Bull riders have eight seconds to prove their worth. Barefoot water skiers get a whole 15 seconds. How good can barefooters get? Apparently good enough to be pulled by a plane.
The American Barefoot Club – dedicated to promoting the extreme sport of barefoot water skiing in the United States – doesn’t award badges to just anyone willing to jump off a dock being pulled at 44 miles per hour behind a 350-horsepower engine on water that, at that speed, feels more like cement. To officially become a barefooter in the American Barefoot Club, “footers,” as they’re called, need to be a member of USA Waterski and must ski on their feet long-line in front of an examiner for 15 seconds.
Beyond that – with the right mix of grace, power and, perhaps, just a little bit of crazy – footers can go farther and longer than the sport’s founders ever dreamed.
According to a 1992 edition of “Water Ski” magazine, Carole Lowe, then-executive director of the Water Ski Hall of Fame, credits American A.G. Hancock as the first person to attempt barefoot water skiing in 1947, but acknowledges that Dick Pope Jr. widely popularized the sport through film and photos in the 1950s.
Since then, the World Barefoot Council governs the sport, including the annual World Championships, and supports various worldwide federations from Europe and Africa to New Zealand and Australia. With more than 6,500 members from its start back in 1963, Barefoot Australia considers itself to be the leading organization for barefoot water skiing in the world today.
No one, it seems, is limited from competing.
In March of 2018, Sam Bell, 42, of Taralga, Australia, a one-legged footer, won gold in the New South Wales state barefoot championships – and did so against two-legged skiers. He lost his foot to leukemia at the age of 12, but that’s hardly stopped him. Having captured gold in his home country, Bell – believed to be the only one-legged competitive footer in the world – has his sights now set on the 2020 World Championships, which happen to take place in his own home water of Sydney.
Not that it didn’t take Bell a while to become one of the world’s best barefoot water skiers. Perseverance is one thing, but, yes, that water, at 70 kilometers per hour, does hurt his single bare foot.
“Yeah it does,” he easily admitted in a March 2018 interview with ABC Radio Sydney. “Your foot builds up resistance to the pressure against it. The best explanation I’ve heard is it’s like someone getting a pressure-washer that you wash your car with and spraying the bottom of your foot.”
At competitive levels, skiers can perform in slalom, figures and even ski jump on their bare feet at high speeds.
Oh, and barefoot water skiing while holding a rope attached to an airplane is a thing, too.
“It was a little hard to coordinate,” one of the innovators, Ben Groen said, according to Adventure Sports Network, adding that “it’s probably been done under a handful of times.” “There was a couple of trial-and-error runs there for sure, trying to get the rope at the right time. If we missed the rope the pilot was kind of committed to keep going. He’d have to fly up, do a loop and come back down again.”
No doubt, injuries occur in barefoot water skiing. Maybe an unpredictable patch of rough water gets in the way, or maybe a wipeout results from poor form by the footer. Perhaps, as a post on barefooterhq.com reasonably diagnosed, “a simple battle of physics occurs where you are the loser.”
“The most common Barefoot injury are those sustained to the lower legs, including the knee joint,” barefooterhq.com wrote. “Research has established that 35% of water ski injuries occur in the lower extremities, with one half of those injuries sustained to the knee. The execution of high speed surface turns and angular movements directs significant and often irregular forces into the knee, as do the high speed falls that create awkward angles of collision between the Barefooter’s body and the water surface.”
Experience is the best teacher of all.
“When you’re learning the sport,” Bell said, “you learn how to protect yourself I suppose when you’re going to crash or fall.”
The 2018 World Barefoot Water Ski Championships take place in August in Ontario, Canada.