Love at 1st Ride

Cartersville's Stewart, 14, wins world wake surfing championship

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Whitley Stewart remembers the exact day she found her passion. The 14-year-old Cartersville resident needed just one wake surfing lesson — on Aug. 3, 2016, she says — to know she wanted to compete in the water sport.

“I fell in love with it immediately,” Stewart said. “I had always ocean surfed before that, so I was really eager to try it on the lake. Wake surfing came super easy to me.”

After years of ocean surfing on family vacations, Stewart thought she would try wake surfing on Lake Allatoona. Her parents wouldn’t need to travel nearly as far for her to enjoy this hobby.

Stewart picked up the new discipline quickly in her debut lesson at Allatoona Adventures. So much so that she wanted to return as soon as possible.

“We left and made an appointment for the very next day,” Whitley’s mother, Deena, said.

Allatoona Adventures’ Danny Biebricher said he remembers Aug. 3, 2016, as well, when Whitley Stewart and a friend came for a lesson. His initial impression of Stewart and every interaction since has been a positive experience.

“She was the sweetest, most enthusiastic; she has the utmost manners,” Biebricher said. “… I think they kind of knew what they were coming to do but weren’t real sure. She was immediately good at it. You could just really tell she was enthusiastic about it. I could see them pulling out of the driveway, the phone was ringing and they were calling to see if they could come back tomorrow and bring her dad.

“They came back like every week the rest of that summer. Every time they came, she was motivated to learn something new — not just curious about it but wanted to learn something new and do well. She was hooked on the idea of ‘I can be really good at this,’ and she was right away.”

That winter Stewart’s family bought a boat, so she could practice virtually any time she wanted with her father, Robby, as the driver and mother as the videographer.

“I can’t tell you how thankful I am for them and how much they do for me,” Stewart said. “We spent hours and hours on the lake this summer just so I could prepare for competitions. …

“I’m grateful for my dad for just driving me hours on end and my mom always videoing me and letting me look at what I’m doing right and what I’m doing wrong. I definitely couldn’t do it without them.”

Stewart, a freshman at North Cobb Christian, began competing in June 2017. She went undefeated through most of the season, including winning nationals at Pine Mountain.

However, a disappointing run during the World Wake Surfing Championship in Canada put a slight damper on the incredibly impressive rookie season. Fueled by that experience, Stewart trained even harder to get back to the world championships and bring home a title.

She competed in the junior division, which is open to boys or girls on any board, the first year. The following season she moved up to the open-aged women’s amateur skim division.

Stewart spent a majority of the spring and summer preparing for another shot at worlds. The practices and events, including another national title won in Michigan, not only helped perfect her arsenal of tricks but also improved her mental approach.

“My parents let me go to a bunch of competitions this year to work on my nerves, because I get nervous before competitions,” Stewart said. “Finally, I got to where I had been at so many competitions, my nerves were still there but they had gotten so much better. By the time worlds came around, I knew that as long as I threw the tricks that I know how to land I’d be fine.”

Competing against some women twice her age, some of whom had probably been wake surfing longer than she’s been alive, Stewart won her heat on the first day of the world championships in Utah. She followed that up in the final round on Sept. 8 with a near flawless showing and a personal best score to win the title.

“Whenever I won [the heat] that first day, it gave me so much confidence that I was like, ‘I know I can win this thing,’” Stewart said. “I came into the second day still nervous but feeling more confident and more prepared. It felt unreal once they called that I had won.

“I just had the best run of my life. … I came off the water and a bunch of people, just the whole crowd came up to me, knowing I had just thrown down the best run. It was cool to see all these people running up to me and congratulating me.”

The congratulations continued when she returned to Georgia the following day. As her family reached Exit 288 on Interstate 75, they received an escort from the Cartersville Police Department back to their home.

“I’m still on cloud nine,” Stewart said. “Getting back, they had this parade set up for me. … It just still feels like it was yesterday, and I have that excitement of getting off the water knowing I had just won the world championship. It was so fun, and I still feel that excitement just like it was today.”

Next year, Stewart will move up to the outlaw division, which is a semipro level. Her former instructor believes Stewart will reach the professional ranks in short order.

“She could literally be a pro in another year or two, depending on how aggressively she pushes herself,” Biebricher said. “Within the organization that promotes these contests, on the women’s side there aren’t as many into it as on the men’s side. They’re always looking to grow and to push the female riders a little faster along. But she’s just naturally gifted at what she’s been doing. I think she’ll move quickly. … I think she’s that skilled.”

Given Stewart’s dedication, it seems likely she’ll be a professional wake surfer sooner rather than later. The only question might be which will come first: her turning pro or her getting a driver’s license?

Even when, because at this point it seems more a question of when than if, she inevitably turns pro, it seems unlikely Stewart’s personality will change. She’s had more success than anyone could have imagined in such a short amount of time, but Biebricher still sees the same modest kid who came for a wake surfing lesson barely two years ago.

“I think she’s been able to stay humble about it and comes from a great family,” he said. “She’s got the best manners of any young lady I think I’ve ever seen, and she just seems to be a sweet, humble individual — not letting it go to her head like some of these kids. That’s one of the coolest things about Whitley and her family.”