Waking Down Barriers: the First Women’s Wakeboard Event at the Pan Am Games

No women’s wakeboarding event at the Pan Am Games? Erika Langman changed that. 

words :: Kristin Schnelten

During her more than ten years on the international wakeboard scene, Ontario athlete Erika Langman has competed, placed and won at comps around the world, including the Canadian Wakeboard Championships, the World Championships and the World Cup. She is also a member of the Canadian National Wakeboard Team. The one competition that eluded her was the Pan American Games. But the struggle to enter wasn’t her riding or her competitors; it was her gender. Women’s wakeboarding wasn’t included in the Games.

 

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Erika Langman at the Pan Am Games, Wakeboarding, by Mountain Life Media
Erika Langman at the Pan Am Games, Lima, Peru, July 2019. Copyright Gabriel Heusi / Lima 2019.

 

When she tells me, I’m completely floored. What is this, 1950? “I know, right?” Langman agrees. “Men’s wakeboarding was introduced in 2007. Since then, wakeboarding was the only single-gender sport in the entire Pan American Games.”

I look it up. Excluding two traditionally female sports—synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics—you’re left with wakeboarding. Men’s only. What gives? Can’t all sexes be towed behind a motorboat, or by an electric-powered cable, strapped onto a mini surfboard, doing aerial tricks?

“I never could get a straight answer from anyone,” Langman says, “Or, if they did give me an answer, it was full of holes.” Along with her counterparts in countries throughout the Americas, Langman spent years lobbying their sport’s governing bodies, with little to no response.

 

 

In 2015, frustrated—and crushed to know that year’s Pan Am Games would be held in her home country, her home province, and she couldn’t competeLangman used the power of the pen. And the Internet.

“I wrote a blog post, and it kind of went viral,” she says. The post, “Boys Only! Sorry, Women of Wake, The Pan Am Games Are Just Not For You”, details (with surprising reserve) the ridiculous nature of the situation.

It worked. She presented her case and the officials finally listened. Within months of Langman’s post, women’s wakeboarding was quietly listed as an official sport at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru.

 

Photo courtesy Erika Langman

 

But securing a spot for women at the Games certainly didn’t guarantee Langman would compete. Each country could send just one female wakeboarder to Lima. Not a team, not even an alternate. Langman knew she had a fighting chance for the coveted spot (being named Canadian Wakeboard Female Athlete of the Year five years running gives one an inkling), but the competition was stiff. After narrowing the field to just two women, Water Ski and Wakeboard Canada, and the Canadian Olympic Committee, chose Langman: a decision based in part on performance under pressure.

And that pressure was certainly intense. After three days of training and one qualifying round, her performance at the Pan Am Games came down to a single run, ten tricks.

“I was shaking in my boots, feeling an immense amount of pressure to perform not only for Canada, but for myself, after this long, drawn-out journey. Honestly, I don’t think I’ve ever been that nervous at a wakeboard event in my 20 years as a competitive athlete.” (Langman was a gymnast before she took up wakeboarding.)

Her run was strong. As she awaited results from the judges, she knew it would be close. But the final numbers—that left her less than half a point behind the bronze medal winner—were “absolutely heartbreaking.” To place fourth after so many years of training and fighting for the chance to compete may not have been the plan. But to be there at all, a female wakeboarder competing for her country at the Pan Am Games, was “truly an amazing experience,” she adds. “My family, friends, fellow athletes, coworkers, the entire Canadian wake scene, the Pan Am wake scene, and each of their own support systems were all there for me. They played a big part of getting women into the Games.”

 

Erika’s other board. Photo: Marc Landry/Blue Mountain Resort

 

At 34, the veteran rider is beginning to feel her age. When she returned from Lima, Langman made the difficult decision to retire. Well, sort of. “I’ll still do nationals, just not Pan Am,” she says. She has always found synergy between her job as Manager, Mountain Events for Blue Mountain Resort, and her wakeboarding career. “It was the best career move I could have made. Because of that decision, I’ve managed hundreds of events, from grassroots to world-class. I’ve met so many passionate people within the industry and developed a skill set in event management—all while travelling the globe to represent Canada on my wakeboard. I couldn’t be more grateful for the support I’ve been given and the community I’ve worked with at Blue over the years.”

As she continues to compete, her leadership role in the sport will continue. She sits on the board of directors for two governing bodies, she coaches and runs education programs, organizes national competitions and acts as chief judge in international comps. This sport has not yet seen the last of Erika Langman.

Erika Langman is sponsored by O’Neill, Liquid Force Wakeboards, and Dragon Alliance Sunglasses.

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