Kris LaPoint is a Berkeley dropout with shoulder-length blond hair and a beard, and he lives in California in what appears to be a commune. As any census taker worth his weight in short forms might assume, this guy is either a leftover flower child or religious cultist.
But if the census taker sent LaPoint the long form to complete, he would find out that he's dealing with a head-of-household who is about as laid back as a FORTUNE 500 board member. Consider what LaPoint would include under the heading "occupation": selling for one company, co-owning another, running yet another business from his house. He fills in his spare hours racing cars, and, oh yes, he's also a water skier, perhaps the best slalom skier ever. His younger brother, Bob, will verify that.
Kris has been an achiever ever since, at the age of 14, he won the men's open slalom title at the Masters, a tournament every bit as prestigious in water skiing as its namesake is in golf. Since then he has won six more Masters, six nationals and scores of professional titles. But if Kris is the board chairman of slaloming, then brother Bob, two-time defending world champion and co-holder of the world record with Kris, is the chief executive officer. Together not only are they a water skiing dynasty, but they may also be the premier brother combo in the history of any sport.
June 1, 1980
•Between them they've won every national open slalom title since 1971 and six of the seven Masters they've entered.
•No other skier has ever finished first in a professional slalom tournament in which at least one of the LaPoints has competed...ever.
•In the 100 or so amateur and professional tournaments in which they've participated together since advancing out of the boys' division in 1971 (Kris) and 1973 (Bob), there have been only two occasions when a LaPoint didn't win—the 1974 Masters and the 1975 worlds.
"Competing against the LaPoints is like trying to run a marathon against Bill Rodgers or play tennis against Bjorn Borg," says John Steinbuch, a former world-class slalomer.
Tony Krupa, one of the 20 best slalomers in the world, says: "When slalom skiers work out, they always ask themselves, 'Am I practicing good enough to beat the LaPoints?' They obviously haven't been, because for the last 12 or 13 years everyone else has been irrelevant."
For the first eight of those years, Kris ruled by himself. Bob, at 25 two years younger than his brother, spent most of that time breaking Kris' age-group records and finishing second to him in men's events. Then in 1974 Bob got his first major professional title, the Saucier Cup, and won the California Cup, which had been Kris' the five previous years. The following year Bob won his first Masters. In 1976 he won the Masters again and the nationals. In 1977, Kris was back winning almost everything, except the biannual world championships, which Bob won.
Recently, Bob has had the upper hand. "But Kris is by no means over the hill," says Krupa. "He could easily finish ahead of Bob this year or be the one to break their world record."
Since 1976 the brothers have shared slalom skiing's alltime mark of "four at 38 off." That is, they have cleared four of the six buoys on a slalom course with a 37-foot line behind a boat traveling 36 mph. For that to mean anything, you need to know that a course is 835 feet long, 76 feet wide and bordered by three evenly spaced buoys on each side. As the tow boat passes down the middle of the course, the slalomer must ski around each buoy by zigzagging across the course. Competition begins with a 75-foot-long tow rope and the boat usually traveling at 26 mph. After each run the speed is increased until the maximum of 36 mph is reached. Skiers who have made perfect passes up until this point now enter a new phase of competition wherein the rope is progressively shortened until all the competitors have missed a buoy or fallen. Whoever clears the most buoys with the shortest rope wins.
Now back to the LaPoints' record. When they are skiing at "38 off" (of the original 75-foot line), the rope is a mere 37 feet long. That is a foot shorter than the distance from the middle of the boat out to the buoys. For 16 seconds, the time it takes for the boat to traverse the course at 36 mph, the skier, even when he has 75 feet of line to play with, is continually accelerating or decelerating, leaning or pulling, and making hairy hairpin turns. As the rope is shortened, he must swing wider and wider of the boat to complete the turns. Thus the skier has to travel ever faster and make each turn that much sharper. Like about 120 degrees, with one arm hanging on to the rope, his body extended over the buoy, nearly parallel to the water to make up for the insufficient length of line, and the ski edging to the utmost, throwing up a 30-foot wall of spray. When the rope gets down to 35 off or shorter, there seems to be no way for a skier to come out of such a turn—and many don't. But frequently the body control, timing and strength of the LaPoints bring them around the buoy erect and in good position to explode toward the next one at some 70 mph.
By being bigger, stronger and better athletes than slalomers of the past, the LaPoints have pushed the sport to limits never thought possible. At 6'2", 195 and 6'3", 205, respectively, Bob and Kris have ideal slalom physiques—long and strong. Their height gives them the added reach that's critical in short-line slaloming, and their massive shoulders and forearms enable them to pull out of turns on balance while sustaining 1,000 pounds of pressure on the rope.
"Four or five buoys at 35 off will win most tournaments," says Harvey McLeod, the editor of Spray magazine, "and Bob and Kris are good for that in any conditions. When the weather is right, they're the only ones who routinely make perfect passes at 35 off." Both LaPoints have cleared all six buoys at 38 off, but only in practice runs.
Considering that they have been battling each other at the highest level of their sport for the better part of a decade, the LaPoints remain remarkably close. "We've always helped each other and gotten along well, even at tournaments," says Kris. "It's almost like a team thing. Someone might beat one of us but not both. A win by either of us carries on the LaPoint name. If I have to lose, I'd rather it be to Bob than anyone else. That's almost like a half victory for me."
Just such a half victory is the best Kris has been able to do in the world championships. Bob has won the last two worlds, and before that, Kris couldn't compete because he's a one-event skier and the world championships are a team tournament. Before 1975 only skiers with a chance of picking up points in at least two of the three events were selected for the U.S. squad. Now world-record holders can compete in their specialties—although their scores don't count toward their nation's totals.
Water skiing's other two events are jumping and tricks. Neither of the LaPoints trick-skis competitively, but both have jumped. Though a series of nasty falls ended Kris' jumping career in 1968—he wears a protective girdle and bandage when he slaloms—Bob is still at it, despite some frightening mishaps of his own. In 1977 an unintentional belly flop from an altitude of about 30 feet put him in the hospital with a concussion and a bruised heart. The next year he tore the cartilage in his right knee.
Currently, Bob is one of the two or three top jumpers in the world. He's won both the Masters and national jumping titles but is still seeking a world championship. "One of the reasons I like to jump is that I haven't won everything," Bob says. "The slalom is tough because we are always expected to win. Others can just take shots at us without anything to lose."
Water-ski jumpers don't work the air currents the way snow-ski jumpers do. Nor do they soar as far (190 feet vs. 300). But they fly about three times as high as snow-ski jumpers, and their approach is more difficult. A snow-ski jumper's principal worry is timing his spring at the end of the run-in. In water-ski jumping, the tow boat passes 52 feet to the right of the ramp and the skier is continually cutting back and forth across the boat's wake in order to build up speed. Timing is all-important. At the last possible moment, the skier shoots across the waves and heads for the ramp, centrifugal force transforming 35 mph of boat speed into a 65-mph run-in for the jump.
"At that speed the ramp looks like a wall," says Kris. "The natural tendency is to lean backward, but you need to be forward to get a good lift. If you're too far forward, you eat it—go right over the top and take a terrible fall."
The LaPoints do most of their skiing at Kris' place just outside of tiny Los Banos, Calif., in the San Joaquin Valley. Also in residence is a tailless tomcat named Cat and a few million catfish. Kris' private water-ski Utopia does double duty as a 55-acre catfish farm. Bob regularly commutes the 120 miles to Los Banos from his house in Castro Valley, the San Francisco suburb where he and Kris grew up. He's usually accompanied by an assortment of friends. In exchange for help with the chores, Kris gives Bob and his buddies beds to sleep in, all the fish they can eat and, most important, a chance to "ski their brains out."
About two-thirds of Kris' property is covered by 12 man-made lakes stocked with fish. "I sold about 10,000 pounds last year," says Kris. "That isn't a lot, but I'll have 50,000 pounds this year, and I have the potential for 100,000."
The biggest of the lakes is 1,600 feet long, large enough for two slalom courses and a jump. Skiing on it serves a useful purpose beyond providing the LaPoints with practice. "The decomposition of food and waste in the water uses up oxygen the fish need to survive," Kris says. "To replenish it you need to keep the water moving. A lot of fish farmers have mechanical aerators, but running the boat through the water accomplishes the same thing."
That's vintage Kris LaPoint. If there's a way to do two or three things at once, he'll find it. "He's the most intense and goal-oriented person I've ever met," says Cathy Marlow, the No. 4-rated woman slalom skier in the world, who has dated both brothers. "Bob at least will take time to relax—play tennis or racquetball or go snow skiing or scuba diving. He'll even have an occasional beer. Kris never. He has so many things going that he hardly ever gets more than five hours of sleep a night. The last thing he would ever consider would be going, say, to the beach and just doing nothing."
For the last five years Kris has had a dealership for MasterCraft Boats, and in September he and Bob and Robert Shirley, owner of the boat company, formed MasterCraft Ski, Inc. to produce water skis. Until this year, the LaPoints had performed on skis provided by manufacturers but carefully modified by the brothers. Although most skiers contend that you could put a LaPoint on barn siding and he'd still win, Bob and Kris are convinced that the thousands of hours they've spent testing and experimenting with skis give them a decided advantage. They are as obsessed with the nuances of a ski as a golfer is with the subtleties of a putter. The slightest variation in shape, weight, flex, bevel or composition can, in their minds, affect performance.
"In 20 seconds I can ruin a ski with a file or turn a halfway decent one into a good ski," says Bob. "You wouldn't believe how many good skiers are on bad skis and don't know it."
Kris even attributes his and Bob's long run of success to their preoccupation with ski technology. "We have always been in the forefront of those who've come up with new ideas about skis," he says. "And the testing we do helps make us adaptable. The water has a different feel at every site. Depth, mineral content, wind and temperature all affect how you run a course. A slalom skier has to be able to analyze those variables and then adapt. Our design work has definitely helped us in that regard."
Skiing isn't the only sport in which they make use of their mechanical and analytical skills. During the past few years both LaPoints have become increasingly involved in auto racing. In fact, they plan to race full time after retiring from skiing. "For now, though, it gives us a chance to do something competitive without the pressures we get at ski tournaments," says Kris. "In racing we're just like everybody else."
If their performances at the Bob Bondurant School in Sears Point, Calif., the most prestigious race-driver training center in the country, are any indication, they may not be like everybody else for long. "The LaPoints were two of the best students we've ever had here," says their instructor, Bob Earl. "They both were sensitive to the car, which comes from being relaxed at high speeds. You rarely see that with students."
"Both slalom skiing and car racing put a high premium on reflexes and concentration," says Bob. "One of the key fundamentals of racing is learning to find the apex of a turn and then coming out of it with the highest acceleration possible while still under control. It's the same with slaloming."
Bob has had some excellent finishes and qualifying times in Sports Car Club of America races, but is still looking for his first victory. He doesn't expect to get it until he comes up with the $20,000 needed for a new car. Until then he'll have to be content with testing his nerve in a 4-year-old Formula Ford. Or on a 400-cc enduro motorcycle. He entered his first cycle race, the Alligator Enduro in Daytona, Fla., in March and finished a respectable 17th out of 80 in his class.
"Daytona was a killer," says Bob. "Three hours in 85° heat of nonstop bouncing and getting beat to death. Fortunately I had built up some endurance from skiing."
Kris, on the other hand, prefers a kind of racing in which a decision is reached in 12 seconds or so. On Sunday afternoons he heads for the dragstrip with a '56 Austin-Healy in tow. Actually, the car is a Healy in body only; Kris spent the better part of a year stuffing a race-prepared Chevrolet engine into the sports car's body. He has won a dozen or so of what are called bracket races, in which the driver must not only beat another car but also run the quarter mile in as close to a predesignated time as he can.
"I prefer bracket racing because there's about a 50-50 emphasis on the driver and the car," Kris says. "It stresses the consistency and the reactions of the driver rather than just how much money went into the car. In some types of racing the car is virtually everything—you can be a poor driver and still win."
Economics are also a major concern in the LaPoints' primary sport. Kris has won more money and more titles than any slalomer in history, yet his official earnings over a 10-year career come to slightly more than $10,000. Bob, who won virtually everything there was to win last year, made $1,000 slaloming in 1979.
These are pretty skimpy rewards, even for a sport as small as water skiing. Trouble is, all the prestige events—namely the Masters, nationals and world championships—offer zilch in the way of prize money, and that's just how the American Water Ski Association, the sport's governing body, wants to keep things.
Partly because of that policy, the LaPoints have boycotted the Masters the past two years. "They charge admission and take in TV revenues, but the skiers get next to nothing," says Bob. "In 1967, Kris' first year there, he got $40 for hotel expenses and $150 for travel. In 1977 it was exactly the same."
"The AWSA is where it was 20 years ago—concerned only with promoting recreational and family skiing," adds Terry Snow of World Water Skiing magazine. "It has always fought pro skiing."
"These guys need our tournaments more than the tournaments need them," counters Bill Clifford, who has been executive director of the AWSA since 1958. "Our primary obligation is to a national membership not involved in cash-prize tournaments. We can't justify spending the time or the expense to put money in the pockets of a few."
Or the pockets of two, as long as the LaPoints are around.