Before I was born, my parents lived in Charleston, S.C. Dad flew C-141s there, and they had a boat and several sets of wooden water skis. Dad would go waterskiing, doing slalom. Mom would drive the boat. Then, they’d switch places, and he’d pull her on a pair of skis.
A few years later, I came along, and two years after that, my little brother. We never got to live in Charleston, but every summer, we’d get together for a week with two other couples my folks knew from the Air Force, and we’d spend a week on a lake in South Carolina or Alabama skiing and fishing. I was always amazed to watch the process of my enormous dad (he’s 6’3” and over 200 pounds) getting up on one ski. As soon as my folks felt like I was old enough, I tried their sport, too.
I started by holding onto an oar held between my dad’s knees while he held the back of my life preserver with one hand and the tips of my miniature skis with the other. I’d ride alongside the boat in this manner until my old man grew tired of holding me up. I think I was 3 or 4.
A couple years later, dad screwed some brackets into the tips and ends of a pair of wooden Bronco Combo skis that were painted white and had pictures of bucking broncos in front of each shoe fitting. He connected the tips and ends with short ropes. Then he tied a ski rope handle to the rope that bound the tips, and he ran the rest of the ski rope from the tips of my skis to the boat. That way, the boat pulled my skis, and I pulled up my tips. This was how I skied as a young boy, about the age my son is now.
A couple years later, I started waterskiing using a regular ski rope and handle, and shortly after that, I ditched the Bronco Combo all together, and I used a set of Dick Pope, Jr. Cypress Garden wooden skis that weren’t roped together at all. After that, I was itching to try and slalom like my dad. I was 10 years old.
Dad gave me his grooved El Diablo slalom and asked the question one asks a kid who wishes to start slalom water skiing: “Don’t you want to try and drop one first? Getting up on one is hard.”
So, I tried getting up on two and dropping a ski without falling. I tried several times and fell. Time after time … failure.
“Can’t I just try and get up on one ski, Daddy?”
“You can try, but we only have a few more days of vacation, and it took me all summer to learn how to get up on one!”
A few tries later, I was doing it. A few weeks later, a friend gave dad an EP slalom – it was black, was composite instead of wooden, and it had a concave bottom. It was too small for my 6’3” father, so he handed it to me.
“Think you can handle this?”
It was a man’s ski. I loved it.
For the first time in my life, I was able to do something that was athletically better than any of my peers. Birthday parties, spend-the-night parties, and summer outings became waterskiing parties (we’d moved to a house on Old Hickory Lake when I was 8). I loved the chance to show my peers what I could do on the water since I was always upstaged on the field or the court. I got a subscription to “Waterski” magazine; I watched competitions on TV.
When my folks got into their mid-40s, they pretty much stopped skiing (especially after dad had back surgery), but my father was still willing to pull my brother and me if it wasn’t too hot out. I continued to love the sport into high school, though outings became less frequent.
The last time I remember waterskiing with friends was the day after I graduated from college in 1997. A bunch of us went to my friend’s house on Lake Weiss, Alabama for the weekend, and it was like I’d never stopped. I still had it.
After that, I moved to Atlanta and was nowhere near water. There were a couple outings with the Air National Guard at Tims Ford State Park on a lake, but to the best of my recollection, I didn’t ski at all in my 30s.
Two weekends ago, we visited my parents to celebrate my dad’s 70th birthday on Lake Guntersville, Alabama. A few days before, I’d turned 39.
“Dad, think your boat could pull me up?”
“Do you know where my old EP is?”
“I think I need to wet a board, then!”
An hour later, I found myself 75 feet behind a 175hp motor attached to a Triton as my 5-year-old son looked on from the passenger seat, and my 70-year-old dad idled. My 7-year-old and 4-year-old daughters sat watching with my mother and wife in the pontoon boat toward the shore.
I gave the “thumbs up.” I pushed hard against the water with my back leg and tried to let the boat pull me up, but I’m 25 pounds heavier than I was the last time I skied, and my hands aren’t as strong. The rope jerked out of my hands.
Three more attempts at waterskiing got similar results, so I changed my grip on the rope handle to a baseball bat grip – left palm down, right palm up.
And on my fifth attempt at waterskiing, I got up.
And I stayed up.
I crossed the right wake toward the pontoon boat where the girls were. I crossed back.
After a few minutes, we turned around and returned to the area where the pontoon boat was (and my wife’s camera). My back was killing me; my hamstrings were aching, and my hands were barely able to continue clutching the handle, so I tossed it into the air.
And it felt wonderful.
I was sore for a full week afterward, but I can’t wait to try it again when I’m in my 40s. And, if he’s willing, I’d love to watch my dad teach my children to ski like he did for me and several of my childhood friends. It’s a 2.5 hour drive to Lake Guntersville, but it’d be worth every minute if it makes them half as happy as it did me at their ages.
Editor’s Note: A version of this post first appeared on Dadcation.