With bodies Nautilized to the max, with skin that looks as though they've done some power tanning with their powerlifting, with their sun-bleached hair, all-American good looks, "how ya'll doin' " personalities and more trophies than you could haul with twin outboards, brother and sister Sammy and Camille Duvall are, in appearance and achievement, America's Golden Boy and Girl—some might say The Great Bronzed Hopes—of the emerging sport of pro water skiing.
We're talking consistent excellence here. Sammy, 22, of Windermere, Fla., the world's overall (i.e., combined jump, slalom and tricks) champion for the last four years, is the first man since 1960 to win the sport's Triple Crown (the 1983 Worlds, a biennial event, and the '84 U.S. Nationals and Masters). He is currently on a tear in which he has won the overall title in 12 of the 12 tournaments he has entered since August 1983, including the Masters two weeks ago. Camille, 25, of Winter Park, Fla., was last season's leading woman money-winner, and after eight tournaments of the '85 pro tour she leads again. The Duvalls are probably the most dominant brother-sister combination in sports history, in large part because they are driven by more than just high horsepower boats.
"Our success comes from us having the drive and our parents giving us the direction," says Sammy. Their parents—Diane, 47, and Sam, 47, of Orlando, both former amateur skiers—also kicked in some serious money to help make their children the best of this nation's 18 million water skiers. "I figure we spent twenty-five thousand dollars a year for 10 years," says Sam, a construction company executive, who admits his kids probably could have become brain surgeons for less. He spent a lot of that $250,000 on leasing a private lake near the family's former home in Greenville, S.C., setting up a ski course, hiring live-in coaches like former world-class skiers Ricky McCormick and Linda Giddens, and flying his children to tournaments around the country.
"We wanted them to excel in something, although it didn't have to be water skiing," says Diane.
August 4, 1985
Maybe not, but skiing had a leg up because the youngsters got so much early exposure to boats and skis. In fact, it's a wonder they didn't imprint on a towline and transom. "When Sammy was two, we'd put him in his life jacket and take him in the boat in a car seat," says Diane. The children were on skis at four—"They were so light we could pull them [from the bow] with the boat in reverse," says Sam, who did that to minimize the frightening sound of the engine—and both won their first tournaments at six.
With three different ski boats providing the pull—"so they could practice behind whatever kind of boat they'd get in the next tournament," says Sam—it was the parents who provided the push. "We pushed them about as hard as you could without causing problems," says Sam, who set up a 12-set daily training regimen calling for two sets of slalom, tricks and jumps in the morning and a repeat of the program at night.
"I don't train that hard now," says Sammy, laughing and recalling the day he went to his first ski school. "The instructor told me, 'It's a tough program here, we ski five or six times a day.' I told him, 'My daddy says I'm going to ski 12 times.' "
Daddy also attended to mental preparation. Diane likes to relate this story: "At one tournament where everyone was telling the kids, 'You got to beat this guy,' or 'You have to watch out for that girl,' Sam told them, 'You only have to ski against yourself.' Then he went out and bought an extra chaise longue and set it up on the beach. And when the kids asked, 'Daddy, who's that for?' Sam told them, 'That's for Self. Let's see how good Self does today.' "
Daddy, according to Sammy, "is a hard-driving, straight-ahead businessman." Yet at the recent Masters, in Callaway Gardens, Ga., pacing the dock in golf shirt, shorts and his 15-year-old lucky red Converse All-Star low-cuts, Sam Duvall appeared quiet and self-contained. At least until Sammy nailed a 185-foot jump, virtually locking up the overall title. "Come on, get out of here," Sam yelled, smacking his hands together as Sammy (carrying his father's hopes) soared off the top of the ramp.
"Sometimes I think he thinks we're him—if you know what I mean," says Camille of her father's vicarious pride in and need for his children's success. But she says it without rancor or regret. The younger Duvalls clearly love what they do and are grateful to their parents. "They helped make us what we are, and how many people are world champions?" says Sammy. Since childhood, the kids have gradually taken over from their father in the matter of pushing, cajoling and challenging each other.
"If one of us said, 'Oh, the water's too cold for me,' or 'I don't feel right,' the other one always said, 'Come on, get in there,' " says Camille.
"Every day was a tournament at our house," says Sam. "I think that's why they do so well under real tournament pressure."
After competing with each other for years to see who would be the first to jump 100 feet, both Sammy and Camille did it on the same day, jumping 105 feet in 1973. Since then, Sammy's compact (5'8", 158 pounds) body has helped him excel in jumping and tricks, while the statuesque Camille (5'11", 135 pounds) has the height and arm length that make the slalom her best event. Camille, by the way, is a part-time model and actress, a.k.a. the Golden Goddess of Water Skiing, of whom Masters boat driver Jack Walker says, "I pulled her when she was a little bitty 10-year-old, but—ooooh, mama—look at her now!"
Sammy coaches Camille in jump, and she coaches him in slalom, although they have worked together so long each feels free to critique the other in any event. On the water, they communicate with that understanding bluntness peculiar to siblings. On a recent afternoon at their jointly run ski camp at Sammy's lake-front home in Windermere, Camille was driving the towboat while her brother practiced jumps.
Seen from the boat, a Sammy Duvall jump is scary. As Camille drove to the right of the six-foot-high ramp, Sammy swung wide right, almost even with the boat, then cut back sharply, picking up speed. As he slashed across the wake, Camille compensated so perfectly for the force of her brother's pull that the speedometer needle never moved off 35. But centrifugal force raised Sammy's speed to 65 or 70 mph, and he hurtled toward the ramp like the last kid on some giant crack-the-whip. "When I really kick one off I feel like I'm going to plaster myself into the ramp," Sammy said later. This time he jumped poorly. Camille was not pleased.
"You're anticipating the jump and straightening your legs, then your butt sticks out and...." Her voice trailed off as though the jump wasn't worth talking about. He said nothing. "He's just so tired he can't get that extra press," Camille said quietly as she towed him toward the second jump. But this time Sammy soared 185 feet, only six feet off the Masters record.
"Yeah, she was right," he said the next day on a flight to Atlanta. "Camille knows me as well as anyone." It is sister Camille, not Sammy's wife, Sue, who rides in the boat with her hand on the quick-release during Sammy's trick run, and it is he who mans the release for her. It is a job in which each literally holds the other's future in his hand. If a skier falls with a foot in the rope and isn't cut loose instantly, he, or she, will almost certainly suffer knee ligament damage. But if he is cut loose from a stumble from which he might have recovered, he is eliminated from further competition.
"We each know instinctively what the other can recover from," says Sammy.
Besides the strong sibling bond between them, Camille and Sammy both seem to have inherited (or internalized) their father's drive.
"Skiing is a mission for me," says Sammy. "Being a champion is something I have to accomplish." At this year's Masters it looked as if that mission would abort and Sammy would lose the overall championship. He did not make the slalom final, and in the four-man tricks semifinal he found himself competing with the two best trick skiers in the world, Patrice Martin of France and world-record holder Cory Pickos of the U.S. But when Pickos and Martin scored low, after falling before they completed the required two 20-second runs, Sammy, rather than play it conservatively with low-scoring tricks, turned off the radio with which he'd been psyching himself on Survivor's I Can't Hold Back—"I'm going to try with all my might/To make the story line come true"—and went all out in two high-risk 20-trick runs that ended with both victory and a career-high 9,200 points.
"When you hold back is when you get in trouble," said Sam, cheering as Sammy came out of his spectacular second run, pumping his left arm in victory. In the boat Camille applauded, leading the cheers of an estimated 10,000 fans—"biggest ski crowd I've seen in this country," said Sammy—many of whom had waded chest deep into Robin Lake for a better look. When the people in the water started shouting "Flip! Flip!" Sammy gave them the just-for-the-hell-of-it backflip that has become his signature. The flip drew one of the loudest cheers of the day for the skier who was clearly the crowd's favorite. "We've got to give the people what they want if we expect the sport to keep growing," says Sammy.
Sammy showed a lot of mental toughness, but on this afternoon he was outdone by his sister. "Competition makes me mean," said Camille. But in trying to qualify for the two-woman runoff of the jump event, she took a horrific-looking backward tumble off the ramp, a fall in which her ski tip came back and hit her in the chin, causing her to take a bite out of the left side of her tongue. Three safety boats rushed to the scene, and driver Walker later told Sam, "She came up blowin' blood all over the place." As one of the boats maneuvered to take her aboard, Camille slapped her jumping helmet back on, told Walker to take her up, then went out and kicked off a 133-foot jump, longest of the day. Camille eventually lost the runoff to England's Karen Morse and finished third for the overall title. "No, I never thought about quitting," she said later, applying ice to an ugly purple "divot in my tongue."
"Camille's strength," said the women's overall winner, Deena Brush of Sacramento, who has skied against Camille since 1973, "is that she's great in her head."
"Women take the same risks as men and we work as hard," said Camille. "One of the good things about the water-skiing tour is that purses are equal for men and women." But equal doesn't mean sufficient, and Camille's 1984 prize money of $17,500 and Sammy's of $8,612 are not enough to provide them with a living. However, equipment endorsements (Sammy has seven, more than any other skier; Camille has five) and ski school revenue bring Sammy's annual income to about $150,000 and Camille's to about $35,000.
"Pro water skiing is at least coming to the point where the very best skiers can afford a house, a BMW and a Rolex," says Camille, who drives the car, wears the watch and is, even now, hunting the house.
Of course, there is little chance the Duvalls could ever financially repay their father. Not that Daddy cares. "When I was 16 and won my first money," says Sammy, "Dad told me, 'You know I'll have money for you kids if you need it, but since you're earning your own, I don't expect you to ask me for any.' "
And they haven't. After all, Sammy and Camille have what they need. So does Daddy.