Spectators watching Eli Hager spin, flip and jump around Lake Norman on his wakeboard or water skis are only seeing half the picture.
His story isn’t one many 13 year olds have to tell. The boy, who can be found at the Lake Norman YMCA in Cornelius doing tricks while being pulled behind a boat, or snowboarding down a mountain, is a double amputee.
And he doesn’t mind.
The Alexis resident and Lincoln Charter eighth-grader is gearing up for a few competitions coming up over the next few weeks, including a trip to the National Disabled Water Ski Competition in California on Aug. 23.
At least two days a week, Hager practices for four hours at a time with his team as part of the Adaptive Water Ski program at the YMCA.
As part of his daily routine, Hager practices doing as many tricks as he can in 20 seconds, preparing him for competitions where he will be asked to do the same task.
Tuesday, he tried his first back flip on a wakeboard.
Jennifer Moore, coordinator of the Y’s adaptive sports program and a recreational therapist at Carolinas Rehabilitation has worked with Hager since he was 4 years old and is proud of the progress he continues to make each year.
“This program gives disabled kids the opportunity to leave the chair behind and experience water skiing; it’s a huge deal,” Moore told the Times-News Tuesday. “We’ve been going through this process together. To watch what he has been able to do is what every therapist wants to see.”
Hager was born without a tibia — the shin bone that connects knees to ankles — in either leg, and had them both amputated when he was about nine months old. He caught on to walking with prosthetic legs quickly.
When he was four years old, he heard about a water ski program for the disabled and decided to give it a try. He started out riding on Moore’s lap and is now able to not only maneuver himself on his wakeboard, but complete 360-degree turns and jumps wake-to-wake.
Hager’s coach Robbie Parks has been working with him since last summer, and continues to notice improvements in his performance.
Parks, with a proud smile, congratulated Hager on landing a 720, a two-turn trick that isn’t normally a part of his daily routine.
Hager’s mother, Bonny, was all smiles as she sat at the bow of the boat that was pulling her son as he perfected his tricks close behind.
“When your child has legs amputated, you think, “What will we do?,” Hager said. “The doctors tell you that your child will be limited in what they can do and that they won’t be able to do much, probably so you aren’t disappointed.
“But Eli is truly a miracle and has accomplished so much.”
Aside from his water sports, he likes to hunt, fish, golf and snowboard. His advice to others thinking about starting a sport that have something they are worried may hold them back — take “can’t” out of your vocabulary; it’s not an option, Eli Hager said.
Hager has ridden in 180-mile bicycling events, and “nailed” the slalom course the first time he tried it with Parks last year. The course is for competitors who are only allowed to use one ski, which will help him in his training for nationals.
In California, he will be responsible for three-event skiing — tricks, slalom courses and jumps. He started jumping earlier this year, has a few tricks under his belt and conquered the slalom courses in his few experiences with them.
Parks is confident that with enough time and training, Hager will be able to win titles and become part of the national water ski team for the disabled.
With his life jacket strapped and swimming trunks drenched, Hager continues to work on his routine for his California trip, if the financial requirements are met.
On Aug. 11, a benefit is planned at White Oak Par 3 Golf Course in Alexis, with all of the benefits going to Hager and his team’s California trip.
With his C-legs, computer-controlled limbs that allow Hager to switch to different modes to fit the activity he’s trying to accomplish, he still loves the “no limits” sport, he said. Being able to constantly advance his skills keeps him going.
Despite his trials and accomplishments, he’s a typical 13-year-old boy that still can drive his mother crazy, Hager joked.