25-year-old Billy Rossini looks like he's ready for a game-opening kickoff. From top to bottom he's wearing a helmet, full face mask, padded wetsuit, back brace, butt pad and ankle braces. Rossini slides into the water with his … kneeboard.
Yup, that's knee and board, kneeboard. Go ahead, laugh. But Real TV should be here.
Nobody has ever done what Rossini is about to attempt: a double front flip off a single wake.
With innovative board designs and a kick in the padding from wakeboarders, kneeboarders are leaving wussdom behind.
The fellas in the boat on this day (“Pistol” Pete Parillo from New York, Orlando's Frank Panno and North Carolinians Michael Bradshaw, David McDonald and Rossini) are among kneeboarding's new bandleaders.
“This is what it's all about, going as big as you can and just seeing what happens,” says 28-year-old Parillo with a voice right out of a New York deli. “I want people to say, 'Wow! I've never seen that before.'”
“Here with the big boys here I gotta push myself,” says Parillo.
Or else the trash will hit him smack in the pastrami chute. As Parillo rides out a huge front roll to revert he confidently looks to the boat expecting whoops. Instead, he gets an earful of Bronx cheers.
“Put up or shut up!”
“I didn't get up at 5:30 to see that!”
Adrenalized, Parillo stares down a wake the size of the Brooklyn Bridge and cartwheels into a double back roll. It might make the back page in the New York Post, but this boat is toting the man who christened the move two years ago when nobody thought it possible – David McDonald.
“You gotta step it up!” shouts McDonald, who later in the day will go out and harden his reputation as a kneeboarding architect with six aptly named “skyscrapers,” where he takes his board straight up, waits to peak, does a 180, then looks straight overhead and lands a back flip.
Now the attention turns to Michael Bradshaw, 15, on the water.
“If I know there are people watching,” Bradshaw says, “it makes me go twice as big.”
As he's casually warming up, a runabout trots past with a pedestrian kneeboarder in tow. Bradshaw senses company and goes off. Suddenly, Bradshaw climbs a wake and spins. Across the opposite wake he continues spinning. You could figure out your phone bill before he lands in the flats
“This is exactly what our sport needs to be, guys in the boat, big wake, trying new stuff,” says Panno, one of the most disinterested Nationals competitors ever. “At the '94 Nationals guys were doing 10 tricks in a pass, and I only did four. All were big-air moves that didn't even count. I didn't care about winning. All I wanted was to hear guys saying, 'Yeah, cool.'”
Panno stands up with everyone else in the Tige as Rossini, eyes showing through his mask, powers into the massive wake. At his highest point, more than 10 feet off the water, he starts rotating like an Olympic diver. After two rotations, the tail of his O'Brien Lowrider sticks and the handle pops. Next to hit the water is Rossini's helmet, which he slams down after taking his head out.
“If you can't do the double, you're nothing,” Bradshaw shouts.
Panno, startled, looks at a passenger. “I've never heard this kind of trash talk,” he says.
Rossini will keep trying the double front and then add a layer of padding to another body part. One day he'll ride it out. But he's already discussing his next act with this competitive cast.