It was the best of rides, it was the worst of rides, it was the age of benevolence, it was the age of self-interest, it was the season of flight, it was the season of shipwreck; we were all going somewhere, and it was time for me to find my true north.
The event was the 2016 Apache Lake Fly-In. Scores of hydrofoilers from around the country descended on this beautiful desert lake near Phoenix, Arizona. Fly-Ins are a fun event for foilers to exchange insights on new moves and equipment, and generally gather for good times centered around riding. As a participant you pay a few bucks for daily rides behind towboats brought by volunteers. You pile in with a group of friends, new and old, for a morning set with one boat, then switch out for the afternoon sesh with another group.
I had been absent from the scene for many years and as an early architect of the sport my presence was a welcome addition. I determined to ride with whoever asked first, so just hopped in when the invitations came. For the morning session we loaded up in a giant wakeboard style boat with 6 or 7 people and just as many hydrofoils. I found myself across the boat from one of the sport’s top riders; Tyler Narans. The last name was familiar, and it was nice to put a face to his social media exploits (although it was tough to tell him from his brother Tory at times). We chatted a bit about hydrofoiling competitions, and in particular how judging big air has evolved over the years. The new method of measuring big air by video frame counts was fascinating to me since I had been the event promoter at some of the earliest attempts trying to figure out how to accurately measure height in competitions.
MEASURING AIR @ Flight Worlds in 1998: We Used a Giant Air Boom to Judge Height
MEASURING AIR @ Flight Worlds in 2000: Two Pole Vaulting Stands with Bungee Cords Formed a Grid
MEASURING BIG AIR TODAY
Since 2006-07 hydrofoilers adopted video frame counts to measure big air. There are 30 frames per second of video (o-kay, 29.97 to be exact, and it’s different internationally – link below “Who’s Who of Big Air”). As long as the entire jump is in frame and clear, it’s easy to play a video back on a computer and count the frames. Frame zero is when the leading edge of the front wing first appears above the surface of the water during takeoff. The count ends when the foil first splashes down on the landing. The 30 frames per second in video is industry wide, so it’s an accurate and repeatable way to measure hang time. The good news for big air enthusiasts is that anyone with a good video of their ride can join the conversation. As of Jan, 2018 the record is 64 frames held by Ben Ferney. That’s over 2 seconds of hang time!
Justin Detreich, Big Air Expert, Held the Frame Count Record from Oct. 2015 to March 2016 with This Massive 63 FRAME leap.
Tyler Narans is one of the 4 elite jumpers to have officially topped 60 frames, and we considered each other from across the boat. I am a long time skier who helped pioneer the sport along with several world titles and, so my presence always seems to have an effect on people who are hydrofoilers. On this day the overwhelming energy in the boat, at least from me, was proving I could still hang with the young buck. I represented the old guard of the sport, and Tyler represented the new. My male competitive juices were flowing. Whatever was going on in the boat between us was having a definite effect. A couple of riders took their turns while we offered advice and encouragement from the boat. Then Tyler suited up slid in the water. His rope was about 95 feet long and the boat was going nearly 30 mph. I have seen some giant jumps through the years, but this was the first time I’ve witnessed a full speed charge at the wake from as wide as possible with an super-long rope. It was exhilarating and a little scary to watch as Narans as he approached the wake at nearly 50 mph! Then he took the leap of faith. He vaulted skyward, climbing higher than anyone I have ever seen in person. A collective gasp from the boat, then a charge of excitement flowed through the astonished witnesses. Tyler acknowledged his spotters, then step-by-step repeated his big air dance several times. Each inverted jump was incredibly huge, but one or two had that extra somethin’ somthin’ that put him just under the magic 60 frame count in the estimation of his long time driver at the helm.
Tyler then switched to trick riding, and the change was dramatic. He made a few big tricks but fell many times on tricks that should have been easy. His frustration was obvious. From past experience I knew that my presence in the boat probably had him second-guessing himself, and as his rough ride continued, I got excited…it felt like my chance to out perform him in the trick department. There was no way I was ever going to compete with him in big air, but tricks were another matter. The “win” for the day was mine for the taking. After a couple more falls he kicked out of his ride and hopped back in the boat, receiving plaudits for his giant jumps, but obviously not happy with the way the tricks portion of his ride went. He was a much better rider than that. I now had a chance, at 52 years old, to best one of the young guns of the sport. All I had to do was have a great ride.
VIDEO: Tyler Narans Wake Double Back Flip (make at :30)
VIDEO: Tyler Narans #1 Pro Hydrofoiler 2012 Nationals
I want to be clear – for me this ride was about me being better than him, at least for one ride. To be fair to Tyler, there was a stiff breeze and the water was choppy. But rough water is my element, especially in competitions. I cut my teeth in the rough, training for years on the busy waterways of the Parker Strip on the Colorado River and the Long Beach Marine Stadium in Southern California. Everything was lining up for me to shine, but my wetsuit was stuffed with a lump of coal. I proceeded to have – BY FAR – not only my worst ride of the weekend, but the worst ride since I can’t remember when. And it wasn’t the rough water. I crashed on rolls and gainers – these are moves I make in my sleep, and have literally landed blindfolded! After about 8 rapid-fire falls I quit, disgusted with my riding and holding my head low as I slinked back into the boat.
VIDEO: Blindfolded Flip on Sky Ski (flip @ 2:25)
That afternoon featured a competition with the pro riders and Tyler took third place with a leap of 59 frames. I was happy for him as I stood on shore and watched, but my selfish nature kept coming back to the thought that I had squandered a chance to “beat” him for a ride. This thought process set up an internal struggle that lasted for the next 24 hours. I was in the midst of reexamining my Christianity, and knew that somehow my thinking about a competition when there was no competition was wrong. One of my pastors had recently given a sermon about moving from selfishness to selflessness as we try to live more like Jesus. An ongoing question in my mind was how to exemplify selflessness when getting towed behind the boat and showing off had been for years so much about me and all the cool moves I could do. My adventures as a world-class skier have usually required a confidence that could overrun into self-indulgence. When so many people tell you how “amazing” you are, it’s easy to drink your own sickly sweet Cool-Aid. My struggle was how to walk the Christian life when constantly being held in high esteem in skiing circles, occasionally to the level of sycophancy. The question that kept running around in my mind was how to be self-less in a sport that directs so much focus on one person, and would normally be considered self direct or selfish. I spent time talking long distance to my girlfriend (and now wife) Tanya about my struggle, and she kept coming back to how I needed to concentrate on being more relational. Her sage advice was exceptionally helpful in my interpersonal interactions on land, but how do you do that 75 feet behind the boat while you are spinning and flipping?
As has been the course of my recent life, a big part of the answer was revealed only when I got to a state of complete submission. Prayer had become increasingly important in my life, and it was time to apply it to my riding. On the afternoon of the last day of the Fly-In I got in a boat with a group of recreational riders. It had showered off an on for a few hours and wispy white clouds scudded just above the red canyon walls. It was the last ride of the day. The sky was painted with panoramic purples and pinks, accentuated with oranges and whites. I stood on the swim step and soaked in the wondrous moment. It was breathtaking. I gave myself over to hearing God’s voice in a state of submission and quietly said to myself over and over, “it’s not about me, it’s about us.” And then my struggles and thoughts of the weekend and beyond coalesced into a singularity: I needed to pray.
“Dear Lord – what an amazing moment this is. Thank You. What a playground You have provided for us now. I am thankful for my abilities. I ask Your power flow through me and be shared with others right now. Help me to move from selfish to selfless. This ride is not about me. It’s about giving joy to the people in the boat. It’s about being relational.”
I slipped into the water with an incredible calm. My opening moves were light and airy. But the main difference was that I connected with the people in the boat in a way that I had never felt in my life. I really saw them for the first time. A barrier had been knocked down. While I was doing the tricks – I felt, and ACKNOWLEDGED their joy and fed it right back to them with even bigger and better moves. I couldn’t miss! I started busting out tricks that have been in the closet for years – and they were easy! So ridiculously easy that I just started laughing to myself with each new move that I landed with the greatest of ease. The people in the boat saw my joy and that put even more into the positive feedback loop that moved things in an upward spiral. I ended my run with a perfect gainer combo dismount, sinking jubilantly into the water at the end of a watershed run. It was BY FAR my best ride in recent memory. “Thank You Jesus,” crossed my lips in a perfect knowing of where the true power came from.
INSIGHTS DOWN THE LINE
My Tale of Two Rides has come into clearer focus as time goes by. In the first ride I was focused on me; my abilities, and a self-constructed competition with someone else. It was SELFISH and it did not go so well. My second ride was one of submission, focusing on others, and recognizing that my abilities are a God-given talent that can be used to share joy. It was SELF-LESS and it went EXCEPTIONALLY well. Since then I have made pre-ride prayer a much bigger part of my preparation.
My attitude while skiing has changed dramatically since that breakthrough ride. It used to be much more of a one way dynamic when I was behind the boat. I did tricks and people GAVE me kudos. I TOOK their energy and praise. Yes I provided them a good show, but I did not give them respect, consider them as an integral part of a shared experience, or relate and react to them during the ride. The distance down the line that previously served a chasm of separation has now became a unifying force. Now it is much more of a positive feedback loop between the boat and the rider, each party GIVING and TAKING during the ride to make it a much better experience for everyone involved.
Get the inside scoop on the history of Hydrofoiling, including classic images, looks to videos and much more.
A YouTube Playlist of my All-Time best Videos in the sport, spanning decades of riding!
How to ride a Sit Down Hydrofoil Video Series – with the sport’s inventor Mike Murphy and Tony Klarich