Footstock has long been skiing's wildest — and strangest — party. Now it's becoming one of the best pure competitions, too.
Aaron Schoelzel has an unfair advantage. He admits it to me the Saturday morning of the National Figure Eight Championships, aka Footstock, through the fog hanging low here in the North Woods of Wisconsin. In about half an hour, the 26-year-old show skier from the Rock Aqua Jays will start powering through a bracket of nearly 200 footers. In each head-to-head heat, whoever stays on his feet the longest through the one-and-a-quarter-mile figure eight wins. Schoelzel plans to be the last man standing. That would give him his fifth Footstock title, more than anyone else in the event's checkered history.
So what's his secret? I asked him on Friday night when Duck's Bar in the host town of Crandon flowed with the spirit and spirits of Footstock. “I went to bed,” says Schoelzel. “You gotta want it.”
Yes, Footstock is sobering up. That's not to say that about 20 years after its current incarnation began, it has lost its place as America's most bizarre ski event. It still is. Duck's continues to be packed on Friday and Saturday nights, and the last person can still be found sleeping it off in a van in the parking lot, bare feet sticking out the back come dawn. You'll still see paintball guns and leech eating, and you'll be amazed by anything out of announcer Dave Mueller's mouth (sample: “Welcome to Footstock. If your boyfriend passes out, everyone's available,” said with a Michelob can in hand at 8 a.m.).
Dave's brother Gary, a local Footstock organizer who helped make this a national event starting in 1989, says, “This is probably the only major tournament where everybody gets drunk the night before. You train for it; then it doesn't matter.” He laughs when he says it. A blender whirs under one of the tents. In a sleeper trailer I see a vodka bottle, a Diet Mountain Dew two-liter and Clorox wipes on the kitchen counter. Only the town grocer, who's drawing the brackets with a T-square, seems to be taking any of this seriously. Footstock is held here in the woods on water the color of … well, what you'd expect from a former sewage dumping ground because nobody wants this spectacle on their lake. But Schoelzel's comment sticks with me. Maybe he's about to usher in a new era.
At the starting dock, some people in the motley lineup look as foggy as the morning. They might as well be in line for the ultimate hangover cure: a shock of cold water and a face plant at 42 mph. But Schoelzel isn't the only one with bright eyes. Take Elaine Heller. Officials have a dozen pink T-shirts ready to give out that say, “I was beat by a girl at Footstock.” Elaine is that girl, a blonde 15-year-old from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, who's at her fourth Footstock. She sweetly laughs off my question about notoriously ripping through the open-division bracket, saying, “You just hold on.”
“That's not it,” her farmer dad interjects. “She has a dad who makes her practice every day. The guys don't. I built a lake from last Thanksgiving to March. We check the wind on the Internet. If it's going to be windy, we go out at 5 in the morning and get 'er done.”
While not that extreme, 2003 champ Chris Van Zeeland lets it slip before his first matchup that he's been putting some work in, too. “My strategy is to beat everybody,” he says. “I actually trained all year, and I've never trained for this.”
Also in the mix this year are footers making their way to Washington State for the World Barefoot Championships held in three weeks. That includes American pro Keith St. Onge (who would go on to win the overall at Worlds) as well as a contingent from Australia and New Zealand. A New York Times article that included Footstock plus constant coverage on Barefootcentral.com also helped bring in competitors from beyond the figure-eight-crazy Midwest, leading to 50 more entries than the year before. “Now we're back up to the peak we had in the early '90s,” says Footstock organizer Bucky Dailey, a Crandon local who turns his house into a virtual hotel, restaurant and campground for the weekend. “There's a real buzz around it right now.”
Here on Saturday with 250 pulls scheduled, the overflowing brackets still play out as they usually do. The weekend-warrior guys slam into the water early and then join the party along the ridge overlooking the lake. The experienced Footstockers pace themselves. No one even completes a full figure eight until the middle of the afternoon in the 108th heat of the day. That's when 6-foot-6-inch “Big John” Hill, a grave digger from Arizona at his first Footstock, stands up on his size-14 feet through the cross rollers and rounds the final turn to zip past the starting dock. “I do that all the time when I'm training for my barefoot-endurance team, and here comes a wakeboarder cutting right across,” he says. He advances to the Sunday rounds.
The senior division closes out Saturday with the middle-aged skiers battling the conditions as if this were Wisconsin's fountain of youth. (As a reminder, it's not. The safety-boat driver spits his chew into the water, and the consistency of each is indistinguishable.) Bob “The Mule” Mahnke, famous as much for his six senior titles as his seven fingers, somehow holds on deep into the competition. But the win goes to the calm, cool, collected John DeBelak, who outlasts No. 2 Mike “Iron Man” Netzer. “Aaron Schoelzel was my coach coming into this,” says DeBelak. “I've been picking his brain.” A tired Mahnke says, “This is getting brutally tough.”
That night at Duck's, Dave Mueller is roasted on the occasion of his retirement as Footstock announcer. It's a great crowd, yet by 10 o'clock there's actually walking-around room in the bar. Chris Van Zeeland, for one, later tells me he was in bed by 9:40 p.m. For Footstock, that's basically cheating. Something's up.
Sunday dawns sunny, and the mood turns serious. Well, except for the raffle for a chance to be in a paintball firing squad that will target Dave Mueller as he foots by the dock. “The word is I will not be wearing a nut cup,” he says into the PA system, prompting the crowd to hold up their dollar bills.
Where Saturday saw only a smattering of full figure eights, Sunday is playing host to a series of them in the final heats of the open division. There are so many that there won't be enough time for the two last divisions: the “Clydesdales,” featuring the 250-pound-plus footers, and the “Best of the Worst” for competitors who got knocked out the earliest. Aaron Schoelzel and Mike Netzer follow the paintball intermission and easily scream through one eight. Schoelzel turns to the crowd and lets out a whoop.
The two trace the eight down to the far end of the lake and back again, this time passing the dock in grimacing concentration. They make it to the 2¾ mark, the longest of the weekend so far, before Netzer goes down. Schoelzel is feeling it. Then Keith St. Onge takes on national competitor Paul Stokes and goes down in the straightaway on the eight. St. Onge stumbles back onto the dock: “My thighs were toast!”
The heats keep going and going, 365 in all over the weekend — so many that an eight is etched into the sediment. “You'll be able to see it from the air for a couple weeks,” Bucky Dailey says as he fills up a Sanger boat with some of the 800 gallons of gas that the event burns through over the weekend.
Late in the afternoon with his sights set on that fifth title, Schoelzel is a heartbeat away from the championship heat. He hits the water alongside Stokes, and they keep going … and going … and going. The Footstock record is 2¾ figure eights. They pass that mark. Stokes later tells me he lost 20 pounds training for this moment. “I did a ton of figure eights
as well as lunges, squats, steps, throwing the medicine ball, working out in the gym three days a week and on the water three days a week. I was barely sore the days after Footstock.” Just as both are about to complete an unheard-of third figure eight, Schoelzel's tired body crosses the wake, and he loses the handle. He falls at 27⁄8.
A blessing and curse of Footstock is that it's double-elimination, so Schoelzel gets a chance to battle back from the loser's bracket. But he's wiped out. In his last chance, after rounding one eight, Schoelzel does the unthinkable: He drops the handle.
Blenders stop, conversations halt mid-word. There's silence for 30 seconds. Dave Mueller shouts down, “Why did you let go?” Floating in the water, Schoelzel says, “I'm just tired.” Van Zeeland goes on to top Stokes and walk away with the trophy and a $3,000 check.
Monday morning, Schoelzel is back detailing cars in Janesville, Wisconsin. His head is still spinning about what happened. “I knew there'd be a lot of talent up there,” he says, “but I didn't know there'd be so many guys capable of running three eights. Usually there are only one or two guys who train. They were all gunning to take my prize away from me, and they did.”
When the 2007 edition of Footstock kicks off in Crandon this Aug. 25-26, Schoelzel is looking for a real advantage beyond just ducking out of Duck's Bar. “I don't take losing well,” he says. “I'm going to train hard, get back in the gym. I'm going to reclaim my spot at the top.” Of course, his rivals are thinking the same thing.
Conquering Rough Water
Former national barefooting champion Paul Stokes has seen his share of rough water, whether in the middle of a Footstock figure eight or out on a crowded lake on a typical summer weekend. Here's what he recommends for anyone needing to foot through those conditions.
1. Keep your head up.
“I've tested that,” Stokes says. “If you're cruising and you're not even looking at [the rough water], your body just deals with it. If you see the bump, you'll think, 'I gotta bounce,' and you can overreact.”
2. Pull the handle in and down.
“Just lower the center of gravity with a knee bend and slightly lean back, but not resisting,” he says. “A lot of people get to where they're plowing too much, and a plow turns into a catapult. You're loading up energy that's not necessary.”
3. Stick with your fundamentals.
“All the principles of good barefoot position apply, even in rough water,” he says. “You'll cruise right over it rather than fight