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Long Live Waterskiing, the Sport of Purists

Nothing compares to skiing powder. But skiing over glass comes in a close second.

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Excluding year-round skiers who summer in New Zealand or Chile (and are gluttons for bone spurs and ingrown toenails), carve-obsessed skiers like me get their fix behind a boat when the snow melts.

I know wakesurfing is a having a run—Lindsey Vonn’s been posting her pumping progress on Instagram for all to see. I admit it’s fun, surfing the wake to music blaring from the boat. But waterskiers covertly flip off those ballast-heavy boats making that monstrous wake. Purists want flat water, just as much as skiers want untracked powder.

Related: Dear Guy Who Cut the Liftline On Our First Powder Day in Months

The truth is, nothing compares to skiing bottomless, blower, three-percent-water content pow in winter. But gliding across glassy morning water with your ski sizzling across the wake as the G-forces build comes in a close second for best sensation on skis. Hands by your hips, chest up and proud, you can accelerate and decelerate with muscle and balance. With one foot behind the other on a slalom ski, your body turns into a pillar that can leverage over two edges, just a hand-length away from the water’s surface and sometimes inches from smacking your face.

It’s commonly agreed that Ralph Samuelson is the inventor of water skis. He skied on snow and thought it could be done on the water, so in 1922, the 18-year-old from Lake City, Minn., lashed eight-foot-long barrel staves together with scraps of leather and used a window sash for a rope. He boiled the tips of the wood, used vices to bend them, and when he figured out how to keep his tips above water, he popped up out of the water.

Pro freeskier Shane McConkey famously took two water skis and mounted them with alpine bindings. Since waterskis are curved upwards from tip to tail so that they can skim over the water’s surface, he wondered what would happen if they were tested in powder. McConkey’s curiosity—like Samuelson’s—revolutionized the sport.

Read more: Understanding Rocker vs. Camber Ski Technology

Water ski technology has more slowly followed alpine ski innovations over the past decades. Thirty years ago, I skied waterski courses on a burly fiberglass Connelly called the Missile. This summer, I upgraded to a Connelly Carbon V, which weighs four fewer pounds than my old ski. I’m glad that as I age, skis are getting lighter, not heavier, in both of my favorite sports.

It’s not just geeking out on gear or seeking angulation from a good turn that ties waterskiing and alpine skiing together. Both are lifestyle sports that take time and repetition to master. That’s why it’s impressive when a pro skier bests both sports. Lake Tahoe legend Glen Plake, for example, has a national championship in slalom under his belt and waterskis with the same joie de vivre that he brings to snow. All of us carve-obsessed skiers live on some kind of edge, whether four edges on snow or two on water. We all like the combo of speed, balance, and athleticism required for arcing on H2O, in whichever form we encounter it.

Snow skiing is driven by gravity and waterskiing is driven by the pull of a handle and horsepower. Both give skiers the adrenaline/dopamine/endorphin surge we crave. Learning how to accelerate out of a turn means that you’re in charge of creating your own joy. If the lifts are turning or there’s gas in the boat, you can hit that natural high season after season.

As years go by, you add something deeper to that hormone cocktail: Gratitude. In the summer, I have gratitude for flat water, for the ability to cut across the wake at over 40 mph leaving a plume of spray, and for the sun setting behind the mountains and reflecting a campfire-orange column on the lake’s soft surface.

More Personal Essays

I thought I knew how to ski; then I raised three ski racers
Why a Black racer quit skiing and how the backcountry lured him back
For some skiers, drugs and alcohol are fun, but for me it was darker