Chandler Powell grips the towrope and steadies himself. • Muscles taught, biceps flexed and fear in the rearview mirror, he launches from the dock and is pulled in a slingshot motion across the water on his wakeboard. • He hits the ramp and catapults himself in the air, a twisting corkscrew of aerial grace that culminates in the 17-year-old nestling comfortably in the water below at McCormick's Waterski, Wakeboard and Cable Park. • This isn't your parents' quaint afternoon spent wakeboarding on the lake. • This is Chandler Powell's world. • And there are very few around the globe better than the kid from Seffner. • "I've only been doing this for a few years, but it's taking me to some awesome places," Chandler said. "I'm looking forward to a lot more."
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Chandler fell in love with wakeboarding in 2009 but his history with board sports dates to a time when most kids were just getting out of diapers.
"One of his relatives gave him a skateboard when he turned 3 and we all thought it was a little crazy," his mother, Shannan Powell, said. "He would go out in the yard and dramatically fall off of it all the time. Looking back, what I think he was doing was teaching himself how to fall the right way."
By the age of 4, Chandler's parents built him a half pipe in their back yard.
"Most of the mothers couldn't bear to look," she said.
From there Chandler progressed to events at the world-famous Skatepark of Tampa, eventually earning sponsorships from national brands like Airwalk and Powell Peralta Skateboards. His brief skateboarding career ended before 8 but the foundation was laid for his current career path.
"Because there wasn't an age division for someone so young, he was competing against teenagers at 5 or 6 years old," his mom said. "It was something to see but I think all of that work on the board was setting him up for what he's doing now."
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Tracing Chandler's lineage in the fledgling sport of wakeboarding doesn't take much digging. Chandler's father Chris Powell, who was big into water sports while living in the Orlando area, competed in the first World Wakeboarding Association sanctioned event in 1988.
"I was into kneeboarding back then and Jimmy Redmon (who helped design the modern wakeboard) came to us with these boards that looked like a surfboard but had straps for your feet," his dad said. "We ended up in the first contest in Austin and it took off from there."
The sport's evolution in less than three decades has been nothing short of astounding. When Chandler's dad competed, riders were towed behind a boat and did minimal tricks across the wake.
"Cable parks didn't exist back then," he said. "We were happy to just do a single flip across the wake."
Nowadays, many riders have bypassed the boats in favor of cable parks, like Seffner's McCormick's Park. These places employ large towers at the edges of the lake that have a cable system attached. Instead of boarders being towed behind a boat, they grab onto lines and one by one launch themselves off the ramps and rails installed in the man-made lakes.
Think a skateboarding park on water.
"When I was doing it, the sport was very exclusive because you had to have money and access to a boat, gas, a lake, etc.," his dad said. "Now so many more kids are getting into it because you can buy or rent a board and come to a place like McCormick's and rent a block of time. It's so much more accessible."
Chandler and his dad went to an Orlando wakeboarding contest in 2009 and the kid was hooked.
"He absolutely fell in love with it right from the start," he said.
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With a strong skating resume in his back pocket, in addition to years of playing soccer for the Brandon Flames and Brandon FC, Chandler took to wakeboarding immediately.
"He has amazing body awareness," his mom said. "It's pretty uncanny."
Chandler began training at McCormick's and turned pro in 2012, finishing in the Top 10 in the Monster Triple Crown Tour. This year Chandler is ranked No. 4 in the World Wakeboard Association Wake Park World Series (Pro Men's division), and fifth in the Pro Men's Features. Since June, Chandler has shredded in China, the Philippines, Abu Dhabi, Australia and Thailand, in addition to courses throughout the United States.
"I have friends who have never even been out of Florida, so when I tell them I'm going to Texas it's a big deal," Chandler said. "When I go out of the country they get pretty jealous."
Chandler's wild 1260 — 3 1/2 rotations — off a kicker was a finalist for TransWorld Wakeboarding magazine's Trick of the Year. Chandler is working on something called an Osmosis Back Mobe 5, which is a back roll and flip with a 540-degree turn where he lets go of the handle upon launch only to regain control at landing.
"That trick," Chris Powell said, "is just awesome."
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Chandler's accolades on the lake are impressive, but the Strawberry Crest junior's classroom achievements make them even more so. Chandler is in the International Baccalaureate program, juggling a hectic travel schedule with school. Of the 20 or so weeks in this past semester, Chandler missed seven while competing around the world.
"I have great teachers who have been willing to work with me," Chandler said. "Wherever I'm at I can access Wi-Fi and get in touch with them or classmates to get the work."
Shannan Powell said that the IB teachers and counselors have been more than supportive in assisting her son with his schoolwork away from the classroom.
"We check with his teachers before every trip to assess where he is and what's going on because school comes first with him," she said. "But honestly, they are so supportive that a lot of times they have talked us into taking the trip. The staff there has been just amazingly supportive of Chandler exploring options outside of school."
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Less than two years into his pro career, Chandler has made quite a name for himself. He has racked up a host of sponsors, traveled the world, been ranked among the sport's elite and has a number of slickly produced videos on the Internet. Not even close to his athletic prime, Chandler said he looks forward to a promising future in a burgeoning extreme sport.
"I see this sport continuing to grow and being a part of it as long as I stay healthy," he said. "I try to take care of my body and it's something I think you can do into your 30s. I just want to keep pushing myself and doing bigger and better tricks."
Brandon Wright can be reached at [email protected]