From a public lake in Italy to a college in the U.S. to a run this past summer into 43 off, Thomas Degasperi has come a long way — and he's still far from finished.
The gasps suck in the hot July air on the shore. A guy only hard-core slalom fans have heard of is looking to join the most elite club in the sport. The boat is speeding through the entry gates at 36 mph. His tow line is black, meaning there's an impossible 43 feet off the length. He torpedoes toward 1 ball, fights to turn his ski faster than instantly, stretches out his left hand so far that his fingertips remain on the handle only by sheer force of will. He rounds it.
By the time he crosses the wake, there's not enough steam to get on the far side of 2 ball, something only world-record holder Chris Parrish has ever done. Still, jaws are dropping as the gasps become cheers. He punches his left fist into the air in triumph – a millisecond before the extreme shortness of the line yanks on his hand and slams him unceremoniously into the water.
This is Thomas Degasperi, previously known as “that tall Italian skier who's pretty good” or, to the female students on the University of Louisiana-Monroe campus, “that tall Italian skier who's pretty cute.” Thanks to that run this past summer at the Ski West Pro tournament outside Paris, the 25-year-old is an unofficial member of the “1 at 43 Off” Club, which in the record books includes stars Chris Parrish, Andy Mapple, Jamie Beauchesne and Jeff Rodgers. He's “unofficial,” though, because his score came in a runoff, which isn't measured under record-capable standards. Still, Degasperi's is now a name that everyone should know, especially since that one run likely wasn't an isolated event, but a sign of more to come.
“People are looking at me with different eyes,” Degasperi says a few weeks later, his Italian accent softened after four years at an American college. “They expect more from me now.”
He's ready to deliver. Degasperi's whole life has led him to this brink of fame, ever since he got on the water at his dad's ski school on Caldonazzo Lake in northern Italy. It was just like any public lake in America — well, except for the view of the Alps, the 11th-century castle of the counts von Trapp and the town rule that his dad's Correct Crafts were and are the only boats allowed on the deep lake.
His dad, Marco, retired in his mid-30s from teaching physics and dedicated himself to skiing, running the school, competing and passing on that love to Thomas, who started skiing when he was 5. In his age group, he won a national title at 10 and the European championship at 14. Yet in those years, longtime European instructor Thomas Gustafson, who photographed Degasperi for this issue, remembers a young skier who was a little “stubby.” “I would never have thought this kid would become one of the best slalom skiers in the world,” Gustafson says. “He was running around, bothering my skiers on the starting dock. I was like, 'Get away!' Today, though, you can't help but like him.”
Degasperi grew up, in every sense. “When I was 15,” he says, “I started taking it more seriously and got better and better — and then it becomes your life.” His dad taught him about the greatness of such skiers as Andy Mapple and Wade Cox. From age 15 to age 17, Degasperi improved his world junior ranking from 46th to fourth. He was enjoying success throughout Italy and Europe as he got taller, culminating in a fourth place in slalom at the 2001 World Championships, held in his home country.
Degasperi wanted to build on that by skiing in the winter, something that would require him to leave his dad's ski school — and the home cooking at his mom Traudi's restaurant. He called up the McCormick Ski School outside Tampa, Florida, to see if he could practice there and help drive boats. In the meantime, he had become a lock recruit for ULM, skiing's most decorated college program. Fellow Italian Fred Minnelli was already on Monroe's team and really wanted Degasperi to join. In Degasperi's fourth month at McCormick's, he signed with ULM. That was the easy part.
The hard part was actually going there. After a summer spent back in Italy with his family, he was feeling comfortable. He could walk into bars and cafes, and people would know who he was. “I was thinking, I have to leave my family, all my friends. I have to start over in another country,” Degasperi says. “My English was not so good, and I was kind of insecure.”
Any fears were unfounded. “He fit in within a couple days that first year,” says Regina Jaquess, a fellow star skier who joined the ULM team the same time Degasperi did, in the fall of 2002. “He blended in great with the girls on campus — this suave Italian guy who was good-looking and tall.”
That height, 6-foot-3½, also helped him in skiing as he tore up the water at ULM's practice site, the Bayou DeSiard, which runs through the middle of campus. That October, Degasperi earned a second-place finish in men's slalom at the 2002 collegiate nationals, helping ULM to its 17th national title. By the time his birthday came in January, he had new friends to toast his 22nd year. “He's a very jolly guy,” Jaquess says.
But rather than build on his accomplishments, Degasperi spent three months of 2003 on the sidelines as he recovered from a neck injury. Determined to come back stronger, he hit the weights, helped along by the friend he calls “Muscle Mate,” Ryan Dodd, the Canadian overall skier who started at ULM in the fall of 2003. “He got on the right track,” Dodd says. “He does his own thing in the gym. He pays attention to eating balanced meals. Since I've been at school, I think he's dropped almost 20 pounds and gotten stronger.”
Also during the past three years, Degasperi has worked on preparing “how do you say, psycho-, psycholo-” — psychologically. “Yes, psychologically, mentally,” he says after his only English stumble in this entire conversation. “I used to get really nervous before a tournament. Now I try to be calm and be aggressive and not think about the crowd, the music, the other competitors.”
As Degasperi retooled, ULM won another national title in 2004. And on the strength of his own top finishes, mostly at European tournaments, and the 3 at 41 off run he could pull out on occasion, Degasperi's world ranking climbed to fifth.
Dodd saw he was going all out in his final year at ULM: “Up until this past year, he'd run 39 in the odd tournament. In practice, our lake is rolly, one of the toughest lakes to slalom anywhere, but Thomas would be running 4 at 41 — like the second week of training last fall.”
At the 2005 collegiate nationals, Degasperi claimed the slalom crown. But this past spring came the final tweaks that elevated his skiing (see “How He Got Into 43 Off“). In June, France's Eurolac ski site hosted the Lena Cup tournament. Degasperi had a run of 5½ at 41 off, besting not just the 12
other European competitors but every other score so far this year.
Two weeks later at the Ski West Pro in France, big names like Chris Parrish, Drew Ross, Wade Cox and Will Asher were running into 41 off in the first two rounds. When the smoke cleared after the final round, there was a first-place tie at 3 at 41 off among Jason Paredes of the United States, Britain's Glenn Campbell and, yes, Thomas Degasperi. In the runoff, Degasperi was first off the dock and powered to that score heard round the world: 1 at 43 off. After that, no one else made it out of 39.
Rather than being universally celebrated, though, Degasperi heard grumblings, especially from the message board on skifly.com, that his scores at Eurolac and Ski West weren't fully legit. “I'm happy that I proved what I can do. In front of everybody, I ran 41,” he says. “Finally I'm starting
to get that confidence in
myself with big tournaments. I know I can do it.” The week after Ski West, he went to the Malibu Open Europe, also in France, and won with 2 at 41 off. That capped a blistering four weeks.
This fall, Degasperi will actually be back at ULM for a last semester toward his marketing degree, though his sports eligibility has been used up. In 2007, he'll go to Australia for the Moomba Masters, to New Zealand with skier Steve Cockeram, then to Florida to ski until summer, when he'll return to Italy.
The buzz around Degasperi will follow him wherever he goes from now on. Can he break the world record? Is he really one of the best skiers ever? “That might make me a little more nervous,” he says, “but I'm sure going to work on it.”
How He Got Into 43 Off
Thomas Degasperi's Italian coach, Andrea Alessi, encouraged him to adopt the one-handed gate. Degasperi also switched skis, from the Goode 9600 to the 9700. “Trying the one-handed gate and the ski at the same time was super-confusing,” he says, laughing now. “I went to the Masters and I fell. I went to the Slalom Shootout in Orlando and I fell.” He went back to the 9600 and back to Italy after the school year. That's when it all came together. “The one-handed gate was helping me get wider on 1 ball and carry more speed through a gate,” he says.