13: ROAD WARRIOR
The 1980s were a whirlwind of shows, competitions, photo shoots, and all the craziness that comes with being single and on the road.
Rick Skinner, the Midwest rep for HO, took me on a 10-day tour of Michigan and Wisconsin, don’t you know.
We hit the road to call on Rick’s dealers over the region. Munson Marine in Illinois was an important stop. They had a giant showroom filled with dozens of boats stacked up on the walls. Fort Freemont in Wisconsin was everything a guy in his 20s could want. The huge weekend sale and bash was backed up with a live band, raging party, and ski show on the river. At one of our stops Rick organized my first autograph signing, which he’ll never let me forget to this day. We went to the Indianapolis Speedway where we stood on the track at the brick inlaid start/finish line. In other cities we entertained dealers at the local bars and restaurants. Rick and I laughed it up at a comedy club during the Lansing Tour Stop. We cruised the clubs on Rush Street in Chicago. All expenses were on HO, thanks Herb! Hanging out with “Shredder” was always a kick.
Eddie Roberts, the HO Competition Director, was always entertaining. For years he had me convinced that government spies were following us. He messed with me, and I did my best to get him back. The only thing that ever messed with his head was the boogers I put on the rear view mirror of his rental car. In Shreveport, at the Water Ski Nationals, we got into a wrestling match. He had fifteen years on me in age, but more than enough in street experience. In nothing flat I was on the ground with a broken Swatch. That was the last time I wore a watch. Another time in San Diego with Eddie and a large group from HO, I spontaneously pretended to choke at a crowded restaurant. He knew I was messing around, but played along. Eddie came around to my back and performed the “Hindlick” maneuver. I coughed up a big chunk of steak, much to the horror and relief of the other diners. Fun with meat!
The annual HO party was another event we always looked forward to. Before the bash we had the annual sales meeting. All the reps came in from around the country to get fired up for the following year. HO was such an industry leader that the unveiling of the new line was always one of the year’s highlights. We were among the first who saw the next great things in skiing, whether it was an innovative design, brand new way to ride, or trend setting graphics. HO was always groundbreaking in the industry.
Herb Always Led the Way, This Time with Trendsetting Graphics. At the HO Factory with Herb O’Brien, Jack Sappenfield, Brian Gardener & Eddie Roberts, 1987
Saturday was party day, and we were always on the water. Everyone from the company was invited for food, fun, and of course, skiing. The energy was tremendous. People loved working for Herb, and it felt like a great big family. The festivities continued with the more intimate evening party at Herb’s house. Volleyball, pool, ping-pong, and basketball were the appetizers, and barbequed salmon filets were the main course.
On one such weekend Herb took about 20 of us out for dinner at the Space Needle. We rode the high-speed elevator to 500 feet above Seattle, and stepped into the slowly revolving restaurant. I brought my wife Shonna and we were dazzled with the panoramic view of the city skyline and Mount Rainer. The food was fabulous and the fellowship was even better. It was deeply satisfying to enjoy the spoils of victory as a member of a winning team. We had the best of everything.
In the late 1980s there was a concerted effort by the American Water Ski Association to prepare itself for another try at the Olympics. Water skiing was a demonstration sport at the 1972 Munich Games, and Ricky McCormick was the USA standout with two gold medals in slalom and tricks. The AWSA was doing its part to position water skiing for another shot at the Olympic Games. One of the things AWSA needed to do was grow, and they did it by adding several new sport divisions. Barefooting, show skiing, and kneeboarding were just a few of the disciplines that came under the umbrella of the AWSA. When the American Kneeboarding Association came under the umbrella of the American Water Ski Association in 1998 it signaled a change in kneeboarding.[i] The American Kneeboarding Association tightened up the reigns on the way tournaments were organized and run. While some of the down home fun was lost in the transition, the AKA gained a powerful ally with the AWSA. Event insurance was one of the huge benefits. The national recognition with the governing body for US water skiing helped too. AKA membership grew quickly over the next few years. The dream of kneeboarding at the Olympics didn’t seem so farfetched because kneeboarding was still the hottest thing on water.
In 1989 I managed to climb the ladder once more time to the top of the kneeboarding world. Things were a lot different for me personally. I was in school studying full time to become a chiropractor with almost 30 units per trimester. I went to school during the day, and worked on the L.A. Harbor docks at night. I studied whenever I could, and didn’t get in much training.
I was not the best rider that weekend in Oklahoma City, but the weather was on my side. It was windy and the water was rough. I was ecstatic.
I grew up skiing on the West Coast where water access was limited, and there were lots of people vying for limited space. The Colorado River and the Marine Stadium were great places for showing off, but the water was often rough. When I did get to train, it was usually in the bumps and waves. The rough Oklahoma City conditions suited me perfectly. Not so for the boys from Florida. They had lakes galore, and miles of flat water. Most everyone complained about the poor conditions, but I was ready to ride.
On the first day there was a strong headwind down the slalom course. The maximum number of passes you could make was five, so I opted to end my run with a final pass at 35 off into the headwind. That meant starting at 15 off, a pass that open riders never bothered with. Sometimes strategy, not skill, was the deciding factor in competition. As a cagey veteran I made all five passes and won the slalom.
Everyone else was so far behind going into the second day, that all I had to do was a conservative run. That was perfect for the rough water conditions. Mark Ritchart, Mario Fossa, and Ted Bevelacqua had to stick with their big runs to catch up, which were made even tougher by the wind and waves.
It was my last Nationals overall victory, and I knew it was time to hang it up as a kneeboard competitor. At 28 I had other mountains to climb and the riding level was getting beyond my desire to keep up with. The risk to return ratio was not to my liking. It wasn’t worth abusing myself to try and win something I had already won three times.
After Winning the 1989 National Overall Title I Scored This Ad, 1990
My experiences with the AKA were phenomenal. Kneeboarding was new and we were young. The guys I came up with were part of a special group who literally invented a new sport day by day. We had fun being the acrobatic stars of the water skiing world. It was our 15 minutes of kneeboarding fame.
The pressure to win was off, so I returned to my roots of riding for fun. Next up on the free riding schedule was the 1990 filming for Water Ski Magazine’s Kneeboard Authority. HO was the sponsor of the instructional video, so HO Team kneeboarders Ted Bevelacqua, Bebe Anderson, and I were the featured kneeboarders.
The Kneeboard Authority was A Popular Video That was Promoted Heavily in WaterSki Magazine, 1990
VIDEO LINKS: “The Kneeboard Authority”
Before we got going, Guy “F not a P” Filip pulled me aside. He wanted to know if I would give up top billing for Ted Bevelacqua. I was a little surprised, just coming off my 3rd overall title. The burning desire I had to win, and stay on top had carried over to this project. It’s a fine line between confidence and cockiness. But it wasn’t long before I came to my senses: it felt right to step aside “for the team”. I may have had more recent success in competition than Ted, but he was admittedly a better free rider.
For years Ted was known for his stylish riding and big air. He pioneered big hits off other boats wakes while growing up on the Intracoastal Waterway in Florida. It was astounding to watch videos of him throwing massive rolls off head high stern rollers from a series of oncoming boats. It was nice to have the big moves for the video, but his distinctive style was important too. It was easy to see his roots in surfing as he rode the kneeboard.
During filming for The Kneeboard Authority, Ted pulled off dozens of his signature move, the back-to-back 720. He made the two complete spins with a single handle pass that looked so effortless. I knew it wasn’t.
The massive photo boat and wake from the crew at Florida Film & Tape was a real launching pad. All of us aired it out, but Ted took everything a notch bigger. His layouts were sky high, and he was in the hunt to be the first one to ride away from a double back roll. He tried at least a dozen, and the crashes were brutal. On a few he was oh so close. “You gotta love to crash!” was his mantra for the video, and he definitely lived up to it. Bebe Anderson, top woman’s rider was our third, and we all had a great time riding and filming. Bright colors were still in, and the real film footage looked spectacular. A lot of our best shots also ended up in commercials for the Michelob Dry Pro Tour and all around the industry. Back then I believed that Mountain Dew and Milky Ways were a key to my success, and maybe they actually were.
The next stop in my ongoing adventures in water skiing was a tour of England. The British Water Ski Federation wanted to kick start their kneeboarding program, so they flew me “across the pond” to do clinics and demos at four of their big clubs.
Water ski clubs were huge in England. Rather than own a boat, people joined these big groups that provided everything. The sites were controlled so conditions were good unless the weather was uncooperative. The biggest advantage I saw at these clubs was the camaraderie of a shared hobby. It reminded me of being part of an amateur show team.
Hundreds of genuinely excited people turned out for the kneeboarding events, even though it was often rainy and cloudy. The Brits had a short season, and they made the best of it.
I traveled by train between stops, all by myself in a foreign country. At least everything was in English. I managed to find my way around, even tough I took one train 50 kilometers too far. I stayed in people’s homes during the week and a half long trip, and was treated to wonderful hospitality. There was lots of meat, warm fires, and great conversation. Of course the trip wouldn’t have been complete without a few trips to smoky pubs for a few of pints of thick, foamy beer.
The organizers were very pleased with the results, and we generated excitement about kneeboarding. Water Ski International, the London based magazine, mentioned the clinics for years to come.
I Promoted Kneeboarding in Several International Publications Including the UK, South Africa, and Australia, 1990
On my last day I got a personal tour of London: the Big Ben clock tower, Buckingham Palace, the Grenadier Guards and their black bearskin hats, and majesty of Trafalgar Square. I loved the British Museum and its Egyptian antiquities. My ultimate highlight was coming face to face with the Rosetta Stone. It was right there, inches away behind glass. A real object, not some theoretical idea; the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. Oh, the places you’ll go!
Images (used with permission)
“Adventures in Water Skiing: Part 2, Kneeboarding,” photo Rick Doyle, 1994.
“Herb & Company at the HO Factory,” Roberts Collection, 1987.
“HO Ad – blah, blah…Klarich,” photo Rick Doyle, WaterSki, May, 1990, 94.
“Wake Jumping – Klarich,” photos Rick Doyle, WaterSki International, July, 1990.
Mary Manion, “Calling All Kneeboarders: Enter a Tournament,” WaterSki, June, 1988, 48.
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