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As one of the fiercest pro-athletes in the world, 27-year-old wakeboarding champion Dean Lavelle is no stranger to close shaves. His worst disaster occurred at the 1996 X-Games, which left him hobbling in pain and drove him to redeem himself by winning the US Open in the following year. These days, he hams it up with fiancee Sonja Scheffler, herself a professional wakeboarding title holder, as they work to spread the sport in Asia.

What is wakeboarding?
Well, snowboarding on water. You get pulled behind a boat and you use the wake to get your lift. The biggest difference is that snowboarders do spinning tricks, whereas wakeboarders do gymnastic types.

What's the most difficult thing about going sideways on water?
There's just so much to learn. Strangely, I'd say that the most difficult part is just being humble. You watch other people do it and they make it look so easy. Then you're humbled to go out there and do it yourself. Being good at wakeboarding doesn't just happen overnight.

Tell us how long it took you.
Depends on how you define that. For a start, I had background for this. I worked at SeaWorld doing skiing tricks for three years before I started wakeboarding. Naturally, I was already good at freestyle jumping and doing flips off the ramp. I also did flips with this thing called an air chair. When I took up wakeboarding it was so easy. Within a month's time, I was doing four different flips with it.

Some of your stunts are crazy. Do you have to be nuts to be any good at wakeboarding?
Well, you can't exactly be sane. You don't see a lot of guys out there with a wife and three kids, who need to work everyday to make a living - you don't see them going out there doing crazy things on a wakeboard. You must be willing to take risks, to get injured anytime. I see people get injured on 180s, I see people injured on 360s, I see people get injured on hard tricks. On a wakeboard, I'm pretty crazy but not beyond my means. You keep getting too crazy and you're just going to die.

OK, so how close have you come to killing yourself?
I crashed pretty badly during the 1996 X-Games in Rhode Island. I had the wind knocked out of me, and separated my ribs. The pain was unbelievable. I lay in the water for awhile, just looking at the clouds and trying not to pass out. Another good one was when I twisted my hip during training. Definitely a good one. I've also tweaked both of my ankles ...

I mean tweaking as not bad enough to really take me off. And I've also separated both my shoulders, but that was during snowboarding.

Must have felt good.
Oh yeah, it's a degree of hurt. Some people's tolerance is a little different from others. I can take pain. As a matter of fact, half the time wakeboarders have what most people would call whiplash, like they just survived a car wreck.

How does that happen?
It's the way the board is forced into a tip - we call it the Accelerator. By the time your head actually gets to the water it's doing about 40 mph. If the board's going 20, then it catches and stops and by the time your head gets to the end of that little snap, it recoils. By the end of it, there's so much whip speed it breaks the sound barrier, and you hear a loud crack. After that happens, you just lie there, stunned.

How do you plan on being careful?
I have a rule: always wear a vest. That way you'll float, even if your brain's gone dead. The only people I've seen die wakeboarding were not wearing vests. One of them was a pretty good friend of mine, and he actually had a vest but it didn't float him - it was this really thin vest and it was old and waterlogged, so when he fell he just went under. There was only six feet of water but it was dark and murky. His wife was standing on the dock and watched it happened. So that's the biggest danger. If you wear a vest, you're not going to die wakeboarding. Because people get knocked out and we just drive the boat over and pick them up and we get their heads up so they're OK.

... next page: Love, sex and lies on the water

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