Softening the blows of hard water

Like most of the competitors, Dave Hadfield braved the rain to attend the first Leeds Waterski Classic
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The Independent Online
Beneath the blonde locks and the Florida or Queensland suntans, Britain's female water-skiers are a tough lot. The first Leeds Waterski Classic in the unlikely setting of the boating lake in Roundhay Park showed that behind the glamorous facade of the sport lies a great deal of physical wear and tear.

The undoubted star of the sport is Nicola Huntridge, a 20-year-old with an accent that effortlessly skims the waters between her native Doncaster and Florida, where she now lives and trains.

She was out of action yesterday, however, having aggravated a back injury in the process of winning the jumps competition on Saturday. "I just gritted my teeth and managed to get one jump in," she said. "But now I need to rest it for two weeks."

Part of the problem is the British water. Once you get used to the smooth, warm waters of Palm Beach, apparently, the cold, choppy stuff in Leeds is a bit like being dragged along a cobbled street.

The organisers have done their best in trying to reduce backwash, which is the sand in the suntan lotion of water-skiing, by submerging 6,852 tyres - there was a competition to guess the exact number - around the banks of the lake to break up the boats' wake.

Filthy weather on Saturday also kept down the numbers that the British Waterski Federation hoped would attend what they have designated, perhaps a little prematurely in its first year, a Classic.

But the idea of staging it free in a public park is definitely the way to go, Huntridge says. "That's what they have done with the pro tour in the States, by putting events on in the centre of cities and that has really lifted the publicity for the sport. It is now going in the right direction here as well."

In Huntridge's absence, British hopes yesterday centred on the 18-year- old from Surrey, Sarah Gatty Saunt, who carries a permanent reminder of what a dangerous business this can be. A knee injury two years ago threatened to put an end to her career and she now competes in a custom-built brace.

"It gets in the way a bit when I'm doing tricks," she says, referring to one of water-skiing's other disciplines, in which competitors go through a series of manoeuvres of varying difficulty. She finished second, beaten only by the acrobatics of Greece's Angeliki Andriopoulou, another used to warmer waters than Leeds could provide.

Like Huntridge, Gatty Saunt - who now spends much of her year in the more pleasant temperatures of Brisbane - was introduced to the sport by her relatives. Family links, in fact, seem particularly strong, with the younger brother and 14-year-old wunderkind nephew of Mike Hazelwood, who gave the sport in Britain its biggest boost yet by becoming world champion in the early Eighties, both competing with Huntridge's fiance and coach, Paul Studd, in the men's jump event.

This, despite hold-ups for torrential rain and even for ducks crossing the course, is recognisably the macho end of water-skiing, with the impact of meeting a fibreglass ramp at 60mph equivalent to driving full tilt into a barn door.

With nicknames like Paul "The Ice" Price and Jace "The Ace" Seels, it was a disappointment that Austria's entrant was not known as Franz "The Frightener" Oberleitner. In the event, the real frightener was Germany's Steffen Wild, who, despite resembling Gary Glitter in his silver jumpsuit, leapt ahead of the gang to win the blue-riband event.

"Ski you again next year," the announcer said. With a three-year contract to run the event at Yorkshire's equivalent of Palm Beach, he probably will see many of those who braved the rain yesterday at least once more.