Water gliders

Published 3:18 pm Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Brad Brascho gets close to the water as he skis around a buoy on a ski course in Shelby County on July 17. (Reporter Photo / Baker Ellis)

Brad Brascho gets close to the water as he skis around a buoy on a ski course in Shelby County on July 17. (Reporter Photo / Baker Ellis)

By BAKER ELLIS / Sports Editor

Down a sunbaked road in southern Shelby County, you can see heaven, or a version of it, at least. Nestled in the hills and knobs and overgrown woods of the unincorporated area of the county, cell phone service drops, and the pavement runs out. Somewhere in those switch backed, gravel roads, where the light plays on the leaves of the trees, you’re not quite at the end of the world, but you can almost see it from there.

This part of the state is pockmarked with small, private, still lakes. Lakes built by people who have the means to build and inhabit them. People whom, for whatever reason, want to remove themselves from the world, or want to feel like they are the only ones in it. This is not a story about those people. This is a story about two outsiders, two visitors to these secluded hamlets of beauty. A story about two visitors who come to these beautiful places to do extraordinary things.


Longtime friends

Mandy Kelly is in the parking lot of a Winn-Dixie. Three young children in tow, she has a warm smile hidden behind dark sunglasses, and apologizes for being late, which she isn’t. A working mother of three, Kelly’s build is nondescript, not suggestive of the athleticism she will soon display. As she starts the trek to her afternoon destination, she has to begin to focus on the upcoming task.

Mandy Kelly zips from buoy to buoy as she practices slaloming on July 17. (Reporter Photo / Baker Ellis)

Mandy Kelly zips from buoy to buoy as she practices slaloming on July 17. (Reporter Photo / Baker Ellis)

Winding into the backcountry is cathartic. Technology is great and useful, but for a moment, or an afternoon, shedding it can simultaneously serve as a ritualistic return to a simpler time and a liberating release from the working world, if only for a fleeting moment. This is a feeling worth chasing.

Eventually, she reaches her destination, one of these remote lakes in the middle of nowhere, with a strange assortment of buoys seemingly haphazardly thrown in the water. As she approaches the dock, the second member of the party, Brad Brascho, shows up.

Brascho bears a striking resemblance to Ben Mendelsohn, the Hollywood actor. He’s in his 50s, and spends most of his time in the sun, evidenced by his tan features. He is no stranger to people asking about his accomplishments, and hands over a thin manila folder containing a few pages of basic biographical description, typed, with pictures. These are two of the most accomplished competitive slalom water skiers in this area of the country, and they’re about to practice.

The two have known each other since Kelly was 5 years old, when Kelly started skiing in tournaments; about the time Brascho finished college.

“Brad has basically been my coach,” Kelly said. “Not basically, he has been. And he is really good.” As Brascho tinkers with a ski, she smiles.

“He is so good at all this stuff, it just cracks me up. Skiing is very much a technical sport, I am not technical, he has a lot of knowledge about the technical side of the sport.”

Between the two of them, Brascho and Kelly hold the Alabama slalom record in nine separate age classifications. Kelly was, at one time, ranked fifth in the world. Brascho has records that have held since the early ‘90s and has won a national championship as well as an astounding 21 state titles.

Potentially more impressive than these accomplishments are the way they balance putting in the time to earn them with the lives they lead outside of the sport. Kelly is a part-time speech therapist and full-time mom, while Brascho is a residential real estate developer and father of five. Kelly’s children come up to her while she is preparing to get on the boat, asking for her to take pictures of fish they just caught and making attempts to clamber up her shoulders. Life and water skiing don’t make the best couple, and balancing the two takes skill.

Neither are professional skiers, they don’t make money doing this. They don’t live on the water, instead relying on relationships with people who have access to some to continue to train. The world of professional water skiing, compared to just competitive water skiing, which is what Kelly and Brascho do, is a small and difficult one, with most professional skiiers needing to supplement their winnings with another job.

“If you’re just going to ski and do nothing else, you’ll be tight on money,” Kelly explained.

Even still, both contemplated turning pro, Brascho after he won the national championship and Kelly after she climbed into the world top-five ranking.

“We both crossed that road and had to make that decision,” Brascho said, referring to turning pro. “I had qualified and had always wanted to turn pro. But about a year later I had a baby and life kind of happened.”

On top of the normal responsibilities that come with a family, chance, or fate, or something else played a hand in derailing those aspirations. For Kelly, it was a broken hip, for Brascho, it was a broken neck, which he suffered during a skiing accident.

“I remember, it was very scary,” Kelly said.

The injury caused Brascho to take a full year off, and would be enough to drive most from the sport entirely. Instead, Brascho doubled down on his commitment to skiing.

“It changed my whole attitude,” Brascho said. “It made me reflect on a lot of things, and I took this new attitude to skiing which was that God had given me this opportunity and this ability and I’m going to enjoy it, and not beat myself up (when I make a mistake). That was when I was 27.”


Hitting the water

To the untrained eye, the ski course looks like a random assortment of buoys, with little rhyme or reason to their placement. Closer examination reveals a narrow lane of buoys, with roughly eight feet of water separating them. Six buoys are placed far outside the small lane, three to a side, placed opposite each other in a zigzag fashion. The object of skiing a course is simple even if the execution isn’t: Ski around all six, turn around, do it again. Rinse, repeat until a buoy is missed.

What separates the mediocre from the good from the great is the length of rope used. The maximum length the rope can be is 75 feet from boat to skiier. With each successful pass through the course, the length is shortened. Eventually, there is less distance between the boat and skier than between skier and buoy, which is when the work truly begins.

The total length of a slalom course is 849 feet, or less than 0.17 miles. For both Kelly and Brascho’s age division, the maximum speed is 34 miles per hour. Which means one run takes, from start to finish, about 33 seconds.

After Brascho and Kelly have fixed their skis to their liking and readied themselves, they set off. Kelly goes first, slipping into the water and positioning herself behind the boat, finally giving Brascho the all clear.

“Okayyy,” she says in a sing-song voice, signaling she’s ready to go. Brascho hits the gas.

These lakes, it is important to remember, are not big. Maybe a half of a mile in length. It does not take long to travel half a mile in a boat going 34 miles per hour.

As soon as the boat accelerates, Kelly’s entire demeanor changes. Her eyes narrow, and she crouches down, focused. As she passes through the gate, two buoys signifying the start of her run, it looks as if she is shot out of an invisible, high-powered cannon. She shoots off to her left, around the first buoy, and zips back across the water with power and grace, around the second. Back and forth, back and forth, driving her back foot deep into the water with each turn, hands slamming into her back hip, quadriceps straining to get as horizontal as possible, and she’s done.

As she sinks back into the water, turning around to take another crack at the course,

Brascho is less than pleased with her performance, she’s rusty. Kelly’s competition has been skiing multiple times a week since March, and Kelly has only been behind a boat eight or nine times since then.

“Mandy is notorious for not skiing like she should,” Brascho said. “She should have done that before April.”

As Kelly continues to ski, Brascho is a steady stream of advice, telling her to make slight, seemingly imperceptible changes to her technique throughout her time in the water. Then, they switch, and Brascho slides into the water.

He is a little more polished than Kelly, having skied more frequently the last few months. On his turns, he is low enough for his shoulder to almost graze the top of the water. Biceps straining, he only keeps one hand on the rope as he leans, stretching his ski to its maximum length to get around the buoys. As quickly as he leans down, he shoots back up and rifles across the water, knifing through the wake to get to the buoy on the opposite side. He skis like a man possessed, compelled by some interior, driving force to reach the next buoy. Nothing else matters in that moment, only the moment itself.

Throughout both of their runs, the other responds as if they were watching a child play baseball. Engaged, offering small praise and tips, but not outwardly impressed. This isn’t new to them, this combination of finesse and speed and power. They both have reached the oft-discussed but rarely witnessed platform of continued excellence, where the people on that platform make hard things look not hard at all. They are at the same time keenly aware but relatively oblivious to their own abilities on the water.

In all, the practice is, for their standards, uneventful. Kelly tried out a new handle, Brascho stayed at the same length of rope for his run, testing a new tweak to the angle of his fin. Just another day on the water.

As they dry off, Kelly gathers her kids and Brascho fiddles with his fin. They drink water and chat. Kelly is flying with her family the next morning; they’re buying a car in Virginia and driving to Kentucky for a competition. They’re friends. Lifelong patrons of a sport on the margins. They are not competitors, and have the luxury to appreciate the others skills without being concerned with how they might affect each other in competitions.


How much longer?

Slalom skiing is like golf in the sense that it can be done competitively for much longer than most sports. Which, at first glance and thought, seems laughably incorrect. One would think the physical wear and tear that cutting back and forth behind a boat and generally being slung through the water on what amounts to an expensive stick does not lend itself to being a competitive outlet for the aging. But, as Brascho explained, that is not the case.

“I’m frustrated right now because the guys I used to beat are skiing better than me now,” Brascho said. “It used to be, as far as I was concerned, more of a level playing field. It was more just about improving your technique, the skis weren’t as good, the boats weren’t as good. Now, the boats are so good and so powerful and there are just so many variables now where before you didn’t have that.”

“It’s like the iPhone,” Kelly said. “Every year there’s something better. Brad’s boat is run on GPS, but now there is a new thing called Zero Off. It’s on a satellite and all this, it’s so different. Some of that is true in all sports though, people are challenging their bodies in new ways.”

“The guys my age are getting better,” Brascho said. “They really are getting better.”

As midday turns to afternoon, the two skiers prepare to go their separate ways, prepare to enter the real world again and leave their wooded, silent sanctuary. They’re not sure how long they have left, but it’s hard to imagine them hanging their skis up any time soon. They’ll keep coming back to this beautiful place.