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A line above the rest

Janice Kurbjun
summit daily news
Summit Daily/Mark Fox
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When Justin “The Blender” Wagers landed a 900 – a two-and-a-half rotation – at Spokane, Wash.’s Hoopfest a month ago, he also landed the title of fourth-best slackliner in the country.

No one had ever done that before, and together with a routine of jumps, twists and even a backflip landed on the 2-inch flexible line strung shoulder-high, Wagers put himself in the pro circuit for Gibbon Slacklines, the company that’s largely behind the emerging sport. It only took a year-and-a-half for him to do so.

What is slacklining?

It’s a simple sport that asks its athletes to traverse a 1- or 2-inch piece of thick webbing strung tight between two trees, rocks or whatever he or she can find. It originated decades ago in the rock climbing world, as climbers would use the slackline to practice balance and concentration. Today, it has evolved into a culture of its own, with people like Wagers taking it to the next level and adding tricks – tricklining.

The way Wagers was introduced to slacklining follows the story of its natural evolution. His father, Ken, slacklined in college. Two Christmases ago, he thought it would be fun to give his boys (Chris is Justin’s younger brother, and practices alongside the star) a slackline. The Gibbon Classic slackline is priced at $75 for an introductory system.

Wagers figured out how to balance on the line – and then wanted more. He used YouTube videos to teach himself various tricks, and stepped up his skills through an online video competition through Gibbon. Competitors must tape themselves matching routines the professionals lay out. They are scored and move through the system. It gained Wagers some recognition as well as developed his skills.

It doesn’t pay much to be a professional slackliner right now, 17-year-old Wagers admitted, but it is rewarding in a different way. He gets to be an ambassador for the sport (or hobby – he used both terms), sharing it with others who are curious to know what he’s doing up there on that wobbly line that looks so precarious.

Wagers attended two other competitions (Vail and Parker) before he headed to Spokane on Gibbon’s dime. He was added to Gibbon’s list of athletes about three months ago, so to turn into one of the country’s top slackliners so quickly is a feat.

He lives in Boulder with his parents and brother, but the family also has a house in Frisco, where he often finds two trees in Walter Byron Park and sets up to practice. That practice is typically with Chris, but sometimes includes fellow slackliners. Chris specifically mentioned a pair from Podium Sports who are out at the park so much, there’s a bare spot in the grass where they’ve tumbled off the line.

As Wagers presses the line down, using its bounce to throw himself back into the air, twisting and turning – setting up with clear concentration to throw a backflip – I asked mother Tina Wagers if she was ever frightened her son would hurt himself.

“He gets hurt. We’ve gone to the ER a few times,” she said, pausing. “This is what we do,” she added simply.

Wagers said it took about 30 tries to land the 900 and at least 50 to land the backflip. Neither are perfected, but then again, can anything be on a line that moves?

“You have to have complete focus,” he said. “When I’m about to do a flip, nothing else can come into my mind.”

And that was part of the practice: Learning how to shut everything else out. Including fear and doubt.

Wagers heads to Salt Lake City for the Gibbon Games next month. He said he has his eyes trained on bumping himself up through the rankings – even with the increased competition coming from around the world. If he does well in Salt Lake City, he could be sent to the world competitions in Germany or Italy.

To be in the Top 3, he needs more consistency and to throw bigger air, he said.

In the meantime, he’ll practice and teach. As he did with a family from Kansas City visiting in Frisco and stopping through Walter Byron Park earlier this week. Intrigued, they approached to ask what he was doing, and he took the time to show and tell them all about Gibbon Slacklines. When they learned he was a top competitor in the country, they left to grab their cameras to have him pose with the children. He crossed his legs and lowered himself into a quasi Indian-style pose that seemed to have some yoga influence. Instead of looking at the camera, he looked at the tree to which his line was attached.

“It helps to look at the tree after you get the feel for the line,” Chris Wagers explained.

Despite the injuries, mother Tina Wagers admires the activity.

“It’s really cool,” she said. “It’s healthy, interesting, and when you get down to it, a pretty simple sport. You get a line and go to the park and have some fun. It’s a neat culture.”


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