The Way Forward
The year is 1987. The World has 2,200,000,000 less people than it does today, the Giants beat John Elway in the Super Bowl, Richard Branson makes the first Transatlantic flight in a Hot Air Balloon (2,790 miles) & Freddy Krueger is a serial killer….and a 3 event skier.
I remember that Plane flight like it was last year though, because it was my first time in an Airplane. Scared, excited, and eagle eyeing out the window harder than anyone in history…there was soooo much to see!!!! And everything looked unlike anything I’d ever seen before….houses, roads, lakes, mountains….all the stuff I’d already become familiar with in my 8 years of life….but it all looked so different from up here.
As we made our approach into West Palm Beach Int’l Airport, I remember looking out the window and pointing to the trees and asking my dad “DAD DAD, look at those trees!!!….they look like pine trees!!??…how is that possible??!” See, on the west coast, in my world, I had only ever seen pine trees in the mountains…where it snows. I knew Florida had neither of those things, so it blew my mind.
A couple days later, after my brother competed in his first U.S. Water Ski Nationals, my mind was about to be blown again. Every year back in those days, the Nationals week always finished off with the US Open on the weekend. It was my second year skiing, and I knew all the names of the best in the World…but I’d never seen them ski anywhere other than on TV (remember when water skiing was on ESPN?).
The weekend didn’t disappoint.
As an 8 year old kid with stars in my eyes….here’s what I remember. These guys were INSANE!!! Some guy no one had ever heard of, Jeff Rodgers, showed up and cranked the shit out of some 1,3,5’s. I remember the rumor being that he’d just started skiing a few years before and ran the slalom course the first time he ever tried it. That, to my little pea-brain, was hard to fathom. And here he was already fighting to beat the best in the World. A West Coast hero of mine, Carl Roberge, ended up tying for 2nd at that US Open, right before my eyes. In 1987 he was the defending Tour champion. (5 years later Terry Winter and I were chasing Carl’s Jr Boys Western Regional slalom record…3 @ 35 off) Andy Mapple Won the US Open that year. I had 2 hero’s before getting to watch that US Open….Bob & Kris LaPoint. They were West Coast skiers, and legends around the World. In 1987 Bob LaPoint won the World Slalom Title at Thorpe Park, London (5th World Title) and won at Marine World (4 Buoy Course) and the MasterCraft invitational. When I left Okeeheelee, I had a 3rd hero: Andy Mapple. I wanted to be out there someday, doing what those guys did…pushing the limits. (*FYI, Kjellander had best performance of 1987 with 4.5 @ 39 at Augusta Tour Stop)
I believe it was that same year, interestingly enough, that ESPN decided to broadcast some of the amateur nationals. I remember Boys slalom, and Mark Shaw running buoys with a baseball cap (no Schnitz, you weren’t the first) to keep the rain out of his eyes. I also remember the Mens 3 battle….it was Clinton Knox and Wayne VanWay. They were 2 of the best, and they were polar opposites on the water: VanWay was the first person I ever saw that could slam both his onside AND his offside turns. In fact, I believe he could slam his offside better! It was like watching a grizzly bear getting drug behind the boat. Clinton Knox didn’t do anything,…didn’t turn, didn’t pull…but made buoys. I think he might be Nate Smith’s grandpa or something.
Here’s the point: those guys were great skiers,..talented, dedicated, etc. But they weren’t the reason I wanted to become a Skier. The US Open was the seed planted….it was everything I needed as a kid looking for something to hold onto…and it was a pivotal moment in my “career”….the moment that sparked everything that was to come.
Exactly 20 years later, in 2007, I found myself standing on the dock at the US Open, shoulder to shoulder with the best skiers in the World. MasterCraft & Chris Sullivan had joined forces and pulled off one of the greatest water ski events I’ve ever been a part of. They brought the US Open to Disney. It was at night, under the lights, and it was a 4 buoy course. Yes, a 4 buoy course. I was fortunate enough to make the 6 man final, squeaking in by beating out Jeff Rodgers…one of the Legends that inspired my ski bug 20 years prior. The conditions were pretty tough: dark, rolly, lumpy,…unpredictable,…just how I like it. The boat ran its simulation pass, I pooped a little bit in my pants….and it was time.
6. Marcus Brown. I was the first skier off the dock. I only remembered flashes of passes from that final round…until I pulled out my technology. Luckily there’s a scorebook online, so after googling some stuff I remembered! that I somehow managed a score of 2 @ 39. I was sure that score wouldn’t hold up for a podium spot.
5. Drew Ross was next, he had placed 2nd at the World Cup in Ireland already that season, and he’d been running 41 off since I was in Jr Boys. 2 @ 39 was nothing for him….but he missed 38. I couldn’t believe it.
4. Thomas Moore up next. Going into that year, not many people knew about TMo,…near as we could figure, he was Canadian and could counter-rotate better than Amber Franc, but thats about all we knew. However, earlier in 2007 he’d also placed 2nd at the H2Osmosis ProSwerve in Charleston, SC, so everyone knew he was playing for keeps. Well, on this particular night, he looked smooth as silk and cruised his way thru 38…I knew he was good for another full pass. A few weeks before, TMo, myself, Beauchesne, Rossi and a few others had spent 3 days filming for Rossi’s movie Slash. TMo ran 41 at least 1 time that week, so I knew his potential. I started kinda packing my ski gear into my bag. But then, 2 @ 39!!! He tied me! Holy $hit, I thought.
3. Nick Parsons was next. Already that year, Nick had done the following: Won the Ski West Pro. Won the Princes ProAm in London (bastard beat me in the head to head final) Broke his ski in half during qualifying at the World Championships, drank half a cup of his own chew spit and swam across the River Thames and back on a dare,…and just a month before, he had a start at 41 that he should’ve ran, before his velcro boots ejected around 3, in North Carolina…our first pro event using ZeroOFF speed control. He was still skiing really well. But once again, at Disney, in the lumpy, shiny black boulder field, he too went down at 38…tying Drew Ross. 2 Skiers left! At about that time, TMo and I looked at each other and shook our heads….we couldn’t believe what was happening. Will Asher was 2nd seed.
2. Will Asher had already won the H2Osmosis ProSwerve that year. It had been 3 years since his first Pro victory in the US (Malibu Open), and he was someone who could beat anyone on any given sunday. TMo and I still had the lead at 2 @ 10.75m, and we knew if Will could get his ski around 2, there was absolutely NO WAY he’d get anything less than a piece of 3. He had the best 2,4 turns in the World. But somehow, yet again, the crud chewed up yet another skier at buoy 2, and Willy went down in the dark. *Thomas and I sensed a run-off coming.
1. Jamie Beauchesne was a living legend, and a good friend. He already had 4 wins in 2007, and hadn’t placed any worse than 3rd in any pro event. AND, he had tied the World Record earlier in the year with 2 @ 9.75m (43 off) before the IWSF denied the record, for seemingly shady reasons. But, he was a lefty. To win, he’d need to turn 2 and get a piece of 3. Luckily, he was a mutant….and could turn his offside as good as his onside. We were done…JB would take us down. From the far end of the lake, approaching the dimly lit waters at 10.75m, he did something weird on his gate approach. HUGE Wheelie at the first buoy, spray in his face, slack in the line…..not the start. At 2, the bumps were too much. His ski blew out, he tried to body slide and hang on…but couldn’t.
Thomas Moore and I were in a tie-break for 1st place!
Going out first, I was able to run 38 off cold. It wasn’t pretty though. Coming back at 39, the same direction that we’d all skied it in the final, I knew buoy 2 was going to be all or nothing….TMo could crush 39 on his second effort, and I knew I had to leave it all out there. I think I got lucky, because I blacked out at 2, slammed it as hard as I could, and somehow my ski stayed in the water. I ended up running the pass, and finishing with 1 at 10.25m (41 off). TMo looked so solid in that runoff. I’m not sure what happened at 39, but he was late at 3, and couldn’t finish the pass.
It was weird: I was standing at the end of the lake, bare feet in the wet florida grass….staring down the lake, lights half blinding me, thousands of people lining the waters edge….realizing that 20 years before and a couple hours away, I had been lucky enough to witness this very event, and be changed by that experience. I stood there in disbelief that I had won the US Open….hoping that my buddies and I had inspired some kids that night….hoping that we had sparked a light for the next generation.
8 years later, I’m worried about the future of Water Skiing.
Just last week, Nautique held the US Open in Orlando, FL. It was only the second time the US Open was held since I won in 2007. It seems whenever I win an event, it gets canceled the following year(s). [Moomba canceled in 2006]. Nautique finally resurrected the Open last year. Gold stars for them for sure.
However, this year was tough for me and many other “pros”. The Big Dawgs (think Senior/Masters Skiers) were included in the event for the first time ever. Fine, thats totally fine. BUT, the tough part is they got paid more than the Pro skiers. They got paid more than the best skiers in the world. AND they got paid more than the best Jumpers in the world….guys that literally put their lives on the line to jump 80 yards off a 6 ft ramp!! Whats even crazier than that, to me, is that NO ONE is speaking out about this. The BEST SKIERS IN THE WORLD are second fiddle to the “Senior Tour” skiers…and if it wasn’t for a few trusty sources, I wouldn’t even have had a clue that the Big Dawgs got paid more. Like its being kept secret or something. Why?
The disheartening thing about it all, what I’m getting at with this blog post, is that everything seems so backwards. On forums and message boards, people are crying out about the event…. the spectator turnout was poor, the format was wrong…..and they blame it on the fact that instead of a standard 6 buoy course, the event was run on a 4 buoy course! These are people I respect. Level headed people.
They don’t wanna watch skiers ski around only 4 buoys. They can’t relate. Its “not record capability”. And I hate to say it, but this mentality is the very thing that is holding our sport back.
4 buoy courses have allowed water skiing to go to many lakes and venues throughout the past 3 decades, that would have otherwise been off limits: Marine World, Boardstock, Disney, etc. And to take this discussion 1 step further, I believe this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Our sport needs to evolve. Big Dawgs and Senior Tours are not the evolution we need. Sure, its a short term fix, for industry leaders to go after the demographic that is currently buying the product. But its erasing the future….like Marty McFly when he makes out with his mom in Back to the Future. Kids do not look to Big Dawgs for inspiration. Parents don’t make kids wanna become water skiers. Professional skiers, the best of the best, light that fire…and inspire kids to want to be great. We, collectively (all of us, whether you write a check or simply don’t speak up) are cheating the next generation out of dreaming and daring to be great. The level of skiing among the best in the World, is higher than its ever been….yet the sport is lower than its ever been. In 1988, there were 13 CLWST (Coors Light Water Ski Tour) events in the US alone…I’m imagining each one, for Mens Slalom, had at least a $15k-20k prize purse. That’s $200,000+ up for grabs….adjusted for inflation thats nearly $500,000!!!
This year it looks like there may be 7 pro events for slalom…and believe it or not, organizers aren’t flashing their Prize money breakdowns all over the interwebs….so with some sketchy data, and with a generous guess of $15,000 per event for the 4 events I could not find data for, that gives approximately $84,000 total cash up for grabs in 2015 (looking strictly at Men’s Slalom)….less than 1/5th of what we had 3 decades ago.
More Food for Thought:
$17,000 – Approx 1987 price of a tournament ski boat ($35,000 in 2015 dollars)
$60,000 – Approx 2015 price of a tournament ski boat. (Almost double what it was 3 decades ago)
And 4 buoy courses are to blame? I’d say changing the course is a solution, not the problem…especially when it gives events the potential to place the show in front of real eyes, instead of backyard record capability lakes.
To move forward we need to look forward:
- What are we providing for the youth? What examples do they have to look up to? To aspire to? Are we promoting and investing in means to that end? I don’t think we’re doing as much as we, as an industry, could be. I think folks in control are too short sighted and bottom-dollar oriented.
- 6 buoy courses are here to stay, and will always serve as a yardstick with which future generations will measure themselves against those that came before them…
- But lets change shit up, and inject something new into this sport
- 4 buoy courses are not the reason people don’t wanna watch pro events like the US Open
- *if you’re one of those people that didn’t watch or didn’t like the US Open strictly because there were only 4 buoys, you are part of the problem.
- Media is the future, and none of the big 3 boat companies is doing much of anything ski related to tip the scale and evoke change. MasterCraft came the closest with their MC Throwdown, which was one of the biggest Television appearances for water skiing in decades….but it started and ended on the same day. More can be done, but no one, except HO Sports (not even a boat company) is willing to throw money at it to build stories, and characters, and showcase the lifestyle.
- There are a handful of Professional Skiers out there doing really cool things through media, but they can’t reach their full potential without help. The industry needs to show up, and start acting like they care again.
- webcast doesn’t count…..aside from diehard skiers, the impact is negligible.
- Marketing: The lower the marketing dollars spent on a Pro Event, the lower the return on investment for that event. Very little dollars are being spent anymore on marketing & promoting events, especially locally (on the ground) where the events are actually taking place. That has to change.
- Format: Water Ski Events are too long! In 2007, the US Open finals was a show that was less than 3 hours long. Change the course, change the format, reduce the number of skiers….whatever it takes to create something that is presentable. All day events do not work anymore.
- Unity: without some form of it, skiers cannot and will not have a hand in steering the ship. Without the skiers input, the majority of the decision makers are people that have been decision makers for as much as 40-50 years….thats a problem. But it can be fixed.
The sport can grow again….but the mentality and paradigm need to change. I hear a lot of people talk about not wanting the sport to grow….not wanting to have to share the lake with anyone else. Sometimes I, too, am guilty of that exact thinking. But thats gotta change if this activity we all love so much is ever going to reach more people…and capture the attention of the youth again.
Or maybe professional competitive skiing is not the future of the sport. Maybe competitive skiing in general has no future, or no growth in its future. I can promise you one thing, without a feeder mechanism….without new blood in the sport….it will continue to flatline years into the future. And it pains me to admit this, but I’m looking back at skiers like Glen Plake, Shane McConkey and Wendy Fisher for inspiration and ideas,…instead of Andy Mapple, Bob LaPoint and Carl Roberge. Not because they had better vision….but because they existed at a time, in Snow Skiing, that is much like the situation we find ourselves in with Water Skiing. They were forced to cultivate a new vision for their sport, and were pushed to exist outside the standard boundaries of what was acceptable…..and valuable. And in doing so, with the help of many others, they changed the face of Winter Sports for decades to come. Many lessons to be learned.
And I apologize to anyone out there, if my personal perspectives and truths may have offended you. I’m beyond offending people, if thats what it takes to re-kindle and re-focus discussions regarding how to grow the sport. If you wanna take it out on someone, you can curse Bob and Kris LaPoint, Carl Roberge, Jeff Rodgers, Andy Mapple and the rest of those guys that ignited the fire that led me to become a skier.
PS – You be the judge…..who counter-rotates better? TMo or Ambre Franc?