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THE GRIND: Jenna Malcolm looking to reach the top of wakeboarding sport
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It is just before noon, and Don Malcolm is flying through Six Mile Creek on Lake Lanier when he spots an intruder. A boat is anchored in a small cove Malcolm likes to bring his daughter, Jenna, to for wakeboarding practice. He slows his Malibu Wakesetter and spots two swimmers several yards next to the boat, another hanging on to the back and water like glass all around.

“So you thought you found some peace and quiet,” Don says to the woman near the back.

He makes a request that sounds more like a disclaimer: “We needed some smooth water,” he says. “I’m going to run back and forth here, but I promise I see your swimmers in the water. I know you’re here, OK?”

“Good,” the woman says, “then we can watch the show.”

It’s several minutes until the show starts. Don drives the boat down to the other end of Six Mile Creek. Storms rolled through overnight, so Malcolm keeps an eye out for any debris that might have washed out into the lake. Usually it’s harmless twigs, but he’s seen branches and logs. Once he ran over a plastic picnic table.

When he gets to the end, Don stops the boat to let its tanks fill up. The extra weight will create a bigger wake. Jenna gets ready. She puts on a life jacket, grabs her board and climbs to the back. She straps her feet in the boots and drops into the water like going down an escalator.

“You ready?” Don asks.

“Yep,” Jenna says.

Don guns it, and Jenna pops up, gliding behind the boat. She whips her blonde hair out of her face as her dad gets the boat up to 21.6 MPH. She rides out wide to her left, comes back across the wake and goes out wide to her right. For the first few minutes, Jenna does research. Water is a weird substance. The same spot can produce a different wake depending on temperature, humidity, lake level or any number of variables, so she crouches down and dips her fingertips in to the water, as if downloading its information.

Two years in, Jenna has advanced to the point where she warms up leaping across the wake with ease.  Her dad first got her in the water at 11. He was passing down a part of his identity from summers growing up on his grandparent’s house on Lake Wallenpaupack in the Pocono Mountains of Pennslyvania. It was there he’d learned to water ski, eventually becoming a competitive slalom skier and then a barefoot skier. He’d moved with his wife from Alpharetta to Lake Lanier. When kids came along (Jenna has an older brother), it felt natural to see if they’d take to watersports.

But on her first day on skis, Jenna couldn’t even get up.

“I kept going to a split,” Jenna said. “It wasn’t much fun.”

So Don brought out an old wakeboard for her to try. Jenna got up the first couple of times and was hooked.

“Over and over again I was like, ‘Can we go out? Can we go out?’” she said.

Now, Jenna has won back-to-back state championships on the International Novice Tour, a grassroots watersport competitive league. She is sponsored by and is an ambassador for SheShreds, a women’s action sport apparel company based out of Utah. She’s a team member for SMG Wake, a watersport pro shop operated by Singleton Marine. She represents Liquid Force wakeboards and products.

Five days a week, Jenna is out on the water practicing. Wakeboarding is strenuous, so Jenna usually practices with other wakeboarders for a couple hours, each taking a turn for 30 minutes. It’s a lifestyle facilitated by the family’s decision to homeschool. Don, a partner with a local residential construction company, and his wife, a former school teacher, made the choice after watching a local third-grade spelling bee on TV. The moderator looked ancient and his drawl was thick. He gave one contestant the word, ‘spider,’ but pronounced it ‘spatter.’ The boy answered with what he heard - s-p-a-t-t-e-r - and got it wrong.

“My wife said, ‘Our kids are not going to school here,’” Don said.

Jenna is going into her senior year but has had plenty of high school moments: cheerleading for the North Atlanta Flights homeschool basketball team, going to prom with her boyfriend, a recent graduate of Mill Creek High School who is also a competitive wakeboarder.

But she’s also learning to navigate the path toward a professional career in a sport that operates on the fringe of consumers’ consciousness. There are pro wakeboarders, wakeboarding magazines, wakeboarder rankings by the World Wakeboard Association, the sport’s governing body. And it is, like most of the American sports world, dominated by men.

“There aren’t a lot of women wakeboarders out there,” Jenna said, “but the ones who are out there, it’s like a tight-knit thing. I’m trying to get so many more girls out there. Like every girl I see, ‘Do you wakeboard?’ Or every girl on the lake I see, ‘Do you know INT?’ There are just not many girls out there.”

She was herself a reluctant entry into this world. Some of her friends had told her about INT competitions, but she dodged it, not confident enough in her skills. They persisted, so Jenna eventually went to an event. She was just going to watch, but before the event was over she was tempted enough to compete. She finished eighth.

“I’ve just progressed from there,” she said.

Indeed, on that hot mid-morning, after warming up with simple jumps and grabs, Jenna started to attempt some of the more advanced tricks that would catapult her into contention with professional riders.

Don looked back at Jenna and spun his finger around, the signal for her to try a 360-degree spin. Jenna shook her head.

“She said it’s too choppy,” Don says.

Instead, she tries a back flip, a trick she’s recently been able to stick, but without enough air, Jenna crashes.

“That one hurt,” Don says. “Ripped the board right off the feet.”

Don circled the boat around Jenna.

“You OK?” Don asks.

“Yep,” Jenna answers.

In almost every way, wakeboarding has helped Jenna find herself. She’s found resiliency in working through tricks or recovering from breaking her wrist, her foot (twice) and a tooth. She’s found community amongst the competitors she meets around the Southeast.

The only thing left to find out is just how far she can take this sport.

“I don’t know where I can take it,” Jenna said, “but as far as I can take it, I’m going to try.”