Column: Memories of Whitmore Lake

Brief foray into water ski jumping sealed my career choice
John U. Bacon

John U. Bacon

Whenever I drive up US-23, I can’t resist gazing at two structures on my right: The Whitmore Lake High School stadium press box, where my writing career started, and the big red ski jump on Whitmore Lake, where it almost ended.

I once volunteered to visit the Whitmore Lake Water Ski Club, the oldest in the state, to try water ski jumping. The problem is, this is not something you can gradually work up to. It’s your basic all-or-nothing proposition.

Take our coach, Hal Baker. On several occasions he had cleared a hundred feet, the sport’s main milestone, but one time he hit the side of the jump so hard, he embedded white paint in his skin. A few times, he leaned back too far, causing him to fall backward into the water – at 50 miles per hour.

“I’ve been pulled out unconscious a few times,” Baker said, with a reassuring maniacal cackle. This was a man who knew the thrill of victory, and the unconsciousness of defeat.

Jumpers face four basic obstacles. First, the jump is about 20 feet long and 10 feet high, and covered in wax and water, so it feels like you’re hitting ice. If you’re not ready for it, your skis will shoot out from under you, and you’ll get dragged over the jump on your backside – or your head. Second, the boat pulls you diagonally across the jump. If you fight it, you’ll be – you guessed it – dragged over the jump on your backside, or your head. See a pattern here?

But wait! There’s more. Because the jump is, well, a jump, as you slide up the incline, your knees get shoved into your chin. This is called “crushing.” When you see people flying off the jump in that state, you understand why.

To combat these forces, you have to squat down, lock your knees and lean forward, holding the handle hard against your right hip. In other words, do whatever feels the most unnatural.

If we actually made it over the jump, Baker said, “Don’t look down, or you’ll go down.” He told us to focus on the shore line instead.

Yeah, right. That happens. I made a deal with myself right then and there: If I got over the jump without ripping my face off, I could look anywhere I damn well pleased.

I hopped into the water, and they threw me a hockey helmet. Note this well: If you find yourself hopping into the water and someone throws you a hockey helmet, you might think twice about what you’re about to do.

When I grabbed the rope, Baker asked, “Ready?”

“Ready!” I yelled. It wasn’t true – just protocol.

I popped up, and the driver sent me right to the jump. I squatted down, locked my knees, and pulled the handle hard to my right hip – all textbook.

No matter. When I hit that jump, I crushed like a house of cards under a steamroller. But, just for fun, I also crossed my skis. I flew over the jump with all the grace and style of Wile E. Coyote.

Despite my efforts, I did not hurt myself. So, my confidence grew. But my ability did not. My second attempt was just as bad. At this rate, I realized, the eleven-year-old kid going next would embarrass me. Focus, Bacon. Focus!

On my third attempt I finally avoided crushing, but everything else was still a mess. My fourth and final attempt, however, proved to be the charm. I looked so good I couldn’t resist admiring my skis flying over the edge, thus committing the final sin: “If you look down, you go down.” No joke, turns out. I plunged straight into the water face first like, okay, Wile E. Coyote again. But I neglected to let go of the rope, and got dragged underwater for about a hundred feet or so.

Well, I came, I saw, I had lake water pounded into every hole in my head. It took me days to get the stuff out of my ears.

The eleven-year old kid, by the way, nailed it on his second attempt.

And so, I became a sports writer.

About the author: John U. Bacon lives in Ann Arbor and has written for Time, the New York Times, and ESPN Magazine, among others. His most recent book is “Bo’s Lasting Lessons,” a New York Times and Wall Street Journal business bestseller. Bacon teaches at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio; Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism; and the University of Michigan, where the students awarded him the Golden Apple Award for 2009. This commentary originally aired on Michigan Radio.