How did a self-taught kid from Indiana rise to the top of the men’s slalom world?
“My fin and ski have not been touched since September of 2010,” Nate Smith says. “I jumped on it, rode it, made a few tweaks, and haven’t tuned it since. That’s the same ski I’m currently on.”
Currently meaning he’s still riding the same D3 X7 — one that didn’t even belong to him the first time he tried it. But somehow that 21⁄2-year-old ski — and the person riding it — spent the majority of 2012 sitting at the top of the professional slalom rankings.
It’s true — the lanky 22-year-old from McCordsville’s Champion Lake in Indiana has been skiing most of his life. His father, Kevin, was a water skier who competed on the national level as an amateur. Even though Nate was on his first ski by age 2, tournament skiing wasn’t something he was drawn to as a youngster — he was too scared to enter a tournament until he was 8. He quickly acclimated to competitive skiing — winning state tournaments, regional tournaments and, finally, nationals three times, the first time being in 2004, at the age of 13. But even after that, Smith wasn’t thinking of going pro.
Sure, he’d had an impressive career as an amateur youth competitor. Yes, he’d heard of guys like Will Asher and Chris Parrish, and he recognized them in magazines. But did he think he’d ever be one of them? Not in the least. “I knew the pro guys — you hear about ’em all the time. But I didn’t know much about where they skied or what they did.” It was June of 2010, right after Smith’s high-school graduation in May, when pro-tour organizer Dana Reed practically forced him to show up at the Global Invitational in Michigan. “It was just a few hours away from my house, so I went — with the full expectation I was going to come in last,” Smith says. “I came in second place, just behind Will Asher. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, maybe this is something I can do.’” He found out he could not only play with the pros — he could beat them.
A Cinderella story? Sure — until just a few short weeks later at the Malibu Open in Milwaukee, that is, when the starry-eyed youth placed second to last. He missed his gate on the opening pass. At the next tournament, the Diablo Shores Pro Am, he finished in 10th place. Nevertheless, by the end of that year, his path was set: Pro skiing was going to be it. “I can go back to school later,” Smith says. “I’m not passing up the opportunity to travel the world and have a pro ski career.”
As if the come-from-nowhere phenom needed to add another unconventional element to the story of his me- teoric rise to the top of the slalom rankings, consider this: This world-class athlete skips the gym. Doesn’t work out. He just skis — and not even that much. He acknowledges that this sets him apart from the rest of pro skiing’s elite. “I’m pretty sure I’m the only one who doesn’t do anything,” he laughs. So what does Smith attribute his success to? While gracious, he’s not afraid to state the obvious: Natural talent helps. But the winningest men’s slalom skier in 2012 thinks he has something else too: the ability to focus. “I stay calm and make sure I don’t overreact to what’s out there — choppy water or wind. A lot of times, conditions make you change the way you ski — in rough water, you’re taking hard turns hard hits and changing the way you perform behind the boat. I just try to take it in stride and ski my course.”
On the tour, Smith’s easygoing ways have been noticed and perhaps even caused some envy; after all, the newcomer achieves what so many have worked so hard for — with seemingly so little efort. To hear him talk about it, even his training days hardly seem like work. “I’m a normal skier. I show up, ski a set at the lake, pull a friend and go home,” he says. His go-with-the-flow attitude applies to his career too. “I never had any intentions or plans. I just went with the flow, and when it happened, it happened.”
If there’s anyone who knows Nate Smith’s skiing better than Smith does, it’s a man named Scott Tynan — the lifelong nationally ranked amateur skier (2010 Men’s 3 national slalom champion) who he trains with at Sawmill Lake. “I’ve known Nate since he was in diapers. I competed with his dad,” Tynan says. “His dad was a smart man. He said, ‘You can only teach your own kid so much, and then they stop listening to you.’ So Nate started coming down here and training with me around the time he turned 16. When he came to ski with me, he could get 2 buoys at 38 of. But what amazed me was that he was riding such a long ski — he only weighs 160 pounds soaking wet! The second year we started skiing, he went from 2 at 38 to 2 at 39. The year after that, he was running a buoy or two at 41. The year after that, a buoy at 43 of. Every year, Nate gained a pass, and that’s unheard of in this sport,” Tynan says. “The first time he ran 41 of, he was in drysuit — as in the big Kokatat plastic bag — like a flying squirrel! He keeps joking he’s going to show up on the starting dock for a pro event in a drysuit. I’m still waiting!”
Every practice day, Smith shows up and they ski. He doesn’t get overly technical, just runs right down the rope. He doesn’t run back-to-back passes at any line length. He just goes out and acts like it’s a tournament every time he’s on the water. “We’ll each ski a set. I’ll ski a second, while he usually skips the second one,” Tynan says. “But he skis a set every day.” When Tynan started skiing with Smith, he had no idea that the kid would one day rise to the top of the men’s slalom rankings. But even at age 17, Smith’s dedication to skiing shone through — he’d come down in the middle of winter and crack ice of the lake to get out on the water. “That’s dedication,” Tynan says. “In hindsight, even though I had no idea at the time, and perhaps he didn’t either, it was a very clear path to success.”
The big question remains: Will Smith tie or break Chris Parrish’s 2-at-43-of world record? Tynan thinks he can. Parrish thinks he can’t. “Three years ago, I would have said no way,” Tynan says. “Now? It’s easy to see him get a piece of 2 ball or even 3 ball at 43 of. I’ve seen him run four buoys at 43 of at 34 mph. Now he just needs to translate what he’s doing at 34 mph to 36.” Parrish ofers a diferent point of view: “He’s got his work cut out for him. People are asking if he can get to 3 ball, and he hasn’t even got 2 ball yet.” And what does Smith himself have to say on the sub- ject? He takes the same laid-back attitude he always has. “Winning tournaments is more important to me right now. It’s one of those things that will happen when it’s meant to happen.”
It’s not tough to imagine Smith echoing Robert Redford’s character, Roy Hobbs, in The Natural, when he says, “My life didn’t turn out the way I expected.” A kid who just liked to ski may be laying the groundwork to become one of the greatest water skiers of all time — and he’s just getting started. A new world record may come, but for now, the slalom world will have to wait with bated breath while Smith sets his sights on more tour wins. But there’s no question that we still have plenty more to see from the champion from Champion Lake. It’s only natural. - Josh Sampiero