Last Wednesday afternoon, John Burris of West Point got in his final practice session before leaving for Sesena, Spain, for the World Water Ski Championships, which begin this week.
Burris, 36, selected as one of eight water skiers to represent the U.S. in the 35-plus age division, has been a competitive water skier for 25 years. The sport has taken him all over the country.
Asked if he’s ever been to Spain, he shook his head no. “But I’ve been to Oklahoma,” he said, grinning at the reference to a Three Dog Night song that is older than he is.
His buoyant mood is understandable. The trip to the world championships, his first, is the culmination of a quarter century of competitive skiing.
His journey began at 11 years old when his father, Bill, took him to Tupelo for his first water ski tournament. He won his age group and never looked back.
“That was it for me,” he said. “I forgot about Little League baseball that day. From then on, it was water skiing.”
It was obvious from the start that Burris was a natural talent, said Bill Roberts, whose passion for water skiing has extended over 60 years. Roberts was one of the founders of The Tombigbee Stump Jumpers water ski club in Columbus in the 1950s. Bill Burris was one of those early members and Roberts has followed John’s career from the start.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more natural talent,” said Roberts, watching from the bank as Burris practiced behind the boat driven by another long-time friend and supporter, Mike Lavender. “He’s one of the best ski jumpers in the world.”
Burris has stacked up titles on the state, regional and national levels. He won his first national title in 1993, at age 13, and has added 20 more national titles since.
Competitive water skiing
Water ski competitions are divided among three disciplines — slalom, trick and jump.
In the slalom events, skiers navigate a series of buoys. With each trip, the ski rope is shortened, making each pass tighter and increasingly difficult. Trick skiing is scored much like figure skating. The skier puts together his own routine of tricks, each assigned a grade for degree of difficulty. The skier must complete as many of those tricks as possible in 20 seconds.
Finally, ski jumping is pretty simple. A skier launches himself from a ramp and tries to stay airborne as long as possible.
In addition to the titles awarded in each event, an overall champion is selected based on the skier’s performance in all thee.
“My best events are jumping and overall,” Burris said.
His strategy is to perform well enough in the slalom and trick events to keep him in range of the other competitors going into the ski jump.
“If I’m close enough to the leader after the slalom and trick, I kind of like my chances,” Burris said.
As a teen, Burris set a junior record with a 207-foot jump at Nationals in Bakersfield, California. His personal best jump is 219 feet.
To give some idea of just how long that is, imagine an NFL kickoff from the 30-yard line landing at the opposite goal-line.
“I’ve been around water skiing most of my life,” Roberts said. “But I’m still amazed when I watch John jump. He’s hitting the ramp and 70 mph and he’s just flying.”
An expensive habit
Burris said competitive skiing is a pretty small fraternity today.
“It’s still a very popular recreational sport,” he said. “But at this level, it’s a much smaller group than it used to be back in the 1950s.”
For one thing, competing on the elite level is expensive — the sport remains an amateur event, so finding sponsors is essential.
“I couldn’t do it on my own,” said Burris, who works at GoBox. “For something like this, you’re looking at probably $40,000 to $50,000 when it’s all said and done. Just the equipment I’ll pack in my bags will (be worth) probably $10,000.”
His primary equipment sponsors are Connelly Water Skis, Goodman Jump Skis and Cave Dwellers (wetsuits and clothing). Local sponsors, who choose to remain anonymous, help cover the costs of travel.
The world championships is a team competition. Each team is composed of four men and four women, competing for a grueling five days, which begins Wednesday and concludes Sept. 18.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Burris said. “I’ve skied in about eight events this year, which is more than normal because I wanted to keep a competitive edge. I think I’m ready.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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