It’s a curious sensation, getting shoved up a slope by your face.
As the current rushed by and through me at 30 mph, sending my prone body flying up the surface of the Snohomish Aquatic Center’s FlowRider for the umpteenth time, I was too busy preventing water from gushing up my nose to spend much time in thought. But if I had taken a moment to think, I imagine I would have had one of two things on my mind:
One: How did I get myself into this predicament?
And two: How much fun is this?
Last Tuesday I decided, against my better judgment, to give the FlowRider experience a try. What I discovered was one of Snohomish County’s hidden treats, one that even a fragile, beat-up, middle-aged guy like myself can enjoy — and maybe someday master.
Two months ago I wouldn’t have been able to distinguish between a FlowRider and a Flowbee. The first time I even heard of a FlowRider was when I caught a Tweet about the Flow Tour holding an event on the Snohomish Aquatic Center’s FlowRider in late July. My curiosity piqued, I did some surfing online and found out that a FlowRider is an indoor wave machine that can be ridden while on a board, and Snohomish just happened to have one of these.
Being The Herald’s community sports reporter, I thought, “I have to write about this.” I didn’t know whether much of a story was there, but it would be worth it for the visual.
So I headed out to the Snohomish Aquatic Center and interviewed Scott Callens, a FlowRider instructor and a regular on the Flow Tour. After Callens demonstrated the FlowRider, both he and Snohomish Aquatic Center supervisor Chris Bensen asked if I wanted to give it a try. I wasn’t equipped for that in the moment, but I kept their offer in mind, and a couple weeks later I decided to take them up on it.
This was entering new territory for me. I have no experience with surfing or wakeboarding. Heck, I’m not even much of a water-sports person, period. But what I do have some background in is snowboarding — about 15 years ago. I snowboarded (badly) for a few years before suffering a sprained ankle that ended my snowboarding days. But watching the FlowRider in action I couldn’t help but fantasize about recapturing those snowboarding glory days.
So I set up a time with Rob Serviss, the Snohohomish Aquatic Center’s aquatic director, to try the FlowRider out. The morning of my appointment I woke up with a sore neck and wondered about the wisdom of going through with it, but by then it was too late to back out. Then when I arrived the first thing they had me do was fill out a waiver that included, in all caps, “WAVE SURFING ON OR IN PROXIMITY TO THE FLOWRIDER MAY RESULT IN PHYSICAL OR MENTAL INJURY, ILLNESS OR DISEASE, OR DEATH.”
What was I getting myself into?
I entered the pool area where the FlowRider is located, and as I walked up a young woman was nonchalantly carving back and forth across the wave with the ease of Michael Phelps dog paddling across a backyard pool. The woman, who I later learned was named Maddy Anderson, made it look so simple. How hard could it be?
When Maddy was done I asked her how long it took before she got to the point of being able to maneuver back and forth across the wave. She said a couple weeks. A couple weeks? Well, she must not have had any kind of background, right? No, she was a snowboarder and and a wake surfer.
What about the falling? When I wrote my original FlowRider story I was told the slope of was like a trampoline, so falling doesn’t hurt. When I asked Maddy if that was true she agreed, to which I immediately snapped back, “I’m going to hold you to that.”
My instructor was Evan Campbell, a floppy-haired and bronzed college student who has been riding the FlowRider since the Snohomish Aquatic Center opened in 2014. Evan assured me that my snowboarding background would help.
“As long as I can remember how to snowboard,” I thought to myself.
Evan got me positioned on the board at the side of the wave, the board pointed into the direction of the flow with my left foot forward, my knees bent to maintain balance, and my weight on my back foot to keep the front of the board above the water. While Evan held my hands so I could maintain my balance, I scooted the board onto the moving water. I let go with my front hand, steadied myself, then let go with my back hand.
And immediately face-planted. While flat on my stomach the force of the flow pushed me all the way up the slope and over the crest, where I was deposited on the level grate at the top of the FlowRider where the water drains.
It was humiliating. All hope that my snowboarding experience would translate to being able to solve the FlowRider was dashed in the time it takes a cannonballer to splashdown after jumping from the one-foot diving board.
Yet my reaction? Let’s do it again!
Evan kept coaching me, directing me to point my front hand forward and my back hand backward to gain balance. He explained about rotating my shoulders to adjust my positioning when the board began to turn. It required many falls, many flooded ears, and many flushes back up to the top of the FlowRider before I got to the point where I could stand for an extended period without wiping out.
But I got there.
After about 25 minutes I had to call it a day. I was breathing heavy, my follies had been captured on film, and I had another assignment I had to get to. But it had been exhilarating. If not for that other assignment I would have kept going.
And most importantly my creaking body emerged in one piece, undamaged despite crashing more frequently than a 10-year-old laptop.
Having trying the FlowRider out, I couldn’t recommend the experience more. We in Snohomish County are blessed to have access to a FlowRider — it’s one of just two located in Washington. I plan on going back, and if a brittle, non-water-sports person like myself can enjoy it and even come away with a small sense of accomplishment, then you probably would, too.
Just be prepared to get a little water up your nose.
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.