One afternoon last week, 15-year-old wakeboarder Dallas Friday was being pulled around the lake at the Orlando Watersports Complex behind a boat driven by her coach, Mike Ferraro. Also aboard, and admiring Dallas's every move, were two towheaded Alabamians—a seven-year-old girl and her 11-year-old brother. The kids were on a family trip to Florida, and they had talked their parents into visiting Ferraro's boat dock on the off chance they'd get a peek at their favorite athlete. Their devotion was rewarded when Dallas invited them to ride along on a practice run.
A wakeboarder with a cult following knows she's arrived. Yet this wasn't the way Dallas had planned to stake her claim to fame. After five years of competing as a gymnast, she burned out at age 12. Looking for something new, she had her older brother Robin teach her the basics of wakeboarding and got hooked. "The air awareness and spinning are the same as gymnastics," Dallas says. "A backflip in gymnastics is the same as a tantrum on the water. You just put a board on your feet." (Then you get behind a boat going 21 mph.)
Dallas was competing professionally within 10 months, and if her ninth-grade teachers at Orlando's Boone High assign a how-I-spent-my-summer essay, her gold medals from the X-Games and the Gravity Games will serve as visual aids. She's become the biggest name, and certainly the best name, in a sport that last year lured 3.6 million participants, making it five times more popular than windsurfing. Dallas's sudden success hasn't turned her life into a zoo—at least no more than it used to be. When she's not feeding a rat to the family's six-foot python, Elliott, she's chirping with her cockatoo, Jodi, or cozying up to Otis, the Portuguese water dog who sleeps in her room.
Ferraro says he's never seen a wakeboarder who works as hard as Dallas does, and he believes her work ethic—along with her engaging personality—will someday make her wakeboarding's first millionaire. (She is already featured in a video game and has several big-name sponsors.) "I want to do this until I can't walk," Dallas says. "But I don't do it for the money. What am I going to buy? A bike?"