“Come Josephine in my flying machine Going up she goes! Up she goes! Balance yourself like a bird on a beam In the air she goes! There she goes!”
When composers Alfred Bryan and Fred Fischer penned that famous ditty more than a century ago, they certainly weren’t thinking about the young women and men who fly on a pair of water skis, pulled by a speedboat.
They might have spared a stanza or two if they had seen Taryn Grant, Canada’s top female flyer, No. 3 in North America and No. 11 on the globe, sail 167 feet off the 20-foot ramp with what seems like the greatest of ease.
What goes up must come down, of course, and most of the skiers you’ll see at the Pan Am Games in Toronto this summer have come down upside down at least once in their careers (a few with near tragic results), but we’ll chat about that in a bit.
For now, let’s celebrate those three seconds of flight – nine less than Orville Wright at Kitty Hawk in 1903 – as something most of us can only know about vicariously.
“It’s amazing. I love the feeling of jumping,” says Grant, the 20-year-old Winnipeg native who has been on skis since she was six. “It’s like flying, and to be able to do that … that feeling is incredible. There’s nothing underneath you, it’s just you, flying through the air.”
That moment in time, one that seems so short to us on the shore but is quite a ride for top athletes who naturally see things in slower motion, especially hits at the apex of the jump.
It’s one of the best feelings, especially when you’ve made perfect connection with the ramp. You sit up there and honestly feel like you’ve just stopped. Completely free.
Whitney McClintock, the legendary Canadian (from the even more legendary ski family) and five-time ski world champion (slalom twice, tricks, overall and team), knows the feeling well.
“The biggest thing I always notice is the wind and the freedom,” she says, chatting from her home at Clermont, Fla., just north of Orlando. “It’s one of the best feelings, especially when you’ve made perfect connection with the ramp.
“You sit up there and honestly feel like you’ve just stopped. Completely free.”
A lovely image. And important to understanding why the cost of making those jumps for some can be worth it.
And why McClintock has so much respect for Grant, a young jumper who takes chances the older woman (25) would never consider.
Taryn Grant is a big Carrie Underwood fan who insists there really isn’t anything she’d change, given a chance to undo it.
Let’s go back just over four years ago to a lake in Florida where the then junior star (second in the world over the ramp) was preparing for the upcoming Pan American Water Ski Championships and feeling just about as good as an athlete can.
Coming off the final turn into the ramp approach, everything seemed fine so Grant went for it and the rest is still a bit of blur.
“I don’t remember all the details … I just crashed … I came off the ramp, went out the front, did a front flip pretty much … and I landed in the water on my back and my neck.”
Since most top jumpers seem to channel Monty Python’s Black Knight (“It’s only a flesh wound!”), Grant thought she was fine. A little ice pack, an ice bath that night, and back in the water she’d go again.
Coaches Matt Rini and Steve Bush had other ideas.
“[They] took me to the hospital and it turned out I broke my neck,” she says, in about the way you might announce a fractured finger or a bruised toe.
“It was a long road of recovery, definitely. Everyone around me, they supported me in whatever decision I wanted to make, whether to continue skiing, or, if I wanted to stop they were going to support me.”
Grant, who comes from a family fully dedicated to the sport as competitors and coaches, decided she “loved water skiing, loved the sport, loved jumping so much I wasn’t going to let it stop me.”
Once the doctors approved, out she went again.
Sometimes, they can’t.
Stevie Collins was at the 2014 Pan American Championships last April when he crashed on a jump and broke his neck at Bogota, Columbia. As a firefighter, Collins had the presence of mind to know he was hurt and made sure to let the rescuers know right away.
Two neck procedures in the hospital there were successful, but that was the end of his competitive career. At least for now – you never know with water skiers.
Whitney’s brother, Jason ended his jumping career with a 2007 crash that shattered his left patella and dislocated the right subtalar joint (in the foot). He missed a full season and now focuses on slalom and tricks.
Line athletes won’t cross
There is a line in the jumping world that some athletes will not go over. Whit McClintock is one of those.
As an overall specialist whose strongest events are slalom (requiring speed and skill) and tricks (relatively less dangerous than launching yourself in the air behind a boat because it’s close to the water), she only needs to be somewhere around the top 10 at a meet to keep the title in sight.
You see this, McClintock says, in the final run up to the ramp. As you make the final turn in, the physics of the thing (remember playing “crack the whip” on the skating rink?) speeds the athlete up to more than 100 km/h.
There is a moment, however, when you can change you mind, release the rope, and ski past the jump on the left – called a balk. This isn’t bad because each jumper has three chances in a set. Top jumpers hate balking.
“I have crashed a couple of times,” says McClintock. “I keep myself very strong in the gym, so my muscles are strong enough, and I’m really flexible, eat healthy, don’t drink alcohol and I attribute this to my ability to not get hurt.”
An extra sense helps. So does being willing to balk.
“Taryn, on the other hand, she just goes for it because she isn’t scared.”
Watch this summer the jumpers who cut the closest to the ramp on their way in, and you’ll see the ones willing to take the extra chance for the extra distance. They will also tend to be the more compact athletes, as well.
“There are biomechanical limitations,” says McClintock, a University of Central Florida graduate in sports and fitness. “I’m five-foot-eight and really skinny … 135 pounds. There are girls who are much more compact at five-foot-four, five-foot-three, same weight, so their room for error is much higher.”
In addition to not losing control of themselves or the skis on the jump as easily, and as “little balls” out there, they don’t get hurt as easily.
Grant, at five-foot-four, is one of those rubber balls bouncing back from hitting water that has the same give as a slab of concrete. Still young, she has some years to push up the top 10, and take a shot at a world-championship podium for jumping.
It’s about staying focused, even when you’re enjoying flying.
“I know that I have thoughts when I’m in the air on some jumps, thinking ‘Oh, wow, I feel I’m going farther, I feel like I’m going higher,” she says.
Maybe all the way to a gold medal on the water down at Ontario Place’s West Channel.