Water Skiing: Mapple still the master

Adam Szreter meets the Briton who has been the world's best water- skier for the past 14 years
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THE BEST water-skiers in the world are assembling at Thorpe Park in Surrey this weekend for the final round of the World Cup - and if that in itself is mildly surprising then the fact that the best of them all is British may come as something as a shock.

Andy Mapple has been ranked No 1 in the world every year since 1985. He has won 128 professional titles, including four world titles, and going into his "home" event he is comfortable in the knowledge that he has already secured the world slalom title for the third successive year.

"I like the British Masters but it's always a hard event for me," said the 37-year-old who left his native Lancashire for the sunnier climes of Florida 15 years ago.

"This weekend will be particularly special because I haven't skied at Thorpe Park for a few years and that was where I won my first world title in 1981. That will always be the highlight of my career."

Mapple learned to water-ski before he could swim. "When I was 13 we used to go to Lake Windermere at weekends," he said. "My older sister Susan learnt to ski first - I hated water - but when I saw her having a good time it convinced me to have a go. I got up first time and from that instant my fear was gone. That was what I wanted to do."

He was selected for the British team at the age of 18, winning the world title just a year later. Sponsorship opportunities and superior facilities took him to the US more and more and, after meeting his wife Deena, herself a water- skiing champion from California, they eventually settled in Orlando, where they now live with their two children.

Mapple is regarded by most within the sport as the greatest slalom skier of all time - and at an age when the physical exertion of being tugged from 30 to 60mph and back in two seconds should be taking its toll, Mapple is just getting better and better. Last year he equalled the world record once again.

"I think maybe it's the fear of it all ending," he said. "But I've been very fortunate to stay in skiing this long. As I get older I've got to watch my flexibility. I don't think you lose any strength but you have to stay mobile.

"There's a big mental aspect to it as well. This weekend the slalom could be decided by a fraction of a buoy - that means one skier might get to the fourth buoy on a 10-metre line and the other one will only get half- way round and that will decide it. It will be that close."

But there is something else driving him on: the prospect of representing the country of his birth at the 2004 Olympics. "We've been requested as a sport to be in the 2004 Olympics by the Greek Olympic committee. Now the IOC has to decide. One of the big obstacles we had is that a driver can have a big influence on the outcome of the result. Now there's a speed control system in the boats so the pace is regulated. Another obstacle was the measurement of jump distances which is now done by video metering and computers.

"If we get in to the Olympics I'll definitely be motivated to be there. I may have won a lot of titles but not many of them have been over here and I do still ski for the British team. I would like some recognition in this country but I would like to use it to promote the sport."