Sometimes you don’t understand a word being said but you know it’s impressive.
Take Tyler Royal and his sister, Hannah, who speak – and live – the lingo of wakeboarding. The siblings from Lake Jordan toss off wakeboard terms as glibly as you discuss the weather.
“If I were trying to explain to my buddy what trick I do, I might say a Wake-to-Wake Heel-Back 540,” says Tyler, 20. Need translation? “Wake to wake is jumping from one wake and landing directly on the other,” he explains. “Cutting in heel-side is leaning on your heels as opposed to leaning on your toes, bending backside on your first rotation with your back facing the boat.”
He knows it sounds foreign. In fact, he often starts by defining the sport itself. “I say it’s like snowboarding on water behind a boat.” And if anyone on Alabama lakes embodies wakeboarding, it’s Tyler, the reigning National Champion in the Outlaw Division in the INT League. Hannah, a rising sophomore at Wetumpka High School, finished first in the state division.
“This is pretty much entirely my life,” says Tyler, who balances being a part-time student, Elmore County substitute teacher and a gymnastics-tumbling-cheerleading coach when he’s not on the water. “My parents are great about it – in fact, they got us started.” Dad Jeff Royal was a “skurfer,” the precursor to wakeboarding, using a rigged-up surfboard with straps attached; he hoisted Hannah into her first ride at the age of 18 months. Mom Beth Royal, who grew up on Alabama lakes, is a water sports enthusiast as well.
Yet it hasn’t been a slam dunk, this rise of the Royals. In fact, Tyler, at 7, had only been up on the board – his dad’s too-big one, at that – when he broke his femur in a skateboard accident in his own driveway. “He was in traction for 21 days with a pin through his knee, then a body cast for three or four months,” says Jeff. “Tyler was on a walker and basically had to learn to walk again. That’s when we happened to go to a wakeboard event where he met Shaun Murray.”
Murray is to wakeboarding what Shaun White is to snowboarding. He’s the best, the brightest and a savvy fellow who’s carved a career from the sport. Taking an interest in the kid on the walker, Murray talked the talk, shared his wakeboard video game, and recruited a convert. The moment Tyler could walk again, he headed for the water. Hannah followed and admits, “It’s all I’ve ever known. The whole family was doing it.”
Her own will to compete, she adds, came not only from sibling rivalry but also from seeing boys her age achieve on boards.
“There aren’t a lot of female riders in the wakeboard community and I wanted to keep up with the boys, do the same thing they’re doing.”
While the Royals display a healthy respect for the water, they’re also fearless. Conquering a trick – and there’s always an “in” maneuver that’ll earn extra points – rules their training sessions. For Hannah, who balances wake boarding with varsity cheerleading, the goal is mastering a series of spins and the Toe-Front. For Tyler, the current challenge is two-fold.
“I’ve been trying to practice taking one foot out of the boot and jumping the wake while grabbing the board and poking the other foot out,” he says. “It would be something to shock the judges.” The other is a Wake-to-Wake Double Flip which is as convoluted as it sounds. “Only about three people in an event can do it and it’s a hard process. I’ve tried it but I’ve hit the bottom of the board. There’s a big cost to that trick.”
There’s a big cost to many tricks. “I was practicing the Toe-Front and Tyler kept saying ‘Don’t tuck your head, don’t tuck your head,’ so of course I tucked my head,” Hannah recalls of the accident that resulted in a collision of her knee and eye socket.
As Tyler joins the Pro division and continues to attract industry sponsors, Hannah strives to rise even higher in competitions.
Both know that every ride, every wake is a gift. “There are guys riding the pro tour in their late 30s but they’re few and far between,” Tyler says. “Your knees will get the best of you and knock you down off the pedestal. It’s not ‘if’ you’re going to get hurt, but ‘when’ you’re going to hurt your knees. And there’s no good way around it.”
But there’s now. This summer. A series of events lined up and a lake waiting just outside their door for more training, more glory. Plan B is around the corner – maybe a teaching or law degree at Auburn for Hannah and engineering for Tyler – but that’s in the future.
“Uniqueness is what you strive for,” says Tyler. “Do your own thing, have your own style. Learn to grab [the board], hold the grab as long as you can and make it look easy.
“But I can tell you – it’s never easy.”