RIVERBANK -- Jacob James wedges his feet into the bindings of a single ski, white-knuckles the handle to a rope and plunges into pristine water.
As his body bobs behind the boat, a crowd of people sets their focus on the ski tip peeking over the surface.
It's in this moment that the boy with the bionic ear the one kids once bullied embraces his disability.
Jacob was born with profound deafness. A cochlear implant and an uncanny ability to read lips have helped him bridge the disability and achieve a degree of normalcy.
The gadget uses magnets, a microphone, electric pulses and other modern mechanics to re-create sound in one of the tiniest, darkest cavities of the body.
Except on the water, where this rising slalom skier is forbidden to wear the outer earpiece. The silence washes away the pressure, he says, slowing down a water sport played at warp speed.
"When you can't hear anything, you feel like you can do anything," he said.
Those words have empowered this 15-year-old freshman at Enochs High in Modesto. He doesn't flinch at "no" or "can't." Jacob's only disability, it turns out, is that he forgets he's disabled.
He was the quarterback on the Ustach Middle School flag football team that won six of its eight games. He's experienced team glory with the Central Valley Hornets basketball program. And he's run wild on area soccer fields.
Summer has offered little rest. He and his friends have kept the James household in turbulence, racing between the pool and PlayStation 3. And when he's not in the water, Jacob is rolling around the wrestling mats of Oakdale MMA.
"He has had times in his life when he didn't fit in, and it was obvious he wasn't wanted around," said his mother, Alicia James, whose daughter, Sarah, also was born deaf, a genetic mystery for the family. "It was tough as his mother, but he had to find his own way."
"He doesn't mind being deaf," she later added, "but he doesn't like to be defined by it, either."
The most recent evidence: Jacob qualified for the Western Regional Water Ski Championships in slalom, becoming the first member in Team (Modesto) MasterCraft's four-year history to accomplish the feat.
"I was pretty stoked," he said with unabashed excitement.
In slalom, skiers enter and exit through gates, and then navigate a six-buoy, 55-meter course at speed in excess of 36 mph. There's no room for error a slight miscalculation can result in a disqualification or worse yet, a wipeout.
The championships are Wednesday through Saturday at Rio Linda's Bell Acqua. Jacob will compete in the Boys 3 division, and competitors range from 13 to 17 years old. He isn't expected to contend because he's relatively new to an age group "when teen-aged boys are putting on all that size and strength," MasterCraft coach Richard Lea said.
"In that one division, they'll improve more than any division in their life. For some, when they leave Boys 3, they're ready to be professionals."
Season of surprise
The odds are stacked against this slender 5-foot-8 dynamo, who will try out for the Enochs soccer team in the fall. Then again, this has been a season of surprise.
Jacob qualified for the regional after just 10 days in the water, a feat that caught Alicia his No. 1 fan and on-boat interpreter by surprise.
Jacob's first practice of the season was June 18. Twelve days later, following a stint at the Delta RATS (River and Tournament Skiers) camp, he posted a qualifying score at Bell Acqua's Liberty Open.
"He wasn't anywhere near qualifying and then
he did," Alicia said.
The need for speed
Wakeboarding was Jacob's introduction to water sports. He was 5 and addicted to the flips, spins and grabs that have made the sport king of its domain. He took up slalom skiing only on a challenge by Lea, who requires his athletes to diversify. Jacob was 9 at the time and only recently became serious about the single-ski course event.
It's the speed, he says.
"It takes years of intense training, a real devotion to get that good on a single ski," Lea said. "You're basically playing tug-o-war with the boat.
You have a lot of injuries, take a bunch of falls, have a lot of sore muscles. The water is unforgiving. When get to those speeds and you fall, you skip across the water."
On this particular Wednesday workout, Jacob, nursing a tender right ankle, cuts a zigzag pattern across the ski course at Modesto Reservoir, kicking up beautiful, 10-foot walls of water at every buoy.
"I really like to go fast," said Jacob with his cool-kid look: black and white trunks, topped by a red-and-black O'Neill vest.
With that in mind, he motions with his thumb to assistant coach and driver Tommy Hudson. Even on his ninth or 10th pass of the afternoon, Jacob wants a little more.
At times, his body is nearly parallel to the water, his elbow inches from cutting the surface. Inches from sending his body cart-wheeling out of control.
"It's breath-taking," he said, "but kind of scary a little bit. It takes some courage to do it.
Just do it. Don't think about it."
Lea orchestrates these practices, towing the kids in his MasterCraft ski boat for roughly six hours a day twice a week. When it's Jacob's turn, a family member typically Alicia uses sign language to relay instruction.
Jacob doesn't wear the outer implant in the water, and that vacuum creates a distinct advantage.
You can't be distracted by what you can't hear.
"Because he can close out everything on the slalom course," Alicia said, "he goes into this flow that lets him do his thing."
Still, danger lurks around every turn. At 36 mph, and with an ever-shortening, 75-foot rope (the length of the rope affects difficulty and scoring) that doubles your speed as you whip across the wake, the wipeouts are often stomach-turning.
And in Jacob's case, potentially expensive. Any damage to the implant in his inner ear could result in a re-plant, a procedure that would cost thousands.
The James family balances the risk with the reward: Jacob is an above-average student and growing less dependent upon his translator by the grade. Lea believes Jacob's talent could net him an athletic scholarship. Pair those prospects with a dead-set determination, born out of an early-age conversation with his mother, and, well
Jacob is almost machinelike in his pursuit. Bionic ear and all.
"This is my most favorite thing to do," he said of skiing. "I don't want to stop."
James Burns is regional sports content editor of The Bee and Merced Sun-Star. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2324.
What: Water ski tournament featuring many of the top skiers in the western United States
When: Wednesday through Saturday
Where: Bell Acqua, a private water ski lake at 930 E St. in Rio Linda, north of Sacramento
Web site: Visit www.usawaterski.org for more information.
What: Competitive water ski and wakeboard team with 10 youths
Where: Based in Modesto, Team MasterCraft conducts its practices on the water ski course at Modesto Reservoir
When: Mondays and Wednesdays
Who: Head coach Richard Lea; assistant Tommy Hudson
Contact: For more information, contact Lea at email@example.com