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Figure 8 Barefoot Tournaments Challenging & Thrilling

Figure 8s Explained

by Bob Mahnke (Figure 8 Champion)

What other sport can a 44 year old, part time competitor take on the current National Champion head-to-head and actually think he has a reasonable chance to win. Welcome to the world of Figure 8 barefoot tournaments. This is a sport where the weekend warrior can actually rub elbows with the likes of Keith St. Onge, Peter Fleck, Paul Stokes, or current Junior world champion Mikey Caruso, and if you have trained hard enough, and win the coin toss which decides which side of the wake you ski on, can pull off an upset.

A Figure 8 tournament involves pairs of competitors, both behind the same boat navigating a Figure 8 course, maintaining their respective side of the wake, and continuing until one of the skiers fatigues or catches a toe. The end result is usually a face plant or body parts flailing through the air in cartwheel fashion. Staying upright and on your side of the wake requires total focus as the boat is in a nearly constant curve. As it straightens for the brief period at the center of the eight, you will encounter the double set of boat rollers from the previous pass through. Then of course you have the wind, which at some events has produced constant whitecaps. If conditions happen to be calm, you are usually dealing with burning feet and forearms. To get an idea of the endurance required to be competitive in one of these events, stand with your back against the wall, knees bent at 90 degrees. Try holding that position for a about 3 minutes, and you'll have an idea of the strength needed in your quadriceps. Forearms pumped to twice their normal size and bruised feet from the constant pounding are symptoms of a good run.

The concept of Figure Eight tournaments might be one of the fastest growing in all of barefoot skiing. If you can make a step off, you can participate, and whether you win a single run or not, most competitors are hooked after their first experience.. It is a personal challenge that only gets better each time you hang on longer than the skier next to you. Getting to the final rounds is a combination of skill, experience, strength, luck and absolute concentration. One mental lapse and you are down, and in the consolation bracket. This makes winning the event a real challenge as you have several more runs to win and then after winning the entire consolation bracket, you have to beat the guy on the winners side twice.

A typical tournament starts with anywhere from 40 up to 200 competitors. There are usually age group divisions with 16 and under comprising the junior division and 40 and over reserved for the senior division. The rest are grouped into the open division, with many of the seniors competing in both divisions. FootFest, a tournament held each spring in Orlando, separates the competitors one step further with an Open and then Open Advanced division, which gives the guys that have never won before a chance to take home a trophy. Banana George hosts an event with several divisions of Juniors, including a boom division, and for the adults, the age groups break down for Men I, Men II, and Open. The Open division is reserved for all skiers that have placed previously or US Team members, and those up for the challenge. The winners of all the divisions then ski a mini tournament for the title of World Champion.

Skiers are randomly placed in a NCAA like bracket with the exception that most events are double elimination. The first round is run through with winners advancing and the ones that either missed their step off, biffed in the first corner, or had to ski against Fleck, moving into the loser's bracket. Dropping to the loser's bracket this early makes winning the event an almost insurmountable challenge. It means you ski nearly twice as many runs that weekend as the guy that goes through the winners bracket, and then you have to beat him twice to take the title.

I use the term "guy" with no disrespect for the gals in the sport, as there are a couple of women, Sharon Remy and Rachel Friede, that have taken down more than their share of guys. Incredibly, due to the relatively few women in the sport, they often find themselves competing against the men, and doing quite well, recently finishing second and third respectively at the Banana George event in October of 2001.

As the rounds continue, and more skiers are eliminated, the time between runs diminishes, and the runs themselves get longer as the better footers endure. Staying fed and hydrated is critical as an enormous amount of energy is expended in the matches, which sometimes encompass two or three complete laps of the course. One lap around the course is between sixty and ninety seconds, and if that sounds short, consider that it usually in four to eight inch chop, or water stirred up by the constant churning of two inboard towboats.

Winning an event usually comprises being in superb condition, feet toughened by a season of footing, and often a lucky coin toss or two. Often, late in the day as the winds pick up, the choice of sides can determine which skier has the better chance of winning.

The first known event and still home to what most competitors consider the grand daddy is in the northern Wisconsin town of Crandon. Originally titled the US Open Barefoot Challenge Championship, and with some resemblance to the culture of another legendary event, it is now appropriately known as Footstock. The Crandon Water Ski Club were the founders of the event and for most of the last two decades has been run by the Bob & Kurt Landgraf.. In 2000, the local club resumed control of the tournament, and it still offers one of the largest cash payouts of all barefoot tournaments. The money is only part of the prestige. Laying claim to having skied against some of the legends of the sport, such as Steve Tucker I Chris Barnhart, and Peter Fleck, is worth the price of admission. It is an event steeped in the tradition of camaraderie between competitors, both pros and amateurs, and some fairly memorable parties.

The success of this premier event has spawned a virtual circuit of Figure 8 events, many in barefoot crazy Wisconsin, but also Footfest- Orlando and Banana George's BlairFest held annually in the waterskiing Mecca of Winter Haven.. A listing of known events follows at the end of this article.

The culture of the Figure 8 tournament scene wouldn't be complete without inclusion of the voice of the majority of the stops on the tour, Dave Miller. His non-stop bantering and ribbing of competitors and fans alike, keeps the 2 to 3 day events free of the monotony one might expect. He somehow manages to sunburn his feet and forehead to blisters nearly every tournament but manages to maintain his edgy humor for the entire 8 to 10 hours of bare footing each day.

It is a sport when described to the common man or even another skier, often begets the response...

Why would you want to do that?
It is all about the competition.

The feeling of head to head competition and knowing that at any instant in the run, including not making your step off, the run could be over and you find yourself in the loser's bracket or out of the tournament. It's also about training. Based on water conditions, some events never see a complete figure 8. Others may require a skier to have several runs in a row, where 2 to 3 complete laps of the course are necessary to advance. The average course layout results in a single Figure 8 of about 1 minute 30 seconds in duration. That may not sound like a lot of time, but the conditions during a fast paced tournament, where you are dealing with wind chop and rouge rollers from the previous pass, can present a challenge. I know skiers that can go out and barefoot for 20 minutes in calm conditions but not be able to complete a single 8 in tournament conditions. With nearly constant turning with rollers hitting you head on, coupled with the pressure of the guy next to you wanting to win just as bad as you, most runs end before either competitor expects. The skiers are seeded based on past results of the tournament, usually keeping the top footers from facing each other until the final rounds.