Shaler student hopes for initial career as wakeboarder

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Entering her senior year at the University of Pittsburgh as a biomedical engineering major, Rebecca Miller spends many hours in pursuit of her goal to become a doctor.

But when the 21-year-old from Shaler isn’t shadowing health care professionals or studying for exams, she’s in pursuit of an even loftier ambition — to become a professional wakeboarder.

Since winning the amateur women’s title July 24 at the World Wakeboard Association National Championship in Waco, Texas, she’s a step closer to achieving that dream.

Wake boarding on the Allegheny River

Becky Miller of Ross, 21, has been wake boarding (doing tricks on the wake made by her dad's boat) on the Allegheny River since she was 10 years old.

One of the newest additions to extreme water sports over the past two decades, wakeboarding involves performing tricks on what resembles a snowboard while gliding across the wake created by the towboat. 

The sport is becoming a trendy pastime on Pittsburgh’s three rivers.

“In 2002, there was only one other person we knew on the river with a wakeboarding boat,” Ms. Miller said. “Now, at our marina alone, there are about 15.”

Wakeboarding is popular on man-made lakes, where the wakes flatten after each run. Pittsburgh wakeboarders are challenged by having to practice on choppy river waters.

Ms. Miller has been wakeboarding on the Allegheny River since she was 10 years old. Her father, Joseph, pulls her with his boat as she grabs, spins, jumps and performs her signature move — the back roll — that has earned her the nickname “Back Roll Becky” at the Midwestern amateur wakeboarding competitions.

For five years, she has been a part of the Tri-State INT League, an amateur wakeboarding organization. She was the Tri-State Wakeboarding Champion in 2012 and received her first national award in the women’s intermediate division in October in Bakersfield, California.

Her dad said the sport primarily attracts males. About two dozen women in the world ride wakeboards on the professional circuit, compared with 65 men.

“It’s a brutal sport,” he said. “Not only is there a fear factor involved, there’s a pain factor, too. Strength training is important because this sport really rips up your muscles.”

Ms. Miller, however, has learned to take the falls and she recommends that wakeboarders wear helmets. Despite the danger, she is in her element as she performs tricks on the river.

“I love wakeboarding so much because it’s a very social sport; you can’t do it yourself. You have to have a driver and an observer, and it’s helpful to have other people add weight to the boat. I love seeing everyone get excited when I land new tricks, because their reaction is half the fun for me. I love having people on the boat who have never seen me do this before,” she said.

Without suitable lakes and a season that lasts only five months, Ms. Miller acknowledged that she’ll eventually have to move south if she is to have a career on the professional circuit.

“I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life; I want to be a doctor, but while I’m young, if I could make a living wakeboarding for a few years, that’s what I want to do,” she said.

Eastern H2O, a surf, skate and ski shop in Fox Chapel Plaza on Freeport Road, became Ms. Miller’s sponsor shortly after it opened two years ago, along with Laurel Kopaczynski, owner of H2O. Ms. Kopaczynski said Ms. Miller has become a role model to the younger customers.

“Becky has a great personality and is fabulous on the wakeboard,” Ms. Kopaczynski said. “We look for well-rounded individuals to sponsor, and that’s why we picked Becky up. We want every child who comes in here to have someone to look up to.”

Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer:

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