Awesome water power rules waves

He may have a transatlantic twang, but the best slalom water-skier in the world by far is British and proud of it

His record as a world champion is far superior to even that of Lennox Lewis, and his transatlantic accent is thicker than Greg Rusedski's. But don't be deceived by the twang. Andy Mapple is as British as the bacon sandwich he devoured at breakfast time yesterday before going on to demonstrate exactly why he is the most consistently successful sportsperson this country has produced in modern times.

His record as a world champion is far superior to even that of Lennox Lewis, and his transatlantic accent is thicker than Greg Rusedski's. But don't be deceived by the twang. Andy Mapple is as British as the bacon sandwich he devoured at breakfast time yesterday before going on to demonstrate exactly why he is the most consistently successful sportsperson this country has produced in modern times.

Well, helped to produce.Although his formative years were spent here - he was born and brought up at Freckleton, just outside Preston - the world's No 1 slalom water-skier has been based in Florida since 1984, and despite international accomplishments which only Steve Redgrave comes close to matching, he remains largely unsung and unrecognised in this country.

But not unknown. "Are you Andy Mapple?" we enquired of a strapping, likely looking lad at Thorpe Park in Surrey. "Hell no," he laughed. "But I sure wish I was."

When Mapple did arrive soon afterwards to complete the formality of retaining the World Cup he has won every year since its inception in 1997, he proved to be far from the image of a sporting sybarite who makes a lucrative living skimming across sun-speckled waters around the globe. Although he has never seriously done anything else but water-ski since he entered his first tournament as a 15-year-old, 22 years ago, Mapple is immensely proud not only of his British roots but of his engineering qualifications obtained through college studies. "I'd hate to be thought of as just a water-ski bum."

Some bum. Hold your breath when the modest Mapple is pressed to reel off his unparalleled pedigree. Five times world champion, 11 times world record-holder, 12 times US Masters champion, 11 times Australian Masters champion and now four times World Cup holder. Plus just about every European Tour title going. Of the 50 or so individual Masters titles on the calendar, Mapple has won two-thirds of them.

What makes him so special he almost walks on water? He shrugs. "Dunno, really. Just a natural aptitude for it, I guess. I knew from the moment my dad put me on a pair of water- skis for the first time during a family holiday at Lake Winder-mere that it was for me."

He was 13 at the time. Five years later, he won his first world slalom title on the Thorpe Park waters where this weekend he is among the 80 élite skiers competing in the British Masters. Technically, Mapple need not have turned up. He was so far ahead on points from previous qualifying events that he could not have failed to win the World Cup even if he had tripped over the tow-rope and sunk. Of course, he didn't. He's where he usually is, leading the field.

The 6ft 4in Mapple is head and shoulders above the rest of the slalom world, though you would hardly know it from the lack of publicity he and his sport receive here. Every weekend John Wood, the performance director of British Water Ski, religiously churns out press releases highlighting the successes of Mapple and a clutch of other Britons, such as Will Asher, Glenn Campbell, Jodi Fisher and Sarah Gatty Saunt, knowing they are destined to be binned or buried inconspicuously in the foothills of Mount Soccer.

Does this irk Mapple? "A bit, perhaps, but maybe the lack of recognition in my case is because I chose to go to the States. But basically I had to follow the sport. That's where the money is, and that's where my wife is." Mapple married Deena Brush, then the top US women's jump skier, 13 years ago, after meeting her during a competition at Thorpe Park. Now they live in Orlando with their two young children.

Engagingly American in his sporting outlook he may be, but Mapple insists he wins for Britain, and is encouraged by the resurgence the sport is enjoying here: "A tremendous amount of young talent is being developed with the help of the Lottery. I'd do anything I can for the British Federation, who have always backed me."

There is a strong likelihood that water-skiing will at last become an Olympic sport in Athens. "I'll be 41 then and I may or may not be competitive enough to be selected, let alone win," says Mapple. "But I've signed contracts with my sponsors to go on for a few years, and I would love to wind up my career with a gold medal. Even to say I water-skied in the Olympics would be fantastic, the ultimate."

The crowning glory of a water wizard. And one who is still very much a true Brit.

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