The Joy that Danced Through My Heart: My Adaptive Water-Skiing Experience
“You smell like the river,” My husband said.
“Yep. It’s more like the smell of sweet serendipity,” I replied with a big smile.
I am a beach lover, but nothing sparks my soul like ole Louisiana’s rivers and canals. My motorized wheelchair helps me be independent and feel like I can go beyond limits. Nevertheless, its murky brown water allows me to be as free as the pelicans in the sky.
I have done most of the usual water activities. So, my tongue is quite familiar with the salty taste of the water. I am the kind of girl who has never been afraid of getting on a bouncy water raft or a fast jet ski. And now, there’s one water activity that I have been dying to try: water skiing.
Many of my favorite summer memories involve watching my family ski along the swampy waters. I cherish the fun and excitement that those memories once provided my family. My mom’s oldest brother actually won the Louisiana State Boys Water Ski Championship in eighth grade and also received a scholarship as a barefoot skier for Louisiana State University.
I have always wanted to join in the fun. There was one problem, though. I am disabled. I didn’t have the muscular strength or coordination. It was frustrating, but I knew I would get my chance one day.
“The world just has to catch up,” I kept reminding myself.
When I Finally Got My Chance
On August 14, 2021, I finally got to experience the thrilling rush of being pulled by a boat on skis—and I loved every second of it! I ran across a Facebook post about a nonprofit organization called Ski-Dawgs Adaptive Water Skiing about a year ago.
“Yes! My family and I definitely need to check this out,” I squealed.
The pandemic unfortunately hit that summer. The anticipation of waiting drove me crazy, but it helped me stay optimistic through the dreadful months of 2020. And before I knew it, summer 2021 came in a blink of an eye! Unfortunately, a lot of rain and COVID variants came along with it.
“Here we go again..,” I groaned. All I could think about was“I hope I get to ski before the summer ends.”
I checked the Ski-Daws Facebook page at the beginning of August. They were hosting their next and last clinic of the season off the Pearl River Canal in Bush, Louisiana on a Saturday when I had nothing planned.
“Wahoo! I’m finally going skiing!’ I squealed.
Beyond Limits: Spending Saturday with the Ski-Dawgs
The moment my family and I arrived at the location, excitement raced through my heart. I immediately saw several young, physically challenged individuals getting ready for the water.
“This is going to be so much fun,” I smiled.
A senior drafter for NAS with a C5 incomplete spinal cord injury, named David Thomas, co-founded Ski-Dawgs four years ago. He explained, ‘’We saw the need for more activities for people with disabilities around here and skiing was our favorite sport. There isn’t another adaptive ski program in Louisiana or within 350 miles of here; the closest one is in Houston.”
Thomas and Knoop hosted their first clinic in Louisiana after some expert training and the loan of a professionally made adaptive ski from the Metroplex Adaptive Water Ski Program in Dallas. Since then, Ski-Dawgs has hosted multiple clinics each year with the help of twenty to twenty-five eager volunteers at each clinic. Many of them are students who are studying to be physical therapists or occupational therapists.
Thomas told us, “The volunteers are really the heart of our organization because without them, there’s no way we could put these clinics on. Several have been coming since the very first clinic.”
Tracy Johnson, the very first volunteer and current board member, stated, “I still get emotional every time I watch a newcomer experience the joy of skiing for the first time.”
The Indescribable Feeling
A surreal feeling came over me the moment I put my life jacket on and slid into the adaptive ski seat. It was basically a narrow canvas seat sealed on the skis with padded rails and adjustable Velcro foot straps. A couple of volunteers adjusted everything to my comfort before securing the rope in place and signaling the boat driver. Who would have thought that such a simple upgrade on the seat would offer me–and many others like me–such a unique and amazing experience?
“This feels more comfortable than I imagined,” I thought.
“Are you ready?!” a volunteer asked as he hooked the rope.
“Alright! Have fun!” he replied as he signaled the boat driver.
The driver of the boat was actually a former skier of Northwestern Louisiana University, and she drove each person through her old slalom ski course. It is hard to describe how I felt as I began skiing across the water. However, all I know is that I could not stop smiling.
Nothing was on my mind except the joy that danced through my heart. I could see my family waving from the boat, beaming with pride as I zoomed through the water behind them. This was an amazing experience. I am so grateful that I kept following my dreams, because I have landed somewhere too perfect for words. I can’t wait to enjoy more river days with the Ski-Dawgs!
Special Thanks to the People Who Started It All
Adaptive water-skiing programs have become relatively popular in the past few years. Nevertheless, people have been enjoying adaptive water sports since the eighties. There’s no record of who first adapted water ski equipment to facilitate skiing for those with a physical disability. However, many determined innovators have helped countless disabled individuals to experience the thrill of skiing.
Adaptive water-skiing in the USA started with a man named Royce Andes. Andes was involved in a barefoot skiing accident that broke his neck and left him paralyzed in 1982. He had a prototype on the water less than a year after his accident. He drew the design with a stick pen in his mouth. His friend, a high school shop teacher, built the first several skis with his students as official class projects.
Andes later developed his designs into the Kan Ski, which was the first sit-ski available for disabled Individuals. Before there were ski seats, Tony Edge designed the “Triple Bar”, which reduced the teaching time for people with physical disabilities to learn how to stand up. The “Delger Sling” was another successful development that Ray Delger designed for assisting single handed skiers. The sling was refined for tournament use by Mark Addicott.
Although each country has become more inclusive at different times, international competitions have been happening since 1986. In fact, the first International Invitational Disabled Water Ski Tournament was held in Norway in 1986. Afterward, the first World Trophy took place outside London in 1987 with officials from the European, African, Middle Eastern Region and the Pan Am Region. In the event, there were forty participants from seven countries. By 2019, The World Championships in Norway hosted forty-four skiers from eleven countries.
Adaptive Water Skiing is proof that people promoting and working for a more inclusive society can change disabled individuals’ lives for the best. Whether you are a school teacher or a tournament official, please know that your efforts to grow inclusivity matter tremendously to disabled individuals like me.
It Is Worth Trying
Adaptive water-skiing is ultimately a fun form of physical exercise and social interaction that any disabled person can enjoy–professionally and recreationally. If you are not close to Louisiana or Texas, many other states, like Colorado, California, Michigan, Connecticut, and Wisconsin, have similar programs. There are also programs available for disabled individuals in other countries, like the U.K. and Australia.
Photos taken Sharon Jan Thomas Hartzog