such a cool thing for Tampa and to be able to perform the national anthem for it is an amazing honor.”
On Thursday, under a sunny, blue sky, Australian-native Harley Clifford kicked things off with an impressive win in the Boat portion of the Wake Open, held at the pristine, aqua-colored lake of the old SunWest limestone mine site in Pasco County. Rusty Malinoski (Canada) finished in second, Raphael Derome (Canada) in third and Adam Errington (Scotland) in fourth.
As is typical with Red Bull, a new format was implemented. Towed behind a Malibu Wakesetter MXZ, riders were given two passes to make the best five-trick pass, allowing ample opportunity to be creative.
Another change to the boat portion required riders to include at least one trick consisting of a 360 or less; this created a foundation of style and big air.
“The format was sick and gave us a chance to really be competitive with each other,” Clifford said.
The setup also exhibited the type of festive atmosphere Red Bull creates wherever the company sets up shop. And it revealed the type of camaraderie these wakeboarders have had over the years while going through the ups and downs — and the recent resurgence — of the sport.
Competing in a setting closed to the public on an idyllic oasis in Pasco County, athletes from around the world watched and cheered each other to greater heights. When Clifford was announced as the winner and took the stage, the other wakeboarders dominated the cheering section with just a few Red Bull officials and media members as the only other attendants.
“This was a great chance for all of us to come together and show the world what wakeboarding is all about,” said Auburndale-resident J.D. Webb, who finished fourth overall. “To have it done locally here in Tampa and to have it be such a success with so many people in attendance is exciting for where we can go as a sport.”