After traveling 2,500 miles from home, Ron Messenger was finally within just feet of his fantasy. His gray, chilly winter in Seattle had melted into the green-chile warmth of Acapulco, his lake's toxic algae bloom forgotten for this glassy tropical lagoon. Best of all, Messenger was watching from the tow boat as the first pro skier he had ever seen entered the slalom course at a line length he had only dreamed about: 39 1/2 off.
“It was almost surreal,” says Messenger of his prime seat for pro Marcus Brown. “The pros make it look so effortless that you just know you could get back there, jump in your ski and do that.”
That was the vibe at WaterSki's inaugural FantaSki Camp, a one-week affair last December at Gordon Rathbun's Ski Paradise resort on Mexico's southern coast. In the spirit of sports fans who shoot hoops with Michael Jordan or drive par-5s with Tiger Woods, Messenger and five other campers got to hit the water with five professional ski stars: Brown, Jodi Fisher, Rhoni Barton, Jamie Beauchesne and Natalie Hamrick. With the best instruction they had ever had and a total immersion in the world of water skiing, the fantasy campers emerged feeling in some ways like pros themselves, ready to take on the world this summer.
The fantasy begins
A perfect ski week can inspire you like that. This one began with an angelic chorus of “Aaah!” when the campers saw Rathbun's ski site, tucked into a sheltered, palm-lined cove off the Pacific. The buoys of the two side-by-side slalom courses seemed to twinkle like a constellation in space, with nary a breeze or a PWC to upset the quiet calm. A third course on the far side of the lagoon was an embarrassment of riches. Next to the dock, the palm-thatched palapa offered a shady escape with built-in couches to unwind on between sets. “The ski lagoon was spectacular,” says camper Bill Wolf. “And we had it all to ourselves.”
Wolf was the most skilled skier of the civilians, with a personal best of 1 at 38 off in a sinkable slalom course on his semi-private lake in Indiana. The others weren't so course-obsessed. Messenger had only been giving it a whirl for two of the nearly 40 years he had spent skiing. Californian Bob Saunders would have been into skiing the course more if his best ski-site access hadn't been a 3 1/2-hour drive away. Eric Gale, a Texas teenager, hadn't even seen a course until this Acapulco trip with his mom, Beverly Bass-Haralson, herself a skier.
FantaSki Camp Scorecard
Hometown: Dallas, Texas
Bev, aka Eric's mom, tried to convince us for the first few days of the camp that she had just come along with her son to watch and support him. But by the end of the week, she was probably runner-up to her son for the “most improved” skier. Bev went from riding over the wakes free skiing, to making open-water slalom course cuts from side to side, to running the mini course and almost three buoys in the slalom course.
Hometown: Dana Point, California
Occupation: Reforester in Costa Rica
Neil arrived in Acapulco one week before WaterSki's fantasy camp to sneak in some extra water time before the pros showed up. Unfortunately, he dislocated his shoulder during this first week and couldn't ski in the camp. Neil made up for it by logging some serious boat-riding hours.
Hometown: Dallas, Texas
Eric took home the “most improved” award of the week. When he arrived in Acapulco, his open-water wake crossings were extremely conservative. By the end of the week, he fell going from five to six ball in the slalom course at 22 mph and 15 off. Even more impressive was the fact that Eric kept waking up with the pros at 5:15 a.m. to watch the early-morning photo shoots.
Hometown: Lakewood, Washington
Occupation: Funeral home manager
Ron had responded to an editorial by WaterSki editor Todd Ristorcelli about water-skiing addiction. Todd saw Ron's enthusiasm and gave him the scoop on the fantasy camp. Ron conned his wife, Janine (who didn't ski), into attending. By the end of the week, Janine wasn't just on vacation; she was out tearing it up and sharing Ron's passion for the sport.
Hometown: Manhattan Beach, California
Occupation: Financial adviser
Bob, aka “SpongeBob,” won the die-hard award of the week. After a tough tumble on day one, Bob suffered from forearm pain. With some help from duct tape, he managed to ski the entire week, only to find out when he returned home that he had torn his bicep and needed emergency surgery to reattach it.
Hometown: La Porte, Indiana
Prior to his back surgery 10 years ago, Bill had run one buoy at 38 off. Since the surgery, he hadn't been able to complete 35 off. As the highest-level skier at the camp, Bill had never received professional coaching. He came to Acapulco hoping to get enough help to get him back through that blue (35 off) rope length.
What they did have in common was a love of skiing, which got their hearts racing when they heard about this fantasy camp. “That was cool to see,” Brown says, “that people who had no access to a course could enjoy the sport as much as we pros could – even more.”
Especially when the skiers went from no access to all access. Every day, the skiing experience stretched from post-breakfast to pre-bedtime, with the pros and the campers mingling both on the water and off it at Rathbun's villa overlooking downtown Acapulco. While the bleary-eyed pros stumbled to the lagoon by 5:30 a.m. for sunrise photo shoots, the campers got up by 7:30 a.m. to feast on home-cooked meals like burritos rancheros and banana-stuffed pancakes. By 9, everyone was together and the instructional sets began, with breaks for fresh tossed salads (the homemade green dressing looked like slime but tasted sublime) and couch siestas as needed. The late afternoon segued into extracurricular escapades such as racing baby turtles into the ocean and gaping at death-defying cliff divers, who were protected from the rocky shore 150 feet below only by their skill and their Speedos.
Saunders, for one, couldn't believe the pros were around for all of it, even staying at the same villa as the campers. Working in Beverly Hills, California, he had become used to seeing some pro athletes act standoffish and arrogant, from baseball stars who ignore 6-year-old kids to PGA golfers who pout at lavish tournaments. “I was impressed with what good people these pro skiers were and how generous they were with their knowledge,” Saunders says. “Granted, if the water skiers made a million dollars, maybe they'd be like that, but I don't think so. If you're a nice person, you're a nice person.”
Wet 'n' wild
As encouraging and approachable as the pros were, Messenger got to know Jodi Fisher, but he was no Jodi Fisher. Out on the lagoon, the 5-foot-5, 47-year-old funeral home director threw up as much spray crashing at 15 off at 32 mph as he did slicing through a turn. He may love skiing enough to go out literally every weekend year-round, but Messenger laughs about the biggest tip he picked up from the trip: “Finding out you do everything wrong, from stance to leans to when you pull.”
That's where the gap between the typical skier and professional skier was the greatest. The amateurs with raw passion and raw skills obviously couldn't flash the refined wizardry of Hamrick, Barton and the gang, all of whom had enjoyed years of top instruction and enviable ski-site access. After talking over tequila about what it took to get to the professional level, Saunders realized he had his childhood to blame:
“Dad, why didn't we build a private lake and put a dock out there?!” he mocked, in feigned hurt. Young Eric was the only one who could hope one day to return to Acapulco not as the student, but as the master.
Then again, you don't go to Michael Jordan's camp expecting to dunk from the free-throw line by the time you leave. The campers learned what they could about skiing, sampling advice from all the pros, then sticking with what worked best for them. Messenger concentrated on becoming more neutral in his stance. Saunders flipped his handle grip, putting his right hand up because he skis left foot forward. Wolf had never been into adjusting his fin and foil until Fisher went over how changing the depth or the length could help his performance. Eric listened to Brown on boosting his stability and speed by facing the boat with his chest and centering his weight over the ski.
The camp was very different from a ski school or a pro clinic on your home site. “Even if you take a lesson at a lake for an hour or two, there's only so much your mind can absorb and remember,” Saunders says. “Being around these guys for a week, I took in so much more. It soaked in.” As Brown says, “Sometimes you have to go on vacation, completely clear your mind so you're more aware of what coaches are telling you.”
Each day, the skiers put the tips to work during their sets, as Barton played drill sergeant to keep things on schedule and Hamrick occasionally played bikini-clad cheerleader. Fisher showed that he could still be in touch with the tribulations of beginning skiers when he temporarily traded his slalom stick for a real stick – a wooden plank nicknamed “The Shark.” He could barely get out of the water, and he was lucky to get through the gates and around buoys one and two, setting a new Shark “world record.” Then The Shark bucked him and he bit it, doing front flips from ball 2 to 3.
Most nights, the water venue shifted from the lagoon to the hot tub, with a family-style dinner in between of red snapper with mango and jicama sauce or some other Mexican delight. While everyone soaked, advice became a two-way street. Saunders talked IRAs, recommending ways prize checks could turn into retirement funds. Fisher tapped the expertise of the parents in the group, since he is about to become the stepfather of two. Wolf shared his expertise with surgery stories. And Janine Messenger, the only significant other on the trip, showed the pros special stretching techniques from her job as a personal trainer.
Evenings unfolded like that because distractions were rare. Most people had come solo to a pocket of the world where cell phones and e-mail didn't reach. Even wheeling a TV outside by the pool to dissect Andy Mapple's new slalom video was an option usually preferred over heading into downtown Acapulco's nightlife, which didn't really fire up until midnight. That was past the bedtime of some exhausted campers and pros.
The ultimate tournament
After all, everyone had to save energy for Friday, the final full day. That's when this fantasy camp would turn serious, as Rathbun held a climactic tournament that pitted not just peer against peer, but camper vs. pro. How could Eric, who had fallen at the first buoy in his first attempt at the course earlier that week, hope to beat Marcus Brown?
Thanks to the beauty of handicapping, Rathbun leveled the playing field, setting up a simple system in which he set a goal for each skier, whether in the full course or the mini course. If you beat the goal, you'd receive one point. Matched it, zero points. Finished below it, you'd lose a point. With that, the entire group split into two teams with a mix of pros and campers and squared off head-to-head on the side-by-side slalom courses. Everyone's adrenaline was pumping, whether this was a skier's first or 200th tournament. “You could cut the tension with a knife at the palapa,” Saunders says. The game faces were on, and the trash talk was flying. “What?” Barton exclaimed from the platform of her Ski Nautique as she saw one of Rathbun's drivers, Nicolas Deleage, behind the wheel for Hamrick. “Deleage is on your team, Natalie. He can't drive. That's cheating!” Rhoni yelled, then added, “Never mind – you're going down anyway.”
FantaSki Camp Scorecard
Hometown: Orlando, Florida
Day job: Senior editor, WaterSki magazine
Rhoni balanced her week among coaching, working on her magazine assignments and trying to soak in as much slalom coaching from fellow pros Marcus Brown, Jamie Beauchesne and Jodi Fisher as she could. Rhoni's prize pupils of the week were “SpongeBob” and Ron Messenger.
Hometown: Concord, New Hampshire
Day job: Water- and snow-ski addict
Jamie was coming to Mexico via the Boston airport. You can imagine how frustrated he was when he learned that the 20-plus inches of snow the area received canceled all the flights. After three grueling days in the airport, Jamie finally caught a flight. Unfortunately, he missed quite a bit of the FantaSki Camp experience.
Hometown: Chico, California
Day job: Student at California State University, Chico
Marcus is currently enrolled in the civil-engineering program at CSU. Keeping up a 3.97 GPA, he spent many of his free hours in Acapulco with his books. Marcus has a personal best score of three buoys at 41 off, and is known for his “new-school” slalom style. Marcus' prize pupil of the week was Eric Gale.
Hometown: Ashford, Middlesex, England
Day job: Ski-school instructor
Jodi, any photographer's dream, came equipped with every color of board shorts, rash guards, lifejackets and clothing. Every item was screened to perfection, which matched his technique on his new O'Brien Sixam. Jodi, who coaches professionally, gave the students his undivided attention and plenty of dry-land clinics. His prize pupil of the week was Bill Wolf.
Hometown: Greenville, South Carolina
Day job: Grad student at the University of South Florida Spunky Natalie spent her December week under the sun testing new slalom skis. Unfortunately, we can't tell you what she really liked because it isn't public knowledge yet. How about you just wait and check out what she's riding at the first pro tournament of the season, the Masters? Natalie's prize pupil of the week was “SpongeBob”.
The campers had worked all week on the physical aspect of skiing, and their efforts were starting to pay off, but the tournament taught them what it took mentally to be a pro. Barton and Hamrick showed by example. They were mirror images of each other in the two slalom courses, first running 28 off, then 32, then 35. As each concentrated on her own passes, one would glance at the other out of the corner of her eye only 100 or so feet away to see whether she had fallen. When Hamrick finally went down at 3 ball at 38 off, Barton stood up around 3, taking the win and earning valuable points for her team.
Wolf, Saunders and Eric also experienced the thrill of victory, earning bragging rights on the winning team. For the other team, that night's blowout dinner finale took the edge off the agony of defeat.
Return to reality
Easing back into the real world has been a happy transition for most of the fantasy campers. “The camp improved me 300 percent,” says Eric, who'll spend his summer back on Possum Kingdom Lake outside Dallas, Texas. “Before I could get up and go across the wake but couldn't really do anything. Now I can turn real well and go across the wake a lot faster. Skiing's a lot more enjoyable.” It is made even more so by the new ski he bought in Acapulco.
The buying spree continued with Saunde
rs and Messenger, who is now the proud owner of a 2004 Ski Nautique. “Rhoni and Natalie took my wife out a couple of times, and that put her in seventh heaven,” Messenger says. “If she hadn't gotten so excited about skiing, there's no way we would have bought a new boat.”
Wolf hit it off with Fisher and is hoping to get the pro to visit his lake in Indiana this summer. “The experience enticed me to improve my skiing and share it with the guys I ski with, try to have everybody notch it up a level,” Wolf says. That and the fact that he has become a ski groupie.
Riding the supercharge from their Acapulco experience, the campers hope to get more out of the 2004 season. They won't be at the pro level, but they will be trimming the line lengths, bumping up the speed and smiling all summer. “It has increased my passion for the sport,” Saunders says. “I just wish I weren't 45 years old learning this stuff.” Ah, a way to transform 40-somethings into 20-somethings – that's a great idea for the next Fantaski Camp.
Just Another Day in Paradise
Gordon Rathbun, six-time U.S. national slalom champion, offers water-ski vacation packages in Acapulco, Mexico, from November through May at Ski Paradise. Your week includes seven nights of accommodations with six days of skiing. Although Rathbun usually does most of the instructing, celebrity guest coaches like Wade Cox, Andy Mapple and Kris LaPoint make annual appearances.
The Acapulco accommodations in picturesque Casa Alegre include a beautiful seven-bedroom, seven-private-bath villa, and are located on the exclusive Las Brisas hillside. From the pool and dining room, guests have a panoramic view of Acapulco Bay.
Guests also have access to an Olympic-size outdoor pool, a tennis court and a weight room at the nearby health club – just a 10-minute walk from the villa. Golf fanatics can enjoy five courses as well.
Acapulco is a city of 1.5 million people, with a great night life, terrific beaches and one of the world's most inviting climates. For additional information and reservations, e-mail email@example.com, or call 408-730-9929 (California) or 011-52-744 446-6139 (Acapulco, November-May).
Taste the Fantasy
You too can get a slice of water-ski bliss with your favorite pro skiers. Visit www.waterskimag.com/fantasy for a list of top-rated ski schools and pros willing to travel to your site. Also, keep your eyes peeled for upcoming information on FantaSki Camp II in WaterSki.