Grin and bare it
We humans have a knack for doing things that are utterly unnatural to our biology. That's just our nature - or un-nature.
For example, I'm sure Orville and Wilbur Wright got some confused looks from birds the first few go-arounds near Kitty Hawk.
Crow: Um, excuse me, sir.
Crow: You're not supposed to be up here.
Orville: Really? Because we just invented this cool, new contraption that ...
Crow: I'm going to peck your eyes out now.
Now there are few places we don't go, from deep seas, to the sky, to outer space and into the inner workings of atoms.
Nowhere is this influence of the human race into places we probably shouldn't be (or shouldn't be doing) stronger than in the sports world. Consider the marathon: About 2,500 years ago, or so the myth goes, a Greek dude named Pheidippides was sent from a battlefield to Athens to relay a message about the Greeks kicking some Persian tail. So he ran. It was a long way to go, about 26.2 miles.
And then, the myth concludes, Pheidippides died. Did we look at what he did and say, "Wow, a brave man - yet, foolish. Surely we should never run that far!" Nope. Now we do it on weekends, with bands at each mile, and beer at the finish line instead of a coffin.
Or consider NASCAR: When racing great Dale Earnhardt died in a crash that saw his car slam into a wall at about 160 mph, did we humans all stop racing? No! We made those cars slower and safer, then continued to sell oodles of tickets - to watch them crash.
And then there's barefoot skiing. The past couple of years my buddy Lynn Johnson had talked at length about this sport. Sure, I'd seen it ... on ESPN 6, right after the Tahitian National Bowling semifinals. It's not exactly the world's most popular sport.
This is understandable. While waterskiing looks graceful and dynamic, and wakeboarding the coolest thing since snowboarding took over snow, barefoot skiing looks - well, it just looks painful. My vision of barefooting is that 80-something-year-old guy the Wild World of Sports featured back in 1987. Sure, he looked great. But he also looked crazier than Charlie Sheen on a drinking binge.
I think it's apropos that the most famous guy-on-water we have in our collective history was divine. In other words, doesn't this seem unnatural?
Lynn dropped me an e-mail the other day, asking me if I wanted to check out some local barefooters doing their thing. Really? There are more of you? Yeah, I wrote back. I could go for that. But I'd be staying in the boat, thanks.
As with any other sport that's more than a couple of years old, barefoot waterskiing has matured well beyond being waterskiing's geeky cousin. Barefooting has its own rules, its own specifically designed boats, superstars, championship competitions and more.
According to barefooting historian John Gillette, the sport developed in Cypress Gardens, Fla. In 1947, Dick Pope, a world champions waterskier, was the first person recorded as a barefooter, stepping out of his skis while holding onto a training boom on his boat.
Three years later, he and Mexican competitor Emilio Zamudio went foot-to-foot in the first recorded barefooting competition.
The 33rd national championship (33rd!) was at Mystic Lakes in Maize, Kan., in July, where more than 100 barefooters of ages 9-80+ competed for water walking glory.
I met Lynn and our fellow watersports folks early one chilly October morning as they prepped for an extended outing at either Lake Crescent or Lake Sutherland. As Lynn informed me, Crescent is better overall because it's much bigger and runs can be nearly as long as you want, while Sutherland makes up for lack of size with being much calmer, almost glassy.
We met up with Mike Brisco, a 63-year-old Sequim barefooter who's competed well at national barefooting events and has a national age group to show for it. We also met up with Sean Hanson, a 31-year-old Sequim waterskier and James Kauffman, a 24-year-old wakeboarder from Port Angeles.
Maybe it was just talk, but Sean and James seemed to regard barefooting as a little crazy. They seemed much more comfortable with some sort of skiing device under them.
They picked Sutherland, opting for what turned out to be an almost perfectly glassy surface and modestly lukewarm morning. Applying wet or dry suits - no one was going to bare much of anything other than feet, not on this fall day - the skiers let me know I was going to be in for an education. And so I was.
Going in feet first
Brisco, the grizzled veteran of the group, first showed how easy getting started on one's bare feet can be. His powerboat, specifically designed for barefooting, comes equipped with a boom, or extended bar, off the port side upon which he can wrap a short rope and handlebar. Starting from either a belly-up or on-his-back position, Brisco spun deftly to his feet and was up in mere moments. Recalling my few experiences with water skiing (mostly crashes), I half-expected Mike to gush water from his innards. Instead, he had the biggest grin I'd ever seen on a barefooter in my life. OK, the only grin I'd seen from a barefooter. But he looked happy.
What strikes me about the whole sport are a couple of things.
First the speed. Waterskiers can go comfortably between 20-30 mph. These barefooters were at speeds between 40-44 mph. Meaning: you fall, you hurt. Badly. Hopefully it's more of a fall-on-your-back sort of thing, where all that energy is displaced over distance and the end water-swallowing is minimal. More feared, I imagine, is the face-plant.
Second, and maybe it's because Mike is a veteran, is how comfortable he looked. Filming and photographing him from eight feet away (comfortably in the boat, thanks) Brisco looked entirely comfortable and natural. Well, actually, he was hamming it up for the camera with tricks and sticking his tongue out and making other faces.
Next up, Lynn wanted to show how it was to start off a dock. Um, what?
Starting from a dock looks absolutely as difficult as it sounds, although Lynn seemed unfazed from the start. At nearly the same time as the boat took off, Lynn jumped nimbly into the water and, after a short while, was up on his feet, showing off trick after trick.
Barefooting tricks are a mixed bag in terms of degree of difficulty and water-swallowing potential, from tumble turns and surface hops to backward starts and wake crossings. Some competitions see barefooters going off ramps and traveling as far as 90 feet.
Eventually I did see a face-plant (sorry, Lynn) but for the most part Lynn and Mike were fairly graceful, if not insane.
Hanson and Kauffman followed the barefoot pair with more traditional activities - single ski waterskiing and wakeboarding, both showing off some impressive skills - but keeping some sort of material between them and the water speeding by.
I mused that this must be the last day of the season. Hardly, my water sport enthusiasts commented. When the weather is reasonable (and at 50-55 degrees and mostly dry, that seemed reasonable) our local lakes are fair game.
These two barefooters cheat, though. When they can, Mike and Lynn hit the road for national and world championship competitions. In fact, Lynn has used his expertise with cameras to install them in the back of boats, so people who attend these events actually can see the tricks these barefeet fiends are doing.
And that is exactly where I would be for the rest of this day - behind the camera. The crew naturally wanted to throw me out on the water sans shoes, shirt and medical insurance, but I declined. We wordsmiths have brittle bones, little coordination and a bad habit of becoming the story. Plus, it's tough to write underwater.