The man-made river also serves as Flow Rider's water source. Pumps transport 100,000 gallons a minute to a 16-foot-deep storage tank directly behind the bleachers. On the bottom of the tank at the top of the incline opposite the bodyboarder are four hydraulically controlled gates. Raising them a few inches unleashes a tremendous roar as the under-the-dam pressure forces an ankle-deep layer of water to rush down the incline to the bottom of the U and up the other side, forming a wave deep enough and powerful enough to capture a bodyboarder and his or her fancy. Working levers like a crane operator, someone in the control booth can either serve up the typical water-park challenge, a fast rushing flow without a curl, or—after hours or for professional competitions—summon a monster wave by directing the maximum torrent toward the typically unused far portion of the surface and up the padded nine-foot wall that molds the tube.
A local high school student named Heath Purvis has logged so many nighttime hours at Schlitterbahn that he is more than able to hold his own against the pros. Despite having ridden in saltwater only a couple of times in his life, Purvis makes it all the way to the semifinals of the competition. He reaches the semis largely because of some crowd-pleasing "spinners," two, three and sometimes four consecutive spins that he begins down in the flats and continues up the face of the wave. Pressing for four, Purvis loses his bearings, winds up high on the wall and gets sucked into the vortex of the tube. He tumbles head over heels and snaps his collarbone. The kid is tough. He dives back on his board one more time to finish his competitive round.
But Purvis isn't yet one of the guys in a rainbow-colored wet suit. While visiting Brian Press in California not long ago, Purvis rode the ocean waves well enough; it was the paddling out he had trouble with. Says Stewart, who is something of a grizzled veteran and winner of last year's Flow Rider championship, "It's kind of weird, but this park is indicative of this era, where it's instant gratification. This wave takes everything out of the surfing experience except for the riding, which is the essence of it." Stewart then proceeds to honor the other dimensions of ocean bodyboarding: paddling out, deciding which wave to ride and when to take off. Not to mention the Zen and the fear of "being by yourself a mile out at sea when the waves are 25 feet.
"It will never be what ocean bodyboarding is," Stewart says. Still, he and all the other pros queue up for practice rides like a bunch of giddy kids at a waterhole rope swing. Lochtefeld's wave has clearly sucked them in. The competition is really a glorified demonstration event. No money is awarded, only trophies. Says Stewart, the top sponsored rider in the sport, "I paid my own way here. I wouldn't do that for any other event."
Mulling over this new turn bodyboarding has taken, some of the riders envision an inland circuit of events that would bring new fans within intimate range of their sport. In the meantime Hawaiian bodyboarder Ben Severson, who was judged the winner of this year's Flow Rider competition, wonders about his transition back to saltwater. "The waves will probably be only a couple of feet," he says. "I'll be used to all this power."