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Blind to defeat

Duncan MacLean • Mar 21, 2017 at 10:45 AM

Winning a water skiing world championship tournament is impressive. More impressive? Winning five-straight.

Even more impressive? Winning them blind, or with less than four functioning, or even attached limbs.

The United States disabled water ski team is heading to the 15th Barbara Bolding/ Jim Grew Fund Disabled Water Ski Championships, April 27-30, to take on teams from more than 20 countries representing six continents in an effort to dominate the field once again, going for their fifth-straight team title.

Thirteen visually impaired, paraplegic or amputee athletes, ranging in age from 17-59, were selected from the U.S. National Championship field last October to represent the stars and stripes on their historic run. No other nation has won more than three championships since the event’s creation.

This year, the team will travel nearly 10,000 miles to make the meet, a far cry from the genesis of international competition right here in Michigan in 1989.

Katie Mawby, a locally practicing physical therapist, is the last member from the original 1989 U.S. team to continue competing at the international level. Since her first competitive run, Mawby has experienced the newest division of U.S. Water Skiing grow from volunteers to employees, from whistles to computer systems and from a local bragging right to an international showcase.

Mawby has skied through the entire span of international disabled water skiing, competing through changes in rules, technology, athletes and organizations. She has developed deep bonds with others, helping them overcome their disabilities while learning to thrive with hers. The team success, her own ridiculous list of accolades and countless friendships along the way all start with three events, the same three that members of the able-bodied U.S. water ski team compete in — slalom, trick ski and ski jumping.

In slalom, skiers must tow behind the speedboat, executing turns around buoys for points. The closer they clear the buoys, the higher their score, something that gets a little complicated without knowing where the buoys fall.

The blind athletes compete in audio slalom, where a computer system mounted on the pylon of the ski boat processes information from boat speed to rope length and sounds audio cues to the skier when to execute a turn.

The second event shows off the skier’s control and technique. Trick skiing involves 20-second passes in front of judges with skiers trying to pack as many high degree of difficulty spins, jumps and flourishes into their run without eating wake, similar to the floor routine at a gymnastics competition.

Finally, the skiers go the distance, literally. Testing the limits of their sanity and the size of their ski boots by hitting a ramp at the maximum boat speed of 34 miles per hour for women and 36 for men, the same speeds allowed in able-bodied competition. As they approach the ramp, jumpers cut, or turn aggressively, toward the ramp to build even more speed, ensuring maximum airtime.

Mawby and other visually impaired athletes accomplish this with a guide, trusted coach Dan Van Dyke, who points them in the direction of the ramp, but cannot touch the jumper once the jump is initiated and cannot hit the ramp themselves.

The world record, which athletes are scored against, is 59 feet in the air. At the championships, jumping 90 percent of the world record distances grabs the team 90 points; half the world record distance earns 50 points. A broken world record nets 100 points, and so on.

For someone who has been skiing all three events for nearly 30 years, each one has its thrills.

“Slalom is so highly technical, it takes a high mental game,” said Mawby. “Trick skiing is difficult, it takes persistence to learn new tricks and improve them. Jumping is all out strength and guts, it’s a fun one. So I like them all.”

Local legend

Mawby is more than just the team veteran. To date, the Grand Haven native has held 16 different world records, has earned 40 world championship gold medals, captured 21 U.S. national championships and been selected 13 times as the U.S. disabled woman athlete of the year. Currently, she holds world records in all three water skiing events.

“I like to compete,” she said of the tsunami of awards.

Before dominating the global water skiing scene, Mawby cut up the waters of Lake Michigan as a pastime with her family and friends. Like many bound to the lakeshore, water skiing and boating activities were a pursuit of leisure rather than a conquest for medals.

After suddenly losing her eyesight at the age of 16, Mawby expected her skiing life to end as she knew it.

“When I first went blind, my family members and friends didn’t expect much to change, or for me to change,” Mawby said. “When I told them ‘Yeah, I’m not going to ski anymore,’ they said, ‘Yeah, you are, and here is the rope.’ There was no hesitating.”

The push off the swim platform was all the help she needed, within a few years Mawby was at the inaugural world championships, ready to take on her disability and everyone else’s as well.

“It gives you an opportunity to do something an able-bodied person does,” she said of the competitions. “I’m jumping the same ramp, doing the same tricks, it equalizes the playing field and allows me to compete.”

After tasting the water at that first world tournament, Mawby never looked back. She has qualified for 13 of the 15 Barbara Bolding/Jim Grew Fund Disabled Water Ski Championships.

Her career has spanned the entire existence of sanctioned disabled water skiing. The changes, to the sport and her body, are evident.

“At that first world championship in ‘89, we had to be bused down a hill to the lakefront it was so inaccessible, now everything is accessible and ready to go. We didn’t have a computer for slalom we had a person on the back of the boat with a whistle,” Mawby said.

“The coaching has come so far. You had 50 skiers and maybe five would land the jump upright. Nobody knew how to coach someone to jump on one leg. It has come from trial and error in the beginning to a real science now.

“Technology for the wheelchair guys has gotten lighter and more flexible. There wasn’t a making market out there for it, so a lot of the guys have designed their own.”

The changes in Mawby’s age, however, are less exciting. Like every athlete, the world champion is facing the bitter end of retirement.

“I’m at the point where I’m getting some injuries and things are creeping up on me with age,” she said. “It’s a very physically demanding sport so it gets harder and harder every year. It has been a great 20 or 30 years, but this might be my last tournament, but some people will say ‘you said that six years ago.’”

The prospect of leaving Team USA and the competitive ski world behind is a tough one to grip for Mawby, made more difficult by the quality of people in the community.

“It’s the people, not just the team members even, the judges and instructor and officials, it’s the same people,” she said. “They volunteer their time, I’ve gotten to know these people over the years and they are some of the most awesome people. It is hard to alienate oneself from a family.

“I want to stay involved in it, I’m not sure in what regard. I want to be the first blind judge,” she joked. “I like to teach and coach in whatever way I can. I can motivate people and help them get started. I would do anything I can to promote the sport.

“You see people initially lose a limb and think there is no reason to limit their lifestyle, they can cycle, run, even waterski, whatever they want to. I hope it continues to grow.”

Recent signs point toward hope for the “U.S. disAbled” team; an influx of younger athletes has bolstered the aging roster and the confidence of its athletes both young and old.

Team USA

The 13-members of Team USA are allowed to be ages 17-59. This year’s team just about covers the spread.

In 2017, Mawby is the final competing member from the original USA world championship team, a group that stuck around for quite some time.

“Up until a few years ago, the team barely ever changed, we were an older group,” she said. “Recently we got some younger skiers and they have developed into awesome skiers.”

While the skill of all the athletes has been steadily improving, the athletes themselves have built invaluable bonds through overcoming their disabilities together.

“The remarkable thing is this group of people, it’s like a family. We travel together, go to the tournaments together, and enjoy dinners after. The commradery is incredible.

“You can be sitting between a 16- and 60-year-old and you wouldn’t tell the difference.

“It is amazing how everybody blends together and helps everyone out. Sometimes, the blind skiers carry extra equipment for the wheelchair guys, while they guide us to the water. It is awesome, nobody thinks twice about it, you just do what you do.”

Five-peat

The team will work together to further the United States’ dominance of the sport. The stars and stripes have taken eight of the last 15 world championships and hope to take their fifth-straight in April. No other country has won more than three titles.

“I still get really excited about skiing and competing,” Mawby said. “It is a little extra special because of the five-peat. Everybody really wants it.”

Each competing skier must ski all three events to earn points in the all-around tournament. Scoring standards for each event are scored based on the world records; the closer a skier comes to breaking it, the more points they are awarded.

Mawby plans to do just that in what could be her final ride for the red white and blue.

“I want to ski well. I should ski close to the world records in all three events,” she said of her goals for the tournament. “I want to help the team earn enough points to win the five-peat.”

Should the Americans take home the unprecedented fifth straight world title, they would cement themselves and their program as the premiere disabled water skiing dynasty in the world, and will have done it nearly self-funded.

“It would be nice to have plane tickets,” Mawby said of the building expenses.

The team largely supplies their own equipment, transportation, lodging and food out of the athletes’ pockets, a sum that builds up quickly for a trip to Australia.

Contributions to Team USA can be made at www.usskiteam2017.com. Any size gift is appreciated. Donations can come in the form of drawing entries for a variety of items from ski gear to GoPros, T-shirt purchases or individual sponsorships. Expenses for this year’s world championships are around $5,000 per skier. Consider a donation today to help Team USA make history, again.

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