I had forgotten what an all-nighter was like. Not since my college days had I been plummeted into the darkened abyss of junk food, caffeine and second-rate jokes that are only funny at 3 a.m. But on this night there were no papers to write, no tests the next day. My cohorts were a dedicated group of sleep-deprived students from the University of California at San Diego, and we were warming the pavement, about halfway into a 10-hour drive that would take us to a water-ski tournament in Chico.
This is hardly the picture of glamorous collegiate athletics.
Room service and interview rooms are foreign terms to collegiate water skiers. At UCSD there are no athletic scholarships offered and only a modicum of recognition. Financial assistance totals $1,500 for the entire team for the entire season. It just about pays for gas and tournament entry fees.
With no more than a couple blinks under their lids, the team arrives at shimmering Sky Lake a few minutes before 8 a.m. on Saturday. The scene at Scenic Sky Lake resembles a tailgate party more than a picturesque tournament site.
Freshman Nikki Kennedy stands at the dock, tightening her gloves. This will be her first tournament pass ever. Before joining the team, most of these skiers had never run a course, completed a trick pass or launched off a jump. Some didn't even know a water-ski team existed before they got to school. Garner read about UCSD in WaterSki (“Water Skiing U.,” February 1995). Others learned about it from local sports facilities, ski shops, friends or on-campus information.
While the fledgling tournament skiers flail on, there's another surprise. It's the textbooks. They're actually cracked. While keeping up with the latest date gossip and dialogue from the trendiest sitcoms, the UCSD skiers remain cognizant of the demands of a school that accepts only 4.0 students.
“The thing that makes this worthwhile is just being around everybody,” says Bret Fortenberry, a cognitive science major from Huntington Beach, California, who teaches skiing at a camp called The Sunshine Ministry. “I enjoy getting to know people from all over.”
The skiers aren't overly sensitive about results. Some have run a slalom course for the first time. Some have skied away from a jump for the first time. They've all made new friends from across enemy lines. Yes, this is what collegiate skiing is really all about.
Winners and losers? Save that for another story.