Missionaries Bring Wakeboarding to Cambodia

Shaun Murray, a four-time wakeboarding world champion and star of the videogame “Wakeboarding Unleashed featuring Shaun Murray,” spent about 20 minutes on Saturday doing tricks on a purpose-built pond on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.

“We are sitting in, basically, a rice field in the middle of Cambodia, and we wouldn’t have dreamed of it before,” Mr. Murray said, standing in the shade of a tent at the Kam-Air Wakepark in Chroy Changva district’s Prek Tasek commune.

An amateur takes part in Kam-Air’s first wakeboarding competition in Phnom Penh on Saturday. (Olivia Harlow)

“What’s cool is this two-tower system has allowed us to wakeboard in places where it normally wouldn’t be possible.”

About 50 people turned out over the weekend for the country’s first wakeboarding competition, located at its only “wakepark,” which marked its official opening on Saturday, about two years after it was first conceived by Texas-born missionary Alf Evans.

Turning out for the event, thanks to wakeboarding company Nautique, were four of the world’s top professional wakeboarders: Mr. Murray, Bob Soven, Emily Durham and Raimi Merritt.

Following an amateur contest with about 10 competitors, the four pros each performed for the small crowd, pulled by a motorized contraption moving across metal cords that stretch between supporting structures on either end of the 155-meter stretch of water.

The system tows riders to the end of the lake, where they must make a turn as the motor changes direction and pulls them back, allowing for endless runs providing the rider doesn’t fall.

Professional wakeboarder Emily Durham puts on a skills demonstration at the Kam-Air Wakepark on Saturday. (Olivia Harlow)
Professional wakeboarder Emily Durham puts on a skills demonstration at the Kam-Air Wakepark on Saturday. (Olivia Harlow)

With a modest jump built in the middle of the pond, the visiting professionals showed the novice crowd what was possible, performing flips, grabs and rotations as Mr. Evans or Mr. Murray called out the names of each trick.

John Phifer, a fellow missionary from Texas who has been Mr. Evans’ partner in getting Kam-Air off the ground, was thrilled with the show.

“It’s been a fantastic success; it’s more than we could have expected,” he said. “Alf and I keep pinching ourselves ’cause we have four of the world’s top wakeboarders, in Cambodia, at our wakeboard park. It’s just amazing, there is nothing else like this.”

Mr. Murray, the former world champion who has been a professional wakeboarder for 21 years, said their group travels the world at the expense of Nautique, which he described as a “faith-based company” that organizes “outreach and mission trips.”

“We went to El Salvador not long ago, and a few years ago I was in India. It is cool to still be able to wakeboard, but still have a different impact on lives,” he said.

For Mr. Evans and Mr. Phifer, who met at church in Grapevine, Texas, the wakepark is its own sort of mission.

Emily Durham, left, Bob Soven, center, and Shaun Murray, right, sign autographs for fans at the Kam-Air Wakepark on Saturday. (Olivia Harlow)
Emily Durham, left, Bob Soven, center, and Shaun Murray, right, sign autographs for fans at the Kam-Air Wakepark on Saturday. (Olivia Harlow)

By providing employment— they currently have two staff members, and are considering hiring a third—the pair hopes to help young men become role models in their communities, and find Jesus.

“I will definitely encourage them, but I’m not going to make them go to church,” Mr. Evans said. “We are blessed that both of our guys are Christians, but that is not going to be a requirement to being an employee. That is not how Jesus did it.”

Describing himself as “an old wakeboarder and former youth pastor,” Mr. Evans is in charge of wakeboard instruction, and Mr. Phifer is his first student at the site.

“We don’t take a salary at all,” Mr. Evans said. “Everything you see is either paid for or donated by people back in the states. Any money that is made from this at all goes back into the park and the employees.”

Digging the lake cost them about $4,000, and the $30,000 pulley system was donated by members of the church.

The plan is to find patrons among Phnom Penh’s expats and upper-middle class, people who have the time, money and inclination to learn to wakeboard, and get good at it. The money from aspiring wakeboarders, the pair hopes, will be enough to keep the project afloat.

“I think there is great potential,” said Ms. Durham, one of the Nautique-sponsored professionals, who recently retired from competition after a 16-year career.

“It’s such a new thing here—they don’t know what wakeboarding is. They don’t even know what water skiing is!”

ford@cambodiadaily.com

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