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Big Air

When Tara Hamilton's dad strapped a pair of water skis to his two-year-old daughter's feet and pulled her around the family pool, the sport of wakeboarding didn't even exist. Now that it does, Hamilton is making full use of the water-skiing and gymnastics skills she learned just a few years ago, as a kid. At age sixteen, she's a world-champion wakeboarder.

Wakeboarding, like its reigning queen, is barely out of its adolescence. The sport that took off in the late '80s combines elements of water-skiing, surfing, and snowboarding. Standing atop a hybrid snowboard-surfboard, her feet anchored with bindings, Hamilton "surfs" the wake of a powerboat.

"As soon as I started doing flips, I loved the sport," says the West Palm Beach native. "I think my gymnastic background helped out."

Hamilton's trademark trick is the front flip, performed ten to twelve feet above the water. Pulling stunts at that altitude is called "catching big air" in wakeboard speak. Hamilton will show off her maneuvers during this weekend's Cafe Colombia 1998 Water Ski and Wakeboard World Cup at Mills Pond Park in Fort Lauderdale.

Audiences might even see her attempt wakeboarding's toughest move, the S-bend, a 360-degree spin executed while the rider is upside-down. "No girls have ever attempted it," Hamilton claims. "If I could do that, it would prove to myself that, if I put my mind to it, I can do almost anything."

She's progressing nicely. Shortly after switching from water-skiing to wakeboarding at the age of fourteen, Hamilton's skills caught the attention of another West Palm Beach resident, Darin Shapiro, the 23-year-old men's wakeboard champ. With his coaching she took the Pro-Tour Championship, World Championship, and X-Games wakeboarding titles in 1997.

Shapiro also helped Hamilton hook up with sponsors Oakley Sunglasses, Hang Ten, and Hyperlite Boards. Most of her $20,000 annual income goes in the bank, but she did recently purchase a new sport-utility vehicle, which she drives to Lake Worth Christian School.

Already at the top of the wakeboarding heap, Hamilton acknowledges that there is one more honor she'd like to shoot for. If wakeboarding becomes an Olympic sport, she plans to catch enough air to grab a gold medal.

-- Tracy Fritz

The Cafe Colombia 1998 Water Ski and Wakeboard World Cup takes place Friday (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.), Saturday (8 a.m. to 4 p.m.), and Sunday (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) at Mills Pond Park, 2201 NW 9th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Admission Friday is free. Ticket prices for Saturday and Sunday range from $3 to $10. Tickets may be ordered through Overton's Ticket Hotline, 800-334-6541.

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Tracy Fritz

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