Twenty years ago Billy Nichols set a water-skiing record that could endure forever.
The photo in Billy Nichols' hand doesn't look like much. In the shot, slightly out of focus and a bit faded from age, Nichols, then 14, is barefooting on one foot and holding the handle with one hand. Nice pose, but we've seen it a thousand times from a thousand different skiers. The reason Nichols and his family are quick to pull this one from the scrapbook is because it was taken while he was making history with a record that's unlikely to be broken – ever.
To say Nichols was out barefooting around Lake Weir near Ocala, Florida, on November 19, 1978 – a few months before the first-ever issue of this magazine – is like saying that a guy climbing Mount Everest is strolling up a hill. Nichols was out that day to break the world record for endurance barefooting, which he had read about in the Guinness Book – two hours, 37 minutes by Australian Paul McManus.
“I wanted that record bad, more than anything,” remembers Nichols.
So bad that he started running 5 miles a day with ankle weights, working out two hours daily with cinder blocks and pulleys, eating extra meals, consuming raw eggs and walking around outside without shoes or socks to toughen up his feet. For weekend training runs he'd barefoot up to an hour and 45 minutes, unofficially. He went from 102 pounds to 122 in two months.
Says Nichols, “By the day we went out there [to break the record] I felt like I was bulletproof.”
He had to be. Lake Weir is very large (about 15 miles around) and very public. “We didn't see a single other skier on the water,” says Nichols, “but there was a bass tournament.”
Using hand signals, Nichols and his dad, who was driving, managed to skirt around traffic. Another assistant gassed the boat on the fly with a special safety valve. Chief official Elmer Stailing and Tony Law of the American Barefoot Council rode with stop watches.
At the two-hour, 30-minute mark, Nichols' bravado nearly got the best of him. On the previous loop he'd noticed his mother crying on the dock.
“She knew that to get the record I'd hurt myself if I had to,” says Nichols.
Next time around he asked for his dad to go from the 30-mph cruising speed to 40. To prove to his mother that he was OK, Nichols did a one-foot for her and the camera – seven minutes before the record would be broken.
The record fell before Nichols did, which happened when a fishing boat threw a wake at Nichols. He'd been barefooting for two hours, 42 minutes and 39 seconds.
A few weeks later an official letter came from the World Water Ski Council. The record published in Guinness had been a misprint. It should have read one hour and 37 minutes. Nichols had crushed the record like a walnut.
“I was thrilled when I got the letter,” says Nichols. “I figured maybe nobody would try to go that far and I'd have the record for a while.”
A new Guinness criterion says the duration mark can only be broken in a tournament, which makes chances remote. As far as anyone knows, it hasn't even been attempted.
“You see some great athletes who look like they could do it,” says Nichols. “It isn't so much a physical thing. It's knowing how to manage pain.”
Then, as if inviting someone to try, Nichols says, “It's two hours and 40 minutes out of your life. It isn't really that long.”
It isn't all that enticing either.