I must admit that a large part of what I was looking forward to in South Carolina was trying to water ski. Sure, it would be lovely to meet Ambrose’s family, mine now by marriage, and to see some of the history of Charleston and eat like I was on vacation, but really, it came down to trying something new. Not because the other things weren’t as important, but because I’ve always believed myself to be incapable of those kinds of athletic feats.
Even though I’ve been running now for several years now, for so many years I was told, and believed, that I had no athletic ability. My brother was the athlete, the one who could run and earned the nickname “Booster” for his speed. I was the academic, the book smart bookworm who got good grades and did little outdoors.
When I was in 8th grade and had to suffer through the President’s Fitness Test for the last time, I had been lifting weights with my dad for four months. We would get up early and do free weights in the basement, followed by push-ups and sit-ups. I did more sit-ups in one minute than any other girl in my class. More than the athletic girls who made the A-team for volleyball while I was ousted by a 7th grader to the B-team. More than most of the boys. But it didn’t matter. I wasn’t an athlete.
For the last six years I’ve slowly begun to become an athlete. I started, as my husband is fond of recounting, by following his suggestion to take a walk with two rocks in my hands up and down the street for 20 minutes. From that beginning, I moved on to hiking, and then running. Backpacking has become my sport of choice, and I have become addicted to TurboKick classes at my gym. My husband and I lift weights and use the gym to get ourselves in better shape for backpacking. We now both have bicycles and I ride to work almost every day.
On the first morning in South Carolina, Ambrose, his brother and I all went for an early morning run, before the sun broke through the fog to boil us in humidity and heat. On vacation, I actually went on a run, for fun, something that would have been inconceivable to the me of 10 or 15 years ago. And that afternoon, after a morning spent on a ride through two lakes, a canal, a lock and a river, I tried to water ski for the first time in my life.
I watched Ambrose’s brother demonstrate the technique of getting up in the water, and was given an intensive short course of instruction from Ambrose, his brother, and his sister, who tried to help me simulate the experience of getting up by having me grab her arms and lean back. She also got into the water with me to help get the skis on.
We decided that it would be better for me to try it with my sandals on first, since my feet were a bit small for the skis, even at their smallest. I tightened the laces on my sandals and we tried to get my sandaled feet inside for a few minutes before giving it up. The soles were not flexible enough, and I thought that I should have brought my fivefingers, but I hadn’t. So we gave it a shot with my shoes off.
Getting my feet into the skis was easy without the shoes on, but I could feel that they would slide out just as easily. It was a struggle to hold the skis in the right position, especially as I wasn’t entirely certain what the right position was…
I decided I was ready enough to try, and Ambrose’s sister gave the yell to the boat, “Go!”
Nothing happens at first. The boat seems to move away slowly for a moment, and the rope orients. Then the speed increases. My arms surge forward after the rope and I struggle to hold them back, to lock my core and stay in a crouch. I keep the arms in position for a moment before the speed of the boat overcomes my strength. The skis are still below the water, being pushed down while my body is dragged up. My feet fly out of the skis and I let go of the rope and crash into the water.
When I surfaced, I blinked a few times, thinking I had lost my contact lenses, but a few squeezes of my eyelids revealed them to be still in place.
I repeated my performance two more times before calling it for the day. Partly, I was tired, but I was also concerned about losing my contacts in the water. I was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to gain stability on the skis, but I knew that I would try again and do better.
The next day, I got another chance to try skiing – this time I took my contacts out before I started. That was good in that I wasn’t worried about losing them, and bad in that without some form of vision correction, everything a foot past my eyes gets progressively more blurry. I hadn’t brought anything to anchor or float my glasses, so I couldn’t wear them without taking a big risk of breaking them or losing them in the lake.
Despite that I managed to get into a crouch and stay up for a couple seconds at a time, but I would always lose the skis, even when I tried using just one. Ambrose’s brother insisted that the wake board was easier to get up on, and I was convinced so I asked to try it.
The wake board is an entirely different beast. For one thing, I was able to tighten the boots onto my feet hard enough to leave me confident that they wouldn’t slide out. Also, unlike the skis, the wake board wants to float. It’s still difficult to keep the correct orientation, but it helps more than the skis do. The third nice thing about the wake board is that you can pop up at a much lower speed than with skis.
The boat rumbled off, and I prepared this time by having one hand in a reverse grip to try and hold on better. The pull began, and I felt the water try and push the board down. That first time, it was almost an instinct, something that I wanted but didn’t think about. I got the board above the water and I was up.
I think it startled me so much that I almost immediately wiped out.
The second time, I managed to hold on for a few more seconds, almost long enough not to know what to do next. As the boat circled to give me the rope, I asked Ambrose if he had gotten a picture. No, he was waiting for the camera to let him know that it had captured my face. Lucky for him that he was in the boat when I heard that.
“You’ll get up again,” he said.
I didn’t get up again that day.
Somehow, trying to do what I’d done without thinking just didn’t work. The board would sink and be pushed under the water, forcing another wipe out – though at least my feet didn’t escape the tightly laced boots. I was exhausted at that point, and I decided to call it a day. I had stood up. That was my goal, and I had achieved it.
The next day was cloudy, with drizzles dominating the morning. But the afternoon cleared enough that my husband’s water savvy family decreed it was safe for me to try jet skiing. I wanted Ambrose to go with me, but he was feeling ill (though he didn’t tell me at the time, not wanting to spoil my enjoyment), and I went off with his father for a crash course in jet ski riding, first with him and then solo while he rode beside me.
Then it was time for wake boarding behind the jet ski.
I was able to get up, and more than once. I can’t articulate it; I can’t describe it, but I got into my body the way to lift myself up and keep the board from sliding under the water and pulling me out.
Now, I wasn’t able to stay up for more than ten or twenty seconds – I did not gain an expertise in the short time that I had, but I began to understand that I could do it. If I wanted to devote the time, and the pain, and the work into it, this was not beyond my reach.
To my lifetime of non-athleticism, it felt like a revelation.
I also discovered that falling headfirst into the water hurts- not as much as headfirst into land, but it rattled me and I wanted to stop. But Ambrose’s dad got me to try it again, and I ended up glad that he did. I figured out how to choose my fall and land somewhere other than my head. I was ready to keep going, but Ambrose’s brother heard thunder, and that ended the outing in a hurry. Instead of trying to wake board back to the dock, I was ordered onto the back of the jet ski and had no trouble complying when a vertical lightning strike split the sky in the distance.
I didn’t get a chance to try again during that trip. We ran out of time and fair weather. Lucky for Ambrose, his brother got some pictures of me wake boarding so I didn’t have to resort to violent pouting the whole trip home (though it seemed to take forever for the photos to be sent on to us).
I was impressed before, watching wake boarders on TV, but now, in addition to being impressed with the tricks they can pull, I feel a longing. I want to get back there, and do more than stand up. I want to flip and leap and fly. I no longer believe that athleticism is beyond my reach. I’ve worked hard, and, while I’m not yet where I want to be, I’ve proven that I can do harder and more difficult things than I had dreamed possible.
I can stand up on a wake board. I can hike ten mile days with a 35lb backpack. And I can improve – but I’ve got to try and try, again and again.