From The Vault (2017): On Top Of The World
by Scott N. Atkinson
Editor's Note: This article appeared in the November/December 2017 issue of The Water Skier magazine.
From The Vault: On Top Of The World
The U.S. Elite Water Ski Team won the overall team gold medal and five U.S. water ski athletes combined to win seven individual medals in respective events at the 35th Water Ski World Championships, Sept. 5-10, 2017, at Choisy-le-Roi near Paris, France
Written by Scott N. Atkinson
Photography by Des Burke-Kennedy
”She is not human!” Those were the words U.S. Elite Water Ski Team coach Jeff Surdej used to affectionately describe U.S. Elite Water Ski Team member Regina Jaquess following the 35th Water Ski World Championships. The weather and water conditions this year were the worst Surdej and others had ever seen or heard of at a world championships’ venue, and things weren’t shaping too well in the days leading up to the event, where the U.S. team was hoping to avenge its silver-medal placement at the 2015 Worlds. During four days of practice, Surdej watched Jaquess, the current women’s world record holder and two-time defending world slalom champion, fight through wind, cold temperatures, rain and rollers only to miss her 38 off pass nearly every time. And while those conditions never relented throughout the week ahead, the show began, and Jaquess further cemented her legacy as the greatest women’s three-event water ski athlete in the history of the sport, while the U.S. Elite Water Ski Team came up golden once again on the sport’s biggest stage.
’A Win or Bust Event’
The U.S. Elite Water Ski Team won the overall team gold medal and four U.S. team members combined to win six individual medals in respective events at the 35th Water Ski World Championships, Sept. 5-10, at Choisy-le-Roi near Paris, France. The United States tallied 7,959.48 points in winning the gold medal for the 27th time in the history of the biennial event. France scored 7,610.76 points to earn the silver and defending champion Canada earned the bronze with 7,522.29 points. Athletes from 31 countries participated in the tournament.
In addition to Jaquess, of Santa Rosa Beach, Fla., members of the 2017 U.S. Elite Water Ski Team were: Brooke Baldwin of Windermere, Fla., Taylor Garcia of Winter Garden, Fla., Anna Gay of Winter Garden, Fla., Freddy Krueger of Winter Garden, Fla., and Adam Pickos of Santa Rosa Beach, Fla. Surdej was joined on the staff by Jody Johnson, who served as captain/manager, and Dr. Brad Harman, who was the physician. The American Water Ski Association’s International Activities Committee selected the team earlier in the summer based on a pre-determined selection criteria approved by the AWSA board of directors. “Winning the team gold was our No. 1 goal,” Surdej says. “We lost in 2015, so this was a win or bust event for us. Outside of that our goals are always to get everyone into the finals and then go for as many medals as we can. I am so proud of the way the team overcame the most challenges I have ever seen at a world event – tough conditions, long set up lakes, cold, rain, a 10-minute walk to the starting dock…there was not much about the event that was easy for our athletes, but they shined on and off the water.”
Jaquess led the way for the U.S. Team as she successfully defended her slalom and overall titles from the 2015 world championships, earned the silver medal in women’s jumping, and advanced to the finals in all three events (placing 10th in tricks); Pickos won the gold medal in men’s tricks; Krueger and Garcia earned the silver and bronze medals, respectively, in men’s jumping; and U.S. independent athlete Erika Lang of Gilbert, Ariz., earned the silver medal in women’s tricks.
Jaquess won her fifth career world overall gold medal – no other female has won more than three – by tallying 2,549.88 points after recording scores of 1 buoy at 41 feet off in slalom (preliminary round), 6,970 points in tricks (preliminary round) and 169 feet in jumping (preliminary round). Belarus’ Natallia Berdnikava earned the silver (2,499.54 points) and Australia’s Jacinta Carroll earned the bronze (2,424.64 points). Gay (2,251.81 points) and Baldwin (2,165.95 points) placed fifth and eighth, respectively. “As an overall skier, to win the overall gold medal at the world championships is truly special,” says Jaquess, who, in addition to being a world-class water ski athlete, owns and operates her own compounding pharmacy, resulting in much less practice time than most of her competition. “I still believe it takes a lot of focus and dedication to remain competitive in all three events. This title makes all those early morning trick rides with [coach] Cory [Pickos] well worth it. This title means a lot to me. It’s very special.”
Jaquess won her third consecutive and fourth career world slalom gold medal – no other female has won more than three – after winning a thrilling double runoff over Canada’s Whitney McClintock. Canada’s Jaimee Bull earned the bronze (4 buoys at 38 feet off). U.S. independent athlete Karen Truelove of Winter Garden, Fla., placed sixth (2 buoys at 38 feet off). “The world championships is obviously one of the most prestigious events in our sport,” Jaquess says. “You have two years to get focused and train to compete against the best. This year proved to be just that, a competition against the best. Whitney and I battle it out year-after-year and week-after-week. She is a tremendous athlete and competitor, and pushes me to be the best I can be.”
Jaquess and McClintock tied with scores of 1-1/2 buoys at 39-1/2 feet off in the finals, and then again with scores of 2 buoys at 39-1/2 feet off in the subsequent runoff. In the second runoff, Jaquess clinched the gold with a score of 2 buoys at 39-1/2 feet off to McClintock’s 4 buoys at 38 feet off. “I was pretty cold after two runoffs,” Jaquess says. “My focus was to get a good start in the challenging conditions. With each runoff I focused on getting a good gate and start at each pass. I knew the start in those conditions was the key to success. My focus was to be wide and slow and to create space so I could just manage the passes one at a time.”
In the preliminary round, Jaquess posted an amazing score of 1 buoy at 41 feet off, a buoy shy of a full pass advantage over McClintock. It came after Jaquess had repeatedly failed to run the 38 off pass in practice. “I cannot even explain how impressive that was,” Surdej says. “It was insane. And Regina did this on that lake in those conditions after we did not have the greatest start to team slalom. She made up any lost points we thought we had, and then to go out and do what she did in the finals…she is not human!”
Jaquess capped off her tournament by earning the silver medal in jumping with a distance of 167 feet. Carroll won her third consecutive and career world jumping gold medal with a distance of 181 feet. Berdnikava earned the bronze with a distance of 166 feet. U.S. independent Lauren Morgan of Seattle, Wash., placed ninth (160 feet) and Baldwin finished 12th (154 feet). “Anytime I can podium against all these great female jumpers, I am excited,” Jaquess says. “To earn a silver medal was a great accomplishment. Each event is super important because I am fighting my way to earn the overall title, which was one of my primary goals.”
Pickos Defends World Tricks Title
The only U.S. men’s athlete to ever win back-to-back world tricks titles entering this year’s world championships was Cory Pickos in 1981 and 1983. So when Cory’s son, Adam, accomplished the feat this year, Adam knew exactly how to put in perspective. “I couldn’t imagine better company to be in,” Adam Pickos says. “It is just another moment that I will remember for the rest of my life.”
Two years after an emotional gold-medal triumph in Chapala, Jalisco, Mexico, Pickos won his second consecutive and second career world tricks gold medal, tallying 11,570 points. Australia’s Josh Briant earned the silver (11,440 points) and Belarus’ Aliaksei Zharnasek (11,320 points), a three-time world champion, earned the bronze. Despite being the defending champion and competing for the U.S. Elite Water Ski Team in challenging conditions, Pickos says his approach always stays the same. “I entered this tournament the same as I would enter any other tournament, just trying to ski against myself,” says Pickos, who entered the finals as the No. 6 seed after scoring 10,440 points in the preliminary round. “I do my best to put blinders on and focus on me and my abilities. If I go out and perform to my best, I am confident I can compete with anyone in the world on any day. Skiing for Team USA is always a great honor and I believe knowing the team is depending on my scores brings the best out of my skiing.”
For Pickos, the most challenging aspect of the event was the colder temperatures, and the pressure of the preliminary round, where you can lose the tournament, but you cannot win. “In the prelims, my main focus was to ski up and back to the dock and put myself in a position to be able to compete in the finals,” Pickos says. “Looking back, there are many things I could have improved in that round, but with the result that followed, I wouldn’t change a thing. I was a completely different skier in the finals. I was able to relax and ski much more like I prefer, aggressive and higher tempo. I was extremely happy with my performance and felt very confident in my skiing and the results followed. At that point, I had executed my runs in the finals of the world championships in tough conditions. The gold medal was a great bonus.”
Miranda Wins Men’s Overall Title
Chile’s Felipe Miranda won his second career world overall gold medal, tallying 2,751.18 points. France’s Thibaut Dailland earned the silver (2,651.50 points) and Briant earned the bronze (2,639.27 points).
Canada’s Neilly Ross won the gold medal in women’s tricks (10,220 points), her first career elite world title after earning the silver medal in 2015. U.S. athlete Erika Lang of Gilbert, Ariz., earned the silver (9,820 points) and Berdnikava earned the bronze (9,520 points). Gay (7,290 points) and Jaquess (6,940 points) placed eighth and 10th, respectively. “The level of women’s tricks skiing is so high at the moment that it’s impossible not to be pleased with a silver medal,” says Lang, who a month later set a pending women’s world tricks record of 10,760 points at the Sunset Fall Classic at Jack Travers’ International Tournament Skiing at Sunset Lakes in Groveland, Fla. “The level has gotten significantly higher the last two years and it has pushed me more than ever to train even harder. Being precise and technical is more important than ever before. I have definitely become a better trick skier over the last year due to the heightened competition level.”
Great Britain’s Frederick Winter won the gold medal in men’s slalom, his first career elite world title, scoring 2 buoys at 41 feet off. Great Britain’s Will Asher (5 buoys at 39-1/2 feet off) earned the silver and Canada’s Jason McClintock (4-1/2 buoys at 39-1/2 feet off) earned the bronze. U.S. independent athlete Corey Vaughn (Bumpass, Va.) placed seventh (2 buoys at 39-1/2 feet off) and U.S. independent athlete Nate Smith, the two-time defending world champion, placed 12th (3-1/2 buoys at 35 feet off) after earning the No. 2 seed for the finals with a score of 3-1/2 buoys at 39-1/2 feet off in the preliminary round. “I don’t really have much of an explanation for what happened,” Smith says. “It was just one of those freak things where I just missed the handle around 4 ball at 35 [off]. I actually felt pretty good out on the water and knew what I had to do beat to win. It was all within reach. It was an unfortunate way to finish off the season, but I certainly will be back stronger and better next year.”
Canada’s Ryan Dodd soared 224 feet to win his second consecutive and career world jumping gold medal. Krueger, who missed much of the tournament season after an out-the-front crash at the Masters in May, earned the silver medal (216 feet) and Garcia, competing in his first elite world championships, earned the bronze (206 feet). U.S. independent athletes Scot Ellis of Auburndale, Fla., and Zack Worden of Orlando, Fla., placed seventh (204 feet) and ninth (198 feet), respectively. Krueger, who admitted he was not quite back 100 percent physically due to the abdominal and groin pulls he suffered at the Masters, nonetheless was not offering up any excuses. “With the injury going in, I honestly figured I was jumping for second place,” Krueger says. “Ryan had been strong all year, and I just wasn't where I needed to be to challenge him in those conditions at that time. So making sure I got the points we needed for the team was definitely high on my list and was actually a very nice distraction from just feeling like it was win or lose as an individual. Yes, I was still struggling with the injury, but at the end of the day, when you strap on the jumpers you want to go big and put some pressure on the other guys. That feeling never goes away so even though the event turned out about how I expected, you still end up walking away a bit disappointed.”