As I was winding down with my competition career and co-producing the last of the Flight Worlds competitions, others stepped in. The biggest deal in the event arena was the Hydrofoil Pro Tour spearheaded by John Clemmons with help from Bryan Steele.
Clemmons thought that a different marketing approach could be just the thing to put hydrofoiling squarely in the middle of the extreme sports explosion in the early 2000s. He wanted to try and appeal the younger crowd, and thought there should be a greater emphasis on big air in competition. He also wanted to hold the hydrofoiling competitions in conjunction with established events that were already in place.
Clemmons approached Bryan Steele with his idea and the two men decided to team up and create the Hydrofoil Pro Tour. Steele had already established foilfreaks.com as the premier website for all things foiling. Foilfreaks.com was the first site to really use the new power of the web to share words and images of all the latest foiling news as soon as it happened. I think his biggest benefit was posting videos showing tricks. Foilfreaks.com had it all, from basic instruction and intermediate inverts to the latest new moves. If something was happening in hydrofoiling, you could always find it at foilfreaks.com.
Clemmons had the connections, and Steele had the organizational base. Together they started the Mike Murphy Pro Hydrofoil Tour in 2002. John’s most inspirational idea was to bring the event to the people, so the first three stops were held as part of the Florida Fly-In, Tennessee Fly-In, and Flight Worlds in Arizona. Competitors loved the event and there was a groundswell of support.
In 2004 the Hydrofoil Pro Tour was on Outdoor Life Network
With a successful first season under their belts, Clemmons and Steele decided to take the Tour much bigger. John secured Host Marriot as the title sponsor for 2003, and all 4-stops were televised on the Outdoor Life Network. The world’s best pro riders battled it out in front of some of the largest crowds ever to see a hydrofoiling competition. Geno Yauchler, Todd Kyser, and Jake Bradley vied for the top three men’s positions while Sandy Bertha and MJ Pohl were the top two females. Hundreds of thousands of spectators saw amazing performances at giant festivals, in between hydroplane boat races, and in conjunction with the Pro Wakeboard Tour.
Jake Bradley acknowledges the crowd during the Hydrofoiling Pro Tour
Host Marriott Pro Hydrofoil Tour 2003
As foilers, we always dreamed of the day that our sport would be featured in extreme events such as the X-Games and Gravity Games. John Clemmons had an inside connection with Peter Fleck, two-time X-Games gold medalist in barefooting and producer of the wakeboarding at the Gravity Games. With that help, Damon Moore and Jake Bradley foiled as exhibition acts for a couple of years at the Gravity Games. But in the mid 2000s these big extreme events tightened their venues, and even wakeboarding was dropped. Our dreams of a shot on the worldwide stage slipped away yet again.
Hydrofoiling was loosing momentum, and pressure of organizing the Pro Tour was growing. Clemmons and Steele split. Then, an expensive video produced by Clemmons to support the Pro Tour never reached its intended audience. 2005 was the final season of the Host Marriott Pro Hydrofoil Tour.
From about 2000 on there was a lot of talk about trying to organize hydrofoiling, but for years there was little action. As the competition director of Flight Worlds from 1996-2003, I decided on formats and made critical decisions regarding the competition rules for Flight Worlds, and by default for hydrofoiling itself. I always looked to uncle Mike, Ron Stack, and Mike Mack for their experienced opinions, but I was basically the guy making the ultimate decisions. Not everyone agreed with me as the “benevolent dictator.” I tried to use the Wisdom of Solomon by seeking fairness and providing a wide range of formats that allowed riders with different styles to have a shot at victory.
There was a time when one guy could run the show, but the creation of the Hydrofoiling Pro Tour was the tipping point that signaled it was time for a group to take over. The real legacy of the Pro Tour was about to begin: the push to create an organized body to govern hydrofoiling.
Peter Fleck came out to Arizona in 2002 to see the Hydrofoil Pro Tour stop held in conjunction with Flight Worlds. Clemmons and Steele were looking for guidance, and Fleck was an industry insider with sage advice. Fleck suggested it was time to legitimize hydrofoiling by forming a governing body, much like barefooting had done in the 1970s. He thought that USA Water Ski was the parent organization that could best help hydrofoiling.
Clemmons and Steele took his advice, and decided to move forward under the name of the United States Hydrofoiling Association (USHA). Now they just needed to build the organization.
At the end of 2002 Steele began working with Steve McDermeit, executive director of USA Water Ski. Steele submitted a set of hydrofoiling bylaws adapted from those already in place for wakeboarding. Clemmons and Steele were still in the thick of running the Hydrofoiling Pro Tour, so they thought about who else was qualified to become USHA’s first president.
Brad Scott accepted their offer of the presidency, and the first board was assembled. Members included Clemmons, Scott Honkala, Geno Yauchler, Todd Kyser, MJ Pohl, Jake at Sky Ski, and Bambi at Air Chair. I wanted a smooth transition of power to the new group and volunteered for the Competition Committee. I made all the rules and formats from Flight Worlds available for USHA to use in whatever way they saw fit.
The advent of email made communications easy, and a consensus was born. Brad Scott liaised with Jeff Clark at USA Water Ski. Clark was instrumental in identifying the hoops USHA needed to jump through to become a sports discipline under the umbrella of USA Water Ski. The flaming hoop with the big prize was signing up 400 USHA members, about 2% of the total membership for USA Water Ski.
One of the first orders of business was the creation of a ranking system. In short order it was done, and riders across the country could see how they stacked up against each other. Geno Yauchler and MJ Pohl stood at the top in 2003.
When the basic requirements were in place, Phil Dixon and Geno Yauchler made USHA’s presentation to USA Water Ski. Phil made a speech to the full board of USA Water Ski including representatives from the sports disciplines including 3-event, barefooting, show skiing, ski racing, and several others. Phil felt as if he was under the microscope, and in many ways he was. The panel was decidedly split about allowing hydrofoiling to join as a sport discipline.
After an agonizing wait in the other room while the board members decided hydrofoiling’s fate, Phil and Geno were brought back in to learn that the USHA was accepted as an affiliate sport. It was basically probation for two years while hydrofoiling went on a membership drive to prove its worth to USA Water Ski.
The magic number of 439 USHA members was obtained in 2004, and the United States Hydrofoiling Association was accepted as a full sports discipline in January of 2005. Being a sport discipline in USA Water Ski went a long way to legitimize hydrofoiling. Obtaining insurance for events became even easier. Hydrofoiling received consistent coverage in The Water Skier, the USA Water Ski magazine. Brian Steele even became the first foiler to receive a cover shot on a major US water ski publication. In early 2005 Steele’s strut grab gainer was front-page news that hydrofoiling had arrived. In the years that have followed USHA established itself as just one of the gang under the umbrella of USA Water Ski.
Hydrofoiling grew up hand in hand with the proliferation of World Wide Web, and the dissemination of information has changed as the Internet grew. It was purely word of mouth when someone made a new trick in the early days. Now it is often posted moments after completion. The Internet made it much easier for niche groups such as hydrofoilers to find each other, share news, and form a vibrant community. In the beginning it was the AirJunky.com listbot from Bill Kinnison and company. Brian Steele was the next big thing with his foilfreaks.com. In 2010 Brian Shoemaker led the way with foilforum.com. The USHA continues to maintain an online presence at hydrofoil.org. Bill Curley acts as Webmaster with considerable help from MJ Pohl. Of course YouTube and similar sites have been an outlet for foilers all around the world to post the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The proliferation of the web also allowed for an innovative new way to compete. Brian Steele at foilfreaks.com was the first to put together an online video contest in 2005, complete with a cash prize of ten million! Riders were invited to put together their best five minutes of video, edited to their heart’s delight. The contest resulted in the presentation of several new tricks, and some of the best riding ever seen. Todd Kyser took the top prize, and was awarded the cash prize of ten million Turkish lire, bought on eBay by Steel for seventeen dollars! Since then the USHA followed suit with an online video contest of their own.
Todd Kyser’s winning video submission
The next foiling event to utilize new technology was Geno Yauchler’s “Chain Reaction”, held at Cypress Gardens in Florida. The two-day event with a $20,000 purse was broadcast live on the web. Chain Reaction was a “camera fest” and was also broadcast on the now defunct Water Channel.
Geno’s kept the competitions going with his Chain Reaction event in 2007
When hydrofoiling was recognized as an official sport discipline it also received its first acknowledgement inside the Water Ski Hall of Fame in Polk City, Florida. The multi-million dollar complex is the repository for the long and storied history of water skiing and all its varied aspects. Both Geno and Mike represented foiling with giant banner sized pictures adorning the walls inside the Hall of fame. They are part of a panorama of skiers all riding different things.
Further recognition came in 2009 when Mike Murphy was awarded the Award of Distinction from the Water Ski Hall of Fame, mainly for his contributions as the co-inventor of both the sit down hydrofoil and kneeboard. In preparation for the 2009 induction ceremony USHA scrambled to get a case on display inside the Hall of Fame, with the help of donor and builder Cliff Woodman.
Several members of our family made the trip to Florida to honor Mike at the Hall of Fame ceremonies. A mixer was held at the Hall of Fame on the night before the big event, and we got to see the new hydrofoiling case for the first time. MJ Pohl gathered key items in the history of foiling including a custom medal from the Flight Worlds, a Cinch Maxseat belt, a photo of my family with four generations riding behind one boat, and a digital frame loaded with over 400 photos.It looked as if hydrofoiling had finally taken its place in water skiing history.
4 generations with grandma Murphy, uncle Nick, and my son K2. (Gunstenson, 2002)
>Next Chapter: AIR WARS
Images (used with permission)
“Adventures in Water Skiing: Part 3, Hydrofoiling – Cover,” photo: Ian Lauder, 1999.
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