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Dawn of an era

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Go Mocs

The dawn of a golden era ?

by Freddie Winter

Amongst the many reasons that sport is such a large part of our culture is the collective excitement we feel when witnessing something that was previously thought extremely unlikely or even unthinkable. In most areas of life progress is reached behind closed doors with few witnesses but sporting spectacle is there for all to experience as history is written in real time. The Malibu Open at the start of last October was one such occasion, as all four women ’ s slalom finalists ran into 10.25m, marking the first time this had happened. In the minds of many, there was suddenly a new era of competitiveness in women ’ s slalom.

There was no hint of the upcoming twists and turns as the season started out. Regina Jaquess, took the Swiss Pro, as she has done in each of the last 7 years. At this point the then 36 year old was unbeaten in the last 7 events she had entered. Her 21 professional wins for her 26 entries in the preceding five years had made her the widely accepted ‘ skier to beat’ in women ’ s slalom. Within weeks however, news came through that she had ruptured a ligament in her knee while training for jump. With surgery needed to repair the damage, Regina was out for at least a good chunk of the season with an ambitious stated aim of returning for the World Championships in October. With the woman that many consider to be the greatest the sport has seen unable to participate, the stage was set for a great battle for supremacy in her absence.

Over the next 6 months it was Jaimee Bull who took center stage. The 21 year old Canadian, who had only narrowly been pipped to the victory by Regina at Swiss, won five of the seven events she entered, never placing below second in a breakout year like few before. These wins were especially impressive considering that she had only 6 pro podiums prior to the start of the year, with her sole win a victory over a sparsely populated field. By the end of the year she had taken 5 wins including The Masters, well known as the most distinguished event in professional waterskiing, and the World Championships. In the process, she took 1st place in the inaugural Waterski Pro Tour. “I definitely had big goals set out before the season started, I knew it was possible to win after my World Championship Bronze in 2017 as a 17 year old. But did I really believe it would go as well as it did? No ” Jaimee told me in her typically understated manner. “Obviously the field opened up with Regina out and I was able to fill out my experience throughout the season, being put in different situations - run-offs, being last off the dock - and it all just piled up my confidence as we got to Worlds ” . Jaimee points to her Worlds win as her season highlight: “there ’ s so much that goes into my skiing from so many people. Winning at Jack’ s [Jack Travers Ski School in Florida, USA], where I train, with so much of my support team there was special. And of course, Worlds means a lot to Canada so that made it even better ” .

Over the next 6 months it was Jaimee Bull who took center stage. The 21 year old Canadian, who had only narrowly been pipped to the victory by Regina at Swiss, won five of the seven events she entered, never placing below second in a breakout year like few before. These wins were especially impressive considering that she had only 6 pro podiums prior to the start of the year, with her sole win a victory over a sparsely populated field. By the end of the year she had taken 5 wins including The Masters, well known as the most distinguished event in professional waterskiing, and the World Championships. In the process, she took 1st place in the inaugural Waterski Pro Tour. “I definitely had big goals set out before the season started, I knew it was possible to win after my World Championship Bronze in 2017 as a 17 year old. But did I really believe it would go as well as it did? No ” Jaimee told me in her typically understated manner. “Obviously the field opened up with Regina out and I was able to fill out my experience throughout the season, being put in different situations - run-offs, being last off the dock - and it all just piled up my confidence as we got to Worlds ” . Jaimee points to her Worlds win as her season highlight: “there ’ s so much that goes into my skiing from so many people. Winning at Jack’ s [Jack Travers Ski School in Florida, USA], where I train, with so much of my support team there was special. And of course, Worlds means a lot to Canada so that made it even better ” .

Looking only at the season

' s stats it might appear that Jaimee didn ’t have to work all that hard but anyone that watched the events will know this was not the case at all. Her competitors pushed her as hard as they could in every event. Throughout the year these were primarily Whitney McClintock Rini, the only skier to take a title from Jaimee after the Swiss Pro, Manon Costard and, late in the year, a returning Regina Jaquess. Reflecting on the standard at the top, Whitney told me “Jaimee learned to win against the best athletes ever in the sport. ” This is something Jaimee says she would not have any other way, “It’ s so tough. There are four of us that can and will run 39 off [10.75m] frequently and so no one is given everything, you have to earn it every time. But I’ m happy that the level is so high, I really wouldn ’t want to compete if it was going to be easy

Whitney

’ s season was in itself remarkable, particularly her first post-pregnancy victory, the US Open in August, coming a year to the day after giving birth. By her own admission she had been below her high standards in the couple of years leading up to her pregnancy and she was surprised how long it took her to physically come back from that. “Around Stillwater [mid-July , final placement of 2nd] my skiing was just starting to click but by the end of it I had nothing left. It took me til California Pro-Am [in late August] to not feel tired at all when I was competing and then I just knew I could do it. It’ s been 5 years since I’ ve had the confidence to run 39off every time but I had that from then on. ” She ’ s not lying: she ran her first 10.75m of 2021 at the California Pro-Am and then a further 5 in her next 7 competitive rounds. As a result she won in California and most impressively it took her to the top of the podium in the most competitive event ever in women ’ s slalom skiing, the Malibu Open.

Sadly the set in which she ran the last of these 10.75m passes ended her season. After the incredible skiing of Malibu the water ski world was waiting for the four women involved to battle it out again on the biggest stage in the sport, the World Championships. Whitney, skiing at her peak and having won the last two events, was arguably the favourite. Sure enough, skiing second from the end in the preliminary round she took the lead, running a textbook 10.75. As she rounded buoy one at 10.25m her ski reared up but she went for buoy two, knowing any advantage could be critical in the final. What followed is the worst water ski crash I have ever seen. Seriously, Youtube it. After taking the impact at top speed fully on her face, she was left with a bloody eye, a fractured eye socket and what turned out to be a concussion. “I did everything right leading up to the Worlds but in the end I made one critical mistake: I tried to win the preliminary round” . Perhaps the level of performance has reached such a magnitude that these crashes are inevitable as skiers strive for that extra fraction of a buoy that could give them a tiny advantage, even before the finals.

Heroically Whitney attempted to ski the final two days later but went in after a shaky start, ending her bid for a third World Championships title. She remains very upbeat about her year. “This was one of my best seasons. I got back to my level and, despite having more on my plate as a mother, I actually enjoyed myself a lot more. I have nothing left to prove in this sport so I just enjoyed it all: the lake, the tournaments, the training. Personally the incredible level was a highlight. I’ m so happy to see our sport improve and I feel happy to actually support my competitors when they do well. ” This was wonderfully demonstrated at the Malibu Open by Whitney ’ s elated reaction as Regina became the latest of three to 10.75m. The Waterski Broadcasting Company ’ s camera caught her huge smile as she exclaimed “the plot thickens, so excited!” , quite the reaction from someone who has just been set a score at 10.25m to even make the podium. As we know, it worked out for her.

With four women scoring into 10.25m in that final, it was inevitable that one would be the first ever to do so without climbing the podium. That turned out to be Manon Costard, the then current World Champion. Her half buoy put her behind Regina ’ s 1 and Jaimee and Whitney ’ 2s (prior to the run off). “That was probably the hardest moment of the year for me ” she told me with a wry chuckle. “In terms of my own skiing it really wasn ’t the best season. There was never a moment where it really worked out. But Malibu was tough. ” In some ways in 2021 Manon was the ying to Jaimee ’ s yang, over the course of a season of being oh-so-close but never quite hitting the top. She finished 2nd five times in Pro Tour events, not easy for a skier who has won the biggest events in the sport in recent years: “It was hard being frustrated every weekend” . But like Jaimee, she ’ s happy that the level is where it is: “I did win the European Championships which was really great but, ultimately, my satisfaction comes from competing amongst the very best. If Jaimee, Whitney, Regina aren ’t there I can ’t say that I’ m doing that. ” She says her high point was the California Pro-Am when, despite finishing 2nd, she felt like she was truly skiing at her level. Her top score of that event, 2@10.25m, put her in a four-way tie for the best pro score of the year (no prizes for guessing the other skiers), which was subsequently approved as a new European Record. And, despite the disappointment in her season of nearly moments, she is gratified by the feedback from waterski fans. “I really felt that there was more interest in our skiing and people were tuning in to watch us just as much as the guy ’ s, I liked that. It’ s so tight at the top every week so I guess it makes sense. The excitement after the Malibu Open final was so clear.

The Malibu Open was remarkable not simply for that final. It was the comeback tournament of Regina Jaquess. Incredibly, barely more than four months since her terrible knee injury, she had made it back on the water. After a long career in which she has frequently dominated slalom tournaments from beginning to end, coming in as the underdog was unusual to say the least. That she ran 10.75m every round, with a new knee brace and likely a whole lot of trepidation, was quite remarkable. After making the podium in her comeback event she was overwhelmed with emotion in her postset interview: “I’ m so happy with how it came out. I mean, two months ago it was like “I can ’t walk so how will I ever ski?” . Injuries are tough but this has been amazing for me ” . Regina, the fiercest of competitors despite the hurdles she had to face, remained on the podium for the remainder of the year with a 2nd at Worlds and Miami Pro and a sweet return victory at the Mastercraft Pro.

But the story of the year was not solely about the four that so frequently ran into 10.25m. Perhaps just as significantly the chasing pack, which had previously been a step or two behind, really caught up. All at once it wasn ’t just a handful of women running 11m; a score at 10.75m became a prerequisite for any chance of success. “It suddenly got really tight in the top 8 or 12 skiers. It was never easy before but now you really can ’t mess up even a bit or you won ’t make the final. It’ s competitive all the way down ” Manon told me.

The improvement is evident just by looking at the scores. To make the World Championship final of 12 skiers in 2021 the necessary score was 1.5@10.75. This was the highest cut at a Worlds by 5.5 buoys over and above the 2@11.25 in Mexico 2015. Comparatively, five years prior 1.5@10.75m was achieved by just 15 women across the whole of the 2016 season. This includes scores in zero-pressure record tournaments with varying degrees of adherence to the rulebook, not the one chance, heart-in-mouth, legit as it gets World Championships. Quite a staggering improvement.

The standout names of the chasing pack across the season were Chelsea Mills, a first time pro event winner at 37 years old at the San Gervasio Pro-Am in July, Sam Dumala, Karen Truelove who all consistently ran mid 10.75m in Pro Tour events while there were flashes of brilliance from the 20 year-old Brooke Baldwin. Elizabeth Montovon ended the season on a crazy high beating Regina in a run-off for her first title at the Miami Pro.

But what are the reasons for this marked improvement? Jaimee believes that, perhaps counterintuitively, the Covid pandemic played a part: “For me, and probably for a lot of US based skiers in 2020, as the world shut down I had a lot more time to focus on skiing with fewer distractions. I got a great base that definitely accelerated my improvement and I took that into 2021” . The number of events for women ’ s slalom has increased a great deal, from 8 in 2019 to 12 in 2021, which Manon believes to be a factor. “When you can compete weekend after weekend it’ s really motivating. There ’ s a big group going to every event who all want to be better than before. I think everyone realised actual competition is more rewarding than getting a score at a random record tournament” . Whitney agrees: “ when you can see others go out and do it you believe you can too. As one skier starts to improve, the next girl thinks “hey, I can do that too!”” . And, of course, the increased visibility of events could well be a part of the progression mix. “The TWBC coverage has allowed women to share the spotlight with the men ” , Whitney said, “that’ s motivating for us girls to go out and show what we can do ” .

Whatever the reasons, it’ s exciting to see. As excellent as women ’ s skiing was in 2021, with the trending line seemingly on the up, 2022 is set to be even better. Perhaps we are witnessing the dawn of something akin to the big 3 rivalry between Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in men ’ s tennis in the last 15 years or Ronaldo vs Messi in football as the best battle it out for supremacy, elevating each other to new heights. Whitney: “As far as the top 4 are concerned, there ’ s not going to be any slow down. We ’ ve all got momentum and on the way up ” No one is resting on their laurels; how could they when they ’ ve seen how competitive it is? Everyone I spoke to mentioned that they are continuing to work on their technique and fitness with the aim of improving for this season. As Manon put it “it’ s not about training to run 10.75m anymore, it’ s finding a way of getting the most possible buoys at 10.25m. ” Again, with a rueful laugh she says: “Trust me, I know very well that running 10.75m doesn ’t guarantee you a podium anymore. ”

Freddie Winter

Chris Travers, Jack Travers, Lelani Travers, Jaimee Bull and Jon Travers World Championship Podium Ceremony at Jack Travers Sunset Lake