- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 1, 2015

DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) - Mary Morgan Howell is certainly on the right path as she aspires to be a professional wakeboard competitor.

She won the 10-13 age division of the World Wakeboard Association National Championships in Miami several weeks ago and will be competing in the WWA World Championships in Portugal Sept. 16-19.

To reach the highest level in the sport, Howell understands it will take continued training, dedication and wins along the way.

Someone who has been there, done that believes the 12-year-old from Dothan has what it takes.

“I know people who have been riding 10 or 12 years that aren’t doing the stuff she is doing,” said Andrew Adkison, a longtime wakeboard pro from Panama City, Florida, who has competed throughout the world and has served as Howell’s trainer for the past two years.

“The first time I saw Mary Morgan ride - and her little sisters, for that matter - they have that level of comfort on the water you can’t teach.”

Just as important as her athletic ability, Adkison believes Howell’s determination to get better will ultimately lead to bigger and better things.

“She loves this sport as much as anybody out there and she’s really tough,” Adkison said. “If she continues with the same drive - especially with how much she enjoys it - she’ll be a professional, no doubt.”

In the Miami event, Howell edged previously undefeated Hollie Waldrop of Pensacola, Florida, for the title.

“That was pretty big,” Howell said. “I’ve been against her in every single tournament.

“I landed all the tricks I’ve been practicing all summer, which was really awesome. I landed a front roll and a back roll in this tournament.”

A wakeboard is similar to a surf board, but with boots attached that you slip your feet into similar to snow skis. Competitors are judged on different tricks and routines while being pulled behind a boat, which creates the wake - or track of turbulence left by the boat moving through the water.

Mary Morgan isn’t the only wakeboarder in the family. Sisters Palmer, 9, and McGowan, 6, are also competing in WWA competitions now.

Palmer placed second in the Junior Girls 9-under division at the nationals in Miami, while McGowan finished fourth in the same age division.

Their mother, Heather Howell, says the girls aren’t competitive against one another.

They just want to be together,” she said. “They just enjoy having something in common.”

Mary Morgan is willing to lend advice to her siblings if they care to listen.

“I try to help them, but they don’t really like it very much,” Mary Morgan said with a laugh.

Heather says she doesn’t get particularly nervous watching her kids perform despite the high-flying antics of the sport.

“I trust their judgment when they’re ready to do different things,” she said. “It all starts with the basics - the technique and their confidence and strength when they approach different things. And they’re cautious girls. They’re fearless, but yet they’re very cautious, too.”

For Mary Morgan, it’s been a quick climb on the ladder to success since she first began competitions in the sport at age 8 in the INT League - known as the “Little League of Watersports.”

After several years of competing in the INT, mainly in Alabama events, Howell moved up to the WWA to compete on a more national level.

She finished fourth in the WWA World Championships last year in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and decided to take the sport even more seriously this year.

Though her sisters continue to be enrolled at Houston Academy, Mary Morgan is now being home schooled so her schedule can be more open for opportunities in the sport.

“While we’ve had a wonderful experience at HA and could definitely go back one day, we just knew this was a year with a lot of opportunities for her,” Heather said.

“She mainly trains with her coach at Compass Lake (Florida), but there are also some neat opportunities down in Orlando and other places when it starts getting cold here. And quite frankly, Compass is a small lake. It’s our home lake and it always will be, but there are wakeboarding schools down in Orlando and they’ve had the opportunity to go down there and work with other professionals.

“We wanted Morgan to have some flexibility and decrease her level of anxiety. Like, someone would ask, ‘Hey can you come down, we have this offered this week at this school? Or can you come down for an opportunity with a wakeboard company?’ We wanted to make her available to pursue the goals that she had.”

During training sessions at Compass Lake, the boat for the Howell sisters is driven by their father, Dr. John Howell. In competitions, however, the tournament designates a driver. Only the driver and a judge are allowed in the boat during that time.

“It is a little weird because they never show any expressions,” Mary Morgan said. “You tell them the speed and you tell them how long you want the rope to be. If it’s too fast or too slow, you can stop the boat.

“You get judged on style - just your trick set in general. How many inverts you do, how many spins that you do. Your attitude is really important, too.”

Mary Morgan has grown a foot over the past year and is now 5-foot-6. The change in stature has caused increased challenges on the wakeboard.

“My balance has been off the last year,” she said. “Some of my tricks I lost, but I’m finally starting to get them back and learn a few new tricks.”

The learning process will continue during the World Championships in Portugal.

“I’m really excited,” Mary Morgan said. “I think it’s going to be really fun.”


Information from: The Dothan Eagle, https://www.dothaneagle.com

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