World Champion: Skiing’s Most Sought After Title

Posted: April 8, 2014 by kirisyko in Water, Waterskiing
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World champion. The title alone carries a lot of weight, even if you know very little about competitive water skiing. It signifies greatness — best-skier-on-the-planet awesomeness. Since the World Water Ski Championships’ humble beginnings in Juan-les-Pins, France, in 1949, the sport’s largest amateur tournament has offered one of skiing’s most sought after titles, even though the prize doesn’t pay a penny.

“When I was a kid, I always dreamed of being a world champion,” says Whitney McClintock, who claimed five world gold medals at the 2009 and 2011 Worlds. “To me, it’s the most important title in our sport.”

Canada's Whitney McClintock consistent skiing earns her the silver medal in slalom and overall.

Thomas Degasperi, the 2007 and 2011 world slalom champ, agrees. “Since the tournament is held every two years, a world gold medal is pretty hard to beat as a trophy in your house,” he says. “Most ski fans remember the world champions.”

Held last November in San Bernardo, Chile, the 33rd World Water Ski Championships will go down in the record books as the most competitive Worlds event to date. Lago Los Morros, one of South America’s premier competitive venues, set the stage with utopic conditions for most of the five-day tournament, as four athletes claimed new world championship course records in slalom, trick and jump.

Although the biennial event has always lacked a cash purse, for some athletes, a Worlds win can mean a substantial payout. Degasperi, for example, receives a bonus of 20,000 euros — more than $27,000 — for a world gold medal courtesy of the Italian Water Ski Federation, which is relatively well funded by the Italian National Olympic Committee.

Other pro skiers feel lucky enough just to have some of their travel expenses covered by their federations and accept the fact that they likely won’t profit from the event. For newly crowned women’s world jump champ  Jacinta Carroll, “the title is priceless.” After winning the U-21 Worlds in jump and overall last September, she leapt 184 feet in Chile to claim her first elite world title. “My team’s funding from the Australian Sports Commission is limited, and it was cut once again last year,” she says. “We compete because we love the sport, not to make a living. It’s definitely a lifestyle choice, not an income.”

World jump champion Jacinta Carroll's tears of happiness. Photo: Des Burke-Kennedy.

Freddy Krueger, who captured his fifth Worlds jump title since 2003 with a gutsy come-from behind performance in Chile, shares a similar view as Carroll of the tournament’s draw. “It’s by far the least profitable event for me to attend, but my pride still urges me to travel the Worlds and defend my title,” he says.

Krueger, among a few of the sport’s other top athletes, is incentivized to compete with win bonuses from his sponsor. He really earned his money at the 2013 Worlds. His title defense didn’t come easy. He crashed two months before the competition at the American Water Ski Association towboat evaluation, sprained his ankles and bruised his ribs. His recovery was slow. “Although I felt OK physically, I was behind on my training and felt rusty going into the event,” Krueger says. His lack of water time was evident in the first round. He qualified for the finals on his last jump of three with a 212-footer and was seeded midpack for the championship round.

Krueger regrouped for the finals with a high-altitude 226-foot leap but was unsure if it was good enough to hold back Canadian powerhouse Ryan Dodd, who was the top seed with a 225- foot jump in the first round. “I certainly left the door open, but as Ryan said to me when it was over, I just made one less mistake than he did,” Krueger says. “Bruce Neville [’91 and ’95 world jump champion] once told me that when you retire, you won’t remember all of the individual pro event wins, but you will always remember winning at Worlds.”

Freddy Krueger scores his fourth consecutive world jump title and fifth overall. Photo: Geena Krueger

Many years from now, U.S. team member Nate Smith should have no problem recalling his first career Worlds win, nor his epic 2013 season for that matter. The 23-year-old lit up the Chilean course in the qualifying round with a tournament high of 5 at 41 off , and then, as the top seed in the final with three skiers scoring 3 at 41 off before him, Smith kept his cool and confidently skied to 3.5 buoys at 41 off to take the title. “Breaking the world record [2.5 at 43 off ] and winning a world title all in the same year are the two greatest accomplishments of my career,” Smith says.

Adding to Smith’s memorable experience in Chile was his role in helping Team USA capture its first Worlds team victory since 2007. “It was a lot different than just competing as an individual,” he says. “I always felt like there was someone to take care of me if I needed anything. It was my first time skiing on a team, and to have my score count for a USA gold medal means a lot.”

Team USA athlete Nate Smith can now add "world champion to his already impressive resume. Photo: Jim Jaquess

Belarus’ Aliaksei Zharnasek is another pro skier that certainly understands the significance of a Worlds victory. He says that the top Belarusian athletes are supported quite well by their government, but a top-three finish is necessary to gain support. “Otherwise you get almost nothing,” Zharnasek says.

No pressure.

As the top seed of the event, Zharnasek knew exactly what score would deliver him his third consecutive world title. Although his winning 11,520-point total run was relatively safe, he admits it was a formidable challenge. “It’s quite hard mentally to go out and perform at Worlds when you’re expected to win,” he says. “I just felt that my experience paid of, and I knew exactly what I needed to do.”

As the youngest newly crowned world champion, 18-year-old Team USA competitor Erika Lang is no stranger to international competition. In 2013, she emerged as the world’s best trick skier with a new world record of 10,180 points and titles in the junior and elite ranks in three countries. “My mind-set doesn’t really change for junior competitions versus pro events because every time I go out, I’m just trying to perform better than I ever have before,” she says. With her first world trick win in the bag at such a young age, Lang will have a good opportunity to surpass the record number of four world trick titles shared by Anna Maria Carrasco and Tawn Larsen Hahn.

A little over one month after breaking the world trick record, 18-year-old Erika Lang flips her way to her first world title. Photo: Geena Krueger

Another elite athlete that knows how to perform during high-pressure tournament situations is U.S. team skier Regina Jaquess. The 33rd World Water Ski Championships marked her continued domination in the slalom event, as she has remained undefeated since May 2012 by winning her second career world slalom title since 2005 while raising the world tournament record to 1 at 41 off in the process. “In the months leading up to the Worlds, a few of the open women’s skiers gave me a little extra motivation to prove that I can run 39 of behind any professional driver at any site,” Jaquess says.

As a full-time pharmacist who moonlights as a pro skier, she was determined to win her third overall world title, having won in 2003 and 2005. Jaquess creatively worked her training around her busy work schedule at Emerald Coast Compounding Pharmacy in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida. Focused sets before and after work leading up to the competition made the difference for her in Chile, and she delivered clutch performances in the trick and jump events, earning fourth and fifth place, respectively.

Regina Jaquess captured her third world overall gold and second slalom title in Chile.

“It’s pretty amazing for me to look back at my Worlds experience and realize I’ve reached the podium in every event, won every discipline except jump,” she says. “But don’t count me out just yet. Ron Goodman [jump-ski manufacturer] hooked me up with a new set of jumpers, and I’m working on going farther.” Spoken like a true champion — always striving for the next rung.

Perhaps no other competitor at last year’s World Championships was more ecstatic than Chilean team skier Felipe Miranda. “I trained so hard for the event for such a long time,” he says. “To be able to win the [overall] title in my country with my people is the best feeling ever!”

With the event hosted at his family ski school located 30 minutes from downtown Santiago, the pressure of performing in front of his family and friends and defending his home turf didn’t faze him. His top scores of 2 at 39 1/2 off in slalom, 9,710 points in trick and a 215-foot jump really highlight his consistency across the board. Miranda’s big win helped catapult him to the top of the list of celebrated athletes in Chile. He was named the best Chilean athlete of the year in 2013 out of all sports by Chilean journalists and was praised by Chilean President Sebastian Pinera as being “an example to millions of boys and girls in Chile.”

2013 World overall champion Felipe Miranda. Photo: Angel Esquerre

Miranda’s victory also earned him some considerable airtime on CNN Chile and Fox Sports, among several other Chilean sports channels. “It was really cool to do live interviews and introduce competitive water skiing to many new people,” he says. He told CNN Chile, “It was a personal ambition, but my family and many other people shared in the many years of hard work, which led to this triumph.”

As one of water skiing’s longest running events, the World Water Ski Championships will likely continue to be one of the sport’s most coveted titles, regardless of financial incentive.


World Water Ski Championships

The U.S. Water Ski Team returned to its winning ways at the 33rd World Water Ski Championships in convincing style, with all six members earning valuable points to help the United States (8,248.66 points) defeat Canada (7,762.91 points) and France (7,759.43 points), which placed second and third, respectively. It was the U.S. team’s first win since the 2007 Worlds in Austria, and it marked the 26th time the United States has won gold at the biennial event. The team included (top row, from left) Erika Lang, Regina Jaquess, Alex Lauretano, (bottom row, from left) Adam Pickos, Nate Smith and Scot Ellis. Also representing Team USA was coach Jef Surdej, manager Jody Johnson and physician Brad Harman.

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