Person to Watch: Jeff Barton
Flipping over the water
By Sally Friedman

The place was Busan, South Korea. The event last September was the international competition of a sport relatively few Americans even know about: wakeboarding.

But for a Moorestown man, the world championship of the International Waterski & Wakeboard Federation was, in his words, “the proudest moment and greatest thrill of my life.”

Standing under the American flag, Jeff Barton, 44, received a gold medal for his victory in wakeboarding. Thousands of miles away from home, this SJ man was celebrating the culmination of a decades-deep commitment to a dream.

As a sixth-grader in the early 1980s, Barton was a typical American kid – a devoted fan of soccer and ice hockey who also loved swimming in the waters of New Jersey and New Hampshire. Old photos chronicle those classic family images at the beach and lake.

coolBut one summer he discovered something new. “Suddenly, it was all about speed – and about surfing and boards on water.” His passion was beginning to take shape.

“I’d stand and gape at surfer magazines, looking at those big waves,” recalls Barton. “And I did start surfing in a limited way. I even dressed like a surfer. Boards on water were my thing.”

A few years later, the teen discovered a phenomenon called wakeboarding. The easiest description might be this: picture snowboarding behind a boat.

Officially, wakeboarding is a surface water sport where the athlete, riding a specialized board, is towed by a boat typically traveling 18-25 mph. Usually done on lakes or intercoastal waterways, the sport combines the features of water skiing, snowboarding and surfing. Participants say the ultimate thrill is when they go airborne.

“The biggest learning obstacle in this sport is getting up out of the water,” says Barton. “But it’s like riding a bike – once you get it, you get it.”

In the course of pursuing his passion, Barton made some significant life changes. He chose to attend San Diego State University, because one of the electives there was wakeboarding. It was even a for-credit course.

During college, Barton managed to get a dream job heading up the wakeboarding department of an aquatic center, which served two colleges along with San Diego State. He was in heaven.

Soon he launched a wakeboarding magazine. For more than a decade, he also entered every pro wakeboarding competition in North America. “Where there are lakes, you can usually find wakeboarding, and when you find wakeboarding, you also find competitions,” he says.

The magazine no longer exists, but the passion still does.

Life changed. Barton married and had three children, and the young family returned to the East Coast to be closer to extended family. Despite the relocation, Barton didn’t give up the sport that had claimed him for so long.

To keep the adventure fires burning, he became a sports commentator and host for action sports competitions around the world. He traveled about 30 times a year, commenting on ultra marathons, trail-running races, cliff-diving competitions, airplane races, mountain biking, surfing, snowboarding and, of course, his first love, wakeboarding.

While the thrill of adventure is Barton’s energizer, he also has had to take more traditional jobs. That now includes his regular stint as a bartender at The Madison in Riverside. But his deep connection to extreme sports has not been extinguished.

Over the last decade, Barton had competed individually at world championships. In the spring of 2012, he was in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., working as an announcer for a championship event there involving North, Central and South American wakeboarders. He was also competing, and he ended up winning a gold medal.

After that victory, Barton was named to the seven-member Team USA for the 2013 international competition in Korea. Despite his success, the super athlete kept his expectations in check. “My approach was favoring being pleasantly surprised, rather than disappointed. We all play those mind games.”

When selected, Barton was euphoric. “Everything about it was thrilling. The idea that I would now be representing our country, wearing the team uniform, walking in an opening ceremony with athletes from dozens of countries all around the globe, was absolutely mind-boggling.”

Barton kept remembering the advice of a friend’s father who had acted as a coach and mentor back in San Diego. “He always reminded me that to be serious about competition, you have to act like you’re competing every single time you’re on the water. In competition, you don’t get the time to warm up – you’re scored the second the boat begins to move.”

In Busan, Barton was a standout. He won the gold medal in wakeboarding for his age group. And then, Barton was part of the glorious victory of Team USA, which won silver in the international competition.

Jeff Barton and his youngest daughter ride Rancocas Creek

Jeff Barton and his youngest daughter ride Rancocas Creek

Today, Barton, who is no longer married, leads the typical life of a single dad, spending precious time with his kids and working to help support his family. Although free time is sparse, Barton stays active in the winter by playing in a men’s ice hockey league.

The summer, of course, gives Barton the opportunity to practice his favorite sport on the Rancocas Creek in Burlington County. Barton says that body of water is an ideal practice venue. “It’s the crown jewel for me,” he says.

The conditions also are close to ideal along the Delaware River in Bordentown, where a small colony of wakeboarders sometimes gathers.

And his advice to would-be wakeboarders? “Get the right equipment,” he says. “Find a buddy if you can. And go big! That’s how I live.”

August 2014
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