Everybody knows about the sport of water skiing. Water skiing is that funny thing people do down at Cypress Gardens, where they all get on top of each other's shoulders and whip along the shoreline past stands of tourists and flamingoes. The girls are always golden tan and beautiful and the guys aren't too bad themselves. Then come the clown acts and the barefoot ballet and lots of balloons. For a topper there is a man taking off from the water under a kite and then soaring to a splashy stop in the middle of some flaming torches. Everybody says goll-eee and goes home, secure in the knowledge that they have seen water skiing.
Well, they have not. Like certain other American inventions—two-car garages, for instance, and credit cards—water skiing has recently come to the burgeoning proprietary attention of the middle class. Growing affluence and ski-now-pay-later plans have permitted practically anyone who has the desire to buy a boat, a motor, a towrope and some skis—then to find a lake and zoom off into the horizon.
Along with this development has come a healthy shifting of interest away from the slick, commercial aspects of water skiing to the solid, competitive forms of the sport. And last week in Copenhagen, Denmark, halfway across the world from Florida, where it all grew up, American water skiers marked their finest hour.
Oh, there were still barefoot exhibitions and a few parachutes, but these came only after the true spectacle: the 11th World Water Ski Championships, which the United States won again.
August 17, 1969
Like basketball, this is frankly our game. The U.S. always beats the other guys in water skiing. On the way to Copenhagen, U.S. men and women had won this biennial tournament in each of the nine years that a team championship has been contested. It has never been close. The golden-tan U.S. team came to Denmark only mildly concerned that the outcome might be any different than before.
At a reception given by Lord Mayor Urban Hansen in Copenhagen's elegant Town Hall on the eve of the championships, 19-year-old Mike Suyderhoud, a Californian of Dutch parentage, pulled a London newspaper clipping from his wallet. "This guy writes that the Australians could beat us," he said. "I don't know if that's exactly right."
U.S. Team Manager Marv Rothenberg was even more succinct. "That makes us mad, right?" he said. "The Australians will definitely finish second. If we get regular water conditions without much wind there shouldn't be any problems. If it blows real bad the whole thing can open up for anybody."
But that was most unlikely. Not even the wind could spoil what had been a staggering effort by the Danish Water Ski Federation over three years to get set for the tournament. Not many world championships of any kind are held in this small country (though the natives pointed out that they do have a world-class piano player named Borge), and they were understandably enthusiastic. The neighboring kommunes of Frederiksdal, Gentofte. Gladsakse and Bagsvaerd had all chipped in with financial help, volunteers and social functions to help smooth the way for their big-city partner.
All the kommunes are spotted around the competition site, Bagsvaerd Lake, a picturesque strip of green water about eight miles northwest of the city. Sheltered on two sides by forests and on a third by hills, the lake was given over to the skiers by two rowing clubs which use it for their own competitions. A spectator area was already available on grassy tiers. Everything was set.
The Verdensmesterskaber pa Vandski (world championships on water skis) were divided into three events for men and women: slalom, jumping and trick skiing.
The slalom is similar to the one on snow: a skier follows his towboat through the entrance gate and, while the boat takes a direct course, he cuts a crisscross pattern around six turning buoys. After a first run the boat increases speed (from 34 to 36 mph for men, 32 to 34 mph for women), and then the towline is shortened, first by 12 feet and then in six-foot stages. The skier's run ends with a fall or a missed buoy.
In jumping, boat speed and the tow-line are constant, but skiers increase their speed going into the six-foot-high ramp by a "double wake cut," that is. cutting out as far as the rope will allow on the far side of the ramp, then cutting hard back to it for the jump. "Tricking," easily the most difficult of the three events, permits any speed for the tow-boat, any length of towline and any trick routine the skier favors in his two 20-second runs.
For this tournament the U.S. fielded probably its strongest team ever. In addition to Suyderhoud, who won the men's overall title in Quebec two years ago, there were Ricky McCormick and Alan Kempton, two veterans of the 1967 team, and 14-year-old Wayne Grimditch, a rising superstar in all phases of competition. Grimditch, despite his tender years, drew a special invitation to the prestigious Masters tournament at Callaway Gardens, Ga. last month, sailed through that contest and won a rare opportunity to make the world team.
"He just started on the six-foot ramp a month ago," said Rothenberg on the day of the preliminary jumping event. "He doesn't know enough to have nerves. You just wind him up and say, 'Wayne, there's the ramp,' and he's gone."
If the men's competition was to be one-sided, competition for women was almost nonexistent. Appearing in her third world tournament for the U.S. was Elizabeth (Liz) Allan—"the best jumper, the best tricker, the best slalom performer, the best woman skier who ever lived, period," according to one expert observer. At 18, Liz, from Winter Park, Fla., won the overall four years ago in Australia but flopped at the last world tournament. She has a tendency to become bored with lack of competition and she was beaten at the team trials by Christy Lynn Weir, a tall, lithe high school cheerleader from McQueeney, Texas, who completed the American team.
In Copenhagen, Liz quickly reasserted her superiority by placing first in all three preliminary events—winning the overall women's championship. "I think the boys have gotten me interested in skiing again," she explained. "Mike is teaching me how to spring on the jump. I haven't got that sick attitude anymore. I think now that I can do anything I want to do."
World rules stipulate that team and individual overall championships are decided strictly on first-round totals, but in the men's division most of the excitement was packed into the last two days of the weeklong meet. Suyderhoud, an intense, thickly muscled college sophomore from San Anselmo, Calif., had picked up a first place in the first-round slalom, a fourth in the tricks and trailed Bruce Cockburn of Australia (who won the tricks) by 10 points going into the jumping contest. Thus, the jumps would decide the overall champion.
In the Georgia trials Mike had jumped 162 feet—a world record—and he expected an easy time of it in his best event. He needed only a one-foot margin over Cockburn to beat him and sew up the overall title. Of the six men in contention for the overall—Suyderhoud, McCormick, Cockburn, Colin Faulkner of Australia, George Athans of Canada and Roby Zucchi, the Italian champion—Mike was the only one to jump early. His teammates call him "technical Mike" for his exhaustive analysis of skiing techniques, and first he went down the course and passed without making his jump. ("He's figuring it out now," said Rothenberg, on shore. "He's finding out exactly where he wants to cut and how. He'll play it cozy.")
But Suyderhoud's caution was costly. His jump on the next run was a low (for him) 130 feet and his second jump was only five feet better.
"You've blown it! What happened?" shouted his father, back at the dock.
"I don't know, I don't know," said Mike "I thought the first jump was 135. They held up that number in the boat. I was only going for 140 anyway."
"Well, we will protest. We will throw the book at them. Use anything you've got Get Marv."
But Rothenberg's protest was turned down, as he knew it would be. The distance relayed to the towboat was the one measured by visual sighting, not the official distance recorded by film. All jumpers were getting the same treatment, even though the visual sightings admittedly could be as much as seven feet in error. It looked as if Suyderhoud had failed in his defense of the championship as he walked up the spectator hill to watch the other jumpers.
Meanwhile, Grimditch—following Mike—leaped away on a 140-footer to move into first place in the jump (he had already been eliminated from the overall by a poor performance in tricks).
And then, dramatically, the wind came up hard from the open east end of the lake. It shook up the water, creating whitecaps, and it changed the picture completely. Ricky McCormick, watching the waves form, confessed to mixed emotions. "Mike's jump now looks better and better." he said. Then he frowned and looked at the sky. "Thanks a helluva lot."
Suyderhoud had let everybody back in the door two hours earlier, but now the wind was shutting them out. First McCormick, then Faulkner, then Athans took their runs through the choppy wakes but only Faulkner came anywhere close with 129 feet. "Damn wind," said Bob Bocock, the Canadian coach. "Mike got perfect water and his protest was about as ridiculous as a 160-foot jumper jumping 135 feet, which is what he is and what he did. But now he's saved."
And he was. Bruce Cockburn, down at the starting dock about to begin his run to the ramp, was the final threat. "I'm nervous," he said just before taking off. "I don't think Mike should have played safe—but now I guess he's the smart one." Cockburn, who needed a jump of 135 feet to retain his lead over Suyderhoud, made only 117. It was all over.
As Mike walked slowly back down the hill to get his skis, he found it difficult to speak. "I just don't know," he said "It's kind of bad to win this way. I guess—if the water had stayed the same, we would have known. But this way I don't know if I deserve it."
Still, Grimditch's 140-foot jump had held up for that first-round lead, giving the U.S. five first places out of the six events toward the team overall score, 8,821 out of a perfect 9,000. It was the highest total ever. Australia finished a distant second, with France third and Canada fourth.
And the wind came back to blow up a splashy finish on the final day. First, that jump scored by Grimditch still stood up against all new attempts—and the freckle-faced lad became the youngest jumping champ ever. Next, Suyderhoud had his troubles with the slalom—he tumbled after a run of 9½ buoys and ended up fourth. He was still the overall water ski champion, of course, on the basis of his earlier points, but the new world slalom titleist turned out to be Spain's Victor Palomo, a first for his country. And with all that, it was Liz Allan who showed them all how to do it.
After coasting through to a jumping title in the morning (99 feet was plenty), she was only one event away from becoming the first woman in water ski history to win all three events. Final stage was tricks, where she had lost it all two years before, and this time Liz took no chances. She did not do her most difficult stunts—and still won easily, with Christy Weir in second.
"It's great," said Liz, "but I may hang up the old skis. It is getting harder to get out there every day. I might just like to remember Copenhagen as the last time."