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While most other Wharton students spent the summer on internships and jobs, sophomore wakeboarder Larisa Morales teamed with a professional photographer to showcase both her ability and the natural beauty of her home country.

Credit: Avalon Morell

All athletes know that the onset of summer means one thing: no days off. Wharton sophomore and professional wakeboarder Larisa Morales certainly took that to heart.

In June, the Mexico native served as the star attraction of “The Inframundo Project,” a photography series in her home country sponsored by Red Bull and spearheaded by acclaimed photographer Mauricio Ramos. Taking place in a southeast Mexican region called the Riviera Maya, Morales showed off her aquatic abilities in the area’s cenotes — underground sinkholes that some Mayan natives consider a gateway to the Underworld — giving the wakeboarding phenom a new opportunity to showcase her sport and her country.

“The project turned into this kind of ecosystem promotion, like a ‘take care of the environment’ project, and also like ‘look at Mexico, this is this amazing place and you guys probably don’t know as much about it,’ so it was a way to give Mexico some positive exposure in the world and also show how beautiful these places are, and do something that had never been done before, which was wakeboarding inside cenotes,” she said. “So that was pretty awesome, it was a cool experience.”

Though it took until June for the project to finally come to fruition, Ramos’ and Morales’ brainchild had actually been years in the making. Ramos — a fellow Mexico native who has long served as an action sports photographer for Red Bull — initially met the budding wakeboarding star six years ago, laying the groundwork for what would ultimately become the project of a lifetime.

But year after year, issues — whether with Ramos’ availability, Morales’ competition schedule, financial difficulties, and so on — would arise, forcing Ramos’ dream to remain just that. 

Until 2017, that is.

Courtesy of Mauricio Ramos / Red Bull Content Pool

“He had been taking pictures of [the Riviera Maya] for a really long time and was thinking he wanted an athlete to do something in there, but he couldn’t quite put the pin on which sport he wanted to take there. And when he met me, he was like ‘okay, we need to do this project together.’ And it took us like six years to kind of get back into it,” Morales said. “We just finally figured out the way that it could work — there were a lot of different parts that kind of had to come together, and finally it was a good year.”

Even once the planning struggles had finally been put to rest, the hard work was far from over for Morales.

Having formerly primarily wakeboarded in a competitive setting, Morales — who currently is ranked seventh in the World Wake Association rankings, the highest of all non-American born athletes — had to adjust her mentality for an entirely new set of rigors. No longer was the sophomore vying to outdo rivals or impress judges on the big stage, but rather attempting to get the perfect still shot and collaborating with a production team day in and day out.

When all was said and done, the experience gave Morales an entirely unique set of challenges, ones that made even “The Girl Who Walks on Water” have to break a sweat.

“It was honestly one of the most challenging things that I’ve been able to do with wakeboarding,” she said. “Not only in terms of getting a good photo, but the challenge was for all the pieces to fit together. Because it wasn’t only me who had to get the job done, it wasn’t only like landing this trick or grabbing the board in a way that would look good — it was me doing it in a specific place and a specific moment where the photographer also had to get me in the moment. It was just so many different challenges and everyone had to do their part to make it happen, but it ended up going very well and we’re all really happy.”

As should go without saying, hard work pays off, and the constant hours Morales put in led to a tremendously rewarding experience. Blessed with the opportunity to return to her homeland and show off its beauty to the world, Morales and her nation undoubtedly reaped the benefits of the increased exposure — but for the 20-year-old sensation, the intrinsic satisfaction of immersing herself into a new culture was just as powerful.

“One of the most rewarding things was to learn about the Mayan culture, because there were a lot of Mayans there and they were teaching us all their language, about their day-to-day lives, and it’s crazy to see that side because it’s such a huge side of the Mexican culture and not many people know about it because it has been marginalized,” she said. “It’s one of the biggest challenges we have in Mexico to give them the attention that they deserve, and the respect that their culture deserves, because they are basically our history … We have to know about them, we have to respect them, and it’s really important that this was a way for me personally to learn about that, but also to have other people learn about it through this project.”

Combine the chance to display her home country’s greatness to the world, the ability to show off her own athletic talents, and the thorough insight gained from direct communication with the Mayan natives, and Morales may just have found a new pastime. 

“There’s [other shoots] that we’re planning already, specifically with showing places that are amazing in Mexico, which is kind of one of our main goals right now — show people that we really live in one of the richest countries in the world right now in terms of the environment, in terms of the things that we can do in Mexico,” Morales said. “So definitely we have plans in the books to do some new photos, new videos around different spots in Mexico — honestly, the whole world is kind of in the books.”