WAKEBOARDING Struharik riding high
Rob Struharik of Boardman has been riding the waves to a highly-successful career.
By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
NEW MIDDLETOWN -- Just off a country road on a gravel driveway next to a lake, Rob Struharik leafs through Alliance Wakeboard, a national wakeboarding magazine featuring pictures of the sport's best athletes doing the sport's best tricks.
He pauses, then stares hard at one of the pictures.
"Hey, that's me!" he yells at his grandfather, sitting in a boat 25 feet away. "I didn't know that was me."
He shakes his head and smiles.
"Man, that was two winters ago."
This isn't the first time that Struharik, a Boardman resident and professional wakeboarder, has been in a magazine. It's just that he usually knows about it.
He looks at a few more pages, then sets it down. The boat is ready.
The show is about to begin.
Struharik, 21, started wakeboarding at 13, turned pro at 16 and has forged a successful career with, among other things, a boat sponsorship by Supra, a board sponsorship by Connelly, videos and DVDs (you can buy one at www.bumpfilms.com).
He has an annual income that has allowed him to travel the world, train in Florida during the winter and basically live his dream for the past seven years.
What's most impressive is that he has done it while living in Boardman for most of his life.
The Mahoning Valley is not, to put it mildly, a wakeboarding hotbed.
For those unfamiliar with the sport, you strap both feet onto a board and ride the wake while being pulled by a boat. (It sort of looks like snowboarding, only on water.)
To be good, you need to be around a lot of water. Florida and California have a lot of wakeboarders. Ohio does not.
Finding his place
But Struharik's father, Bob, owns 140 acres of land, including a lake -- "it doesn't really have a name, we just call it The Lake," Rob said, -- which is a strip-mined quarry filled with water.
Bob also owns his own construction company, Master Builders Inc., where Rob works in his free time.
Bob has been driving Rob since he started. Early practices? No problem. Trips to Florida? Fine. Four practices a day? Whatever it takes.
"When Rob started, he was so determined to be in the top 10 that he would come out here in the winter," his father said. "He would practice in April, March, even November.
"Sometimes the bindings on his board would get so cold that the rubber would harden and freeze," he said. "I would have to bring hot water in coolers so we could pour it on the bindings and get his feet out."
The two log as many as 200 practice hours in the summer. That work has paid off. Struharik is one of the world's best wakeboarders and is the only area athlete to qualify for this week's Gravity Games in Cleveland.
"The sport is really growing and I kind of started at the right time," Struharik said. "We have video games coming out and stuff like the Gravity Games just helps the sport get noticed. It's great."
Struharik attended Boardman High -- he would have graduated in 1999 -- but dropped out after his junior year to focus on his wakeboarding career. He got his pilot's license and, eventually, his GED.
"I figured a lot of kids go to college, but they don't get the opportunity to see the world," Struharik said. "They're struggling to get jobs while I'm going to Japan, New Zealand, Canada, all over the place.
"My parents were really supportive and no one ever looked down on me for not finishing school. It's worked out for the best."
Watching Struharik on a wakeboard is sort of like watching Omar Vizquel play defense -- it's smooth, it's entertaining and he makes it look much, much easier than it is.
After sliding across a wave and doing a couple simple jumps, Struharik is ready to go. He starts from the left side of the boat, charges across the wake, soars 20 feet in the air, does a flip while grabbing the side of his board, then lands without a hitch.
He does 360 degree turns, big jumps, even slides up a pipe ramp and grinds across a boat bottom suspended above the water.
Each trick takes about one second -- and they're really, really cool.
Struharik's boat was a gift from his sponsor, Connely. When asked how much it costs, his father says, "Probably about $36,000. It's really a perfect boat for what he's doing."
Thinking about future
Bob says his son has been riding very well lately, but Rob doesn't compete as much as he used to.
There are three stages in a wakeboarder's career: the competitive stage, the photo and video stage, and the promoting products stage.
"Photo and video is the ideal stage -- you want that to last as long as possible," Struharik said. "And you can still compete, but it's not as stressful. I don't lose as much sleep thinking about competitions."
When Struharik started on the tour, he was heavily involved in Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
"It kept me grounded and helped me keep my relationship with God," Struharik said. "That can be hard to do when you're traveling across the world with 25-year-olds on the wakeboard scene."
He's still involved with FCA, but focuses less on events and more on his future. He recently became engaged to Joanna Baudo, who lives in Highland Heights. He'd like to build a house on the lake in New Middletown in a few years.
Struharik knows his career won't last forever, and he's got plenty of options -- including promotions, sponsorships or even a job with his father's business.
It's not an easy transition, but he's not worried. If the last nine years have proved anything, it's that Struharik can make the jump.