Speed and smoke on the water

WATERSKIING: British pair prepare to attempt the conquest of Europe. Louis Jebb reports
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Jason Seels will be 20 on Wednesday and Sarah Gatty Saunt is two months his senior. Seels started to waterski when he was seven, Gatty Saunt when she was four, and both have competed internationally since they were 12. They represent a bright future but also the glowing present of the sport in Britain, and are members of the national team for the European Championships that begin at Vallensbaeck, near Copenhagen, on Thursday.

Their dedication is one of the main reasons why waterskiing has established a winning tradition in Britain on the back of championship success in the early 1980s - unlike a host of sports that were represented, and much lamented, at the Atlanta Olympics.

British waterskiing experienced a dip in fortunes at senior level in the early 1990s, but the present squad have a real chance of winning the European title in Denmark, with Italy and France as their main rivals. They are a young group,with a leavening of experience and continuity with the glory days - when Mike Hazelwood was Britain's last world champion in 1977 - provided by Philippa Roberts, who is appearing in her 20th European Championships at the age of 36, and skiing better than ever. The other team members are Jodi Fisher, 26, Paul Price, 18, the national jump champion, and Tom Asher, 15. Asher, who is Hazelwood's nephew, won the individual silver medal at the World Junior Championships last week at Edmonton, Canada, and Britain won the team silver.

Seels was born to British parents in South Africa. At the age of 11 he arrived in Britain for a holiday to visit relations, and skied in the National Junior Championships, winning most of the events. With South Africa excluded from international competition, the family moved to Britain so that Jason could compete for the British team.

This is the seventh successive summer in which he has visited the National Water Sports Centre, at Holme Pierrepont, near Nottingham, for national squad training. In those seven years he has picked up a sequence of titles at Dauphin (under-14), junior (under-17), under-21 and senior level, culminating with the European under-21 title for the past two years, and the overall British senior title. Seels, who has just completed his first year of a degree in Sports Science at Portsmouth, spoke modestly about his achievements when he and Gatty Saunt broke from training at Holme Pierrepont this week. But the British team have high hopes for him.

Gatty Saunt's interest in the sport dates back to family holidays by the sea in North Wales. She "messed around" with the sport until seeing the World Championships at Thorpe Park, Surrey, on television when she was 11 years old. Karen Morse, a celebrated international competitor, advised her to go on a talent-spotting weekend, and within a year Sarah was representing Britain. She won European slalom events at all three junior levels and is the reigning British tricks champion.

In the year she left school, she ruptured the ligaments in her left knee when practising a jump - where the skier comes on to the sloping jump ramp at anything up to 70mph - and took a year off after surgery. A typical year has her temping in an office in London from September to December before spending four months skiing in Australia before the European season.

Her mentor for many years has been John Battleday, another leading light from Hazelwood's and Morse's generation. Both she and Seels have spent much of their careers training with Battleday at the club at Kirtons Farm, near Reading. Earlier this year Seels broke Battleday's 12-year-old record for tricks - a sequence of jump, flips, twists and turns on a short, wide board in two 20- second passes - when he tricked 8,930 points, compared to Battleday's 8,650 in 1984.

This weekend the season goes into overdrive. Seels and Gatty Saunt both compete in the British Under-21 Nationals at Hazelwoods, in Lincolnshire, today and tomorrow, before a squad get-together at Prince's club, at Staines, in Middlesex, on Monday, and the flight to Denmark on Tuesday. There are cash prizes on offer at the Cafe de Colombia British Masters at Kirtons Hotel, starting on 30 August, before the European Under-21s at Thorpe Park, on 14-15 September, when Seels defends his overall title.

They are both leanly but strongly built - more like high hurdlers than flat sprinters - and the impression they give as they glide, hop and flick across the lake at Holme Pierrepont is one of lightness and explosive agility. As they go through their routines on a fine day, their faces are fixed in a smile - one of pleasure at skimming across the water, raising a spray - that has increased rather than faded over the years of practice.