By: Karen Putz
Keith St. Onge and David Small grew up on opposite sides of the world, but they shared one thing in common: an intense passion for water skiing on their bare feet.
Keith St. Onge was introduced to the sport by two-time world champion Mike Siepel at a clinic held at Lake Umbagog in New Hampshire. Ten-year-old St. Onge put his feet on the water and was instantly hooked. The following year, he began learning tricks and entered his first barefoot tournament. “From the time I was 13, I knew I wanted to make a career out of barefoot water skiing,” he says. “I wanted to go pro the same way that a kid wants to become a fireman or an astronaut.”
Over in England, Small grew up half an hour north of Birmingham. “When I was 12, I saw a guy barefooting, and I asked my dad how it was done — he guessed that the easiest way was to sit on a kneeboard and throw my feet in the water. And that’s what we did,” Small says. “I discovered I had some talent for the sport, and I progressed quickly with my skills.” Small started competing the following year, and, like St. Onge, he loved it!
The two men followed a similar path, entering local barefoot competitions and skiing their way up the ranks. St. Onge turne pro at age 18 and began making a name for himself when he placed first in the overall category at the 1998 nationals, ending barefoot legend Ron Scarpa’s seven-year winning streak. A year later, he moved to central Florida and opened his own ski school.
Small’s first claim to fame came a few years later, in 2002, at the worlds in Austria. Both he and St. Onge had their eyes on Ron Scarpa, who had held the title for the previous four years.
“I was only 18 and about to start college,” Small says. “I had no expectations of winning, but wanted to give the guys a run for their money.”
Small’s surprise performance landed him his first world overall title, leaving St. Onge bitterly disappointed. “I was favored to win the worlds in a clean sweep,” he recalls. “But David came out of nowhere and took the title. I definitely wasn’t too happy about that. In fact, I decided I didn’t like the guy at all.”