Mitchell, an Oshkosh firefighter, has three barefooting brethren aboard. There’s Ron Brooks, owner of Brooks Farms in Waupaca; Chuck Bender, president of Tri City Glass & Door in Appleton; and Gordy Pagel, publisher of Wolf River Country magazine. All are veteran barefooters who have competed in tournaments, including the prestigious Footstock international championships held each summer in Crandon.
All are also on the high side of 50 years old – no small matter in a sport that features more than a few hard-water spills. Barefooting, which requires speeds of 35 to 45 mph (faster than conventional water skiing), is usually considered a young person’s sport. These guys are having none of that.
“For me, since hitting 50 it has become a bit of a head game,” says Pagel. “If I can continue to improve as a barefooter, I can rationalize that I’m not really getting older.”
Those who have tried to ski without the benefit of boards beneath their feet know it is a major challenge just to get up on the water barefoot, but these guys go way beyond that. As they take their turns on the long line behind the boat, there are flying dock starts and deep-water starts and belly-down backward starts. There are tumble turns, backwards runs and one-legged stunts.
And, just for good measure, after a couple of hours of barefoot trickery, they take turns jumping from a fire truck ladder extended out over the river and raised about 20 feet above the water. After crashing into the water, tail-bone first, they come up skiing. (The casual observer might wonder why there’s a fire truck parked on the banks of the Wolf River. The whole story is too long for this space, but it’s enough to know that the fire truck is here because Brooks bought it and parked it here, says Pagel, “because he could.”)
Skilled though these guys are, there are always spills – probably painful ones – and each spill brings an unseemly amount of merriment on the boat. “That’s kind of the sadistic part of this sport,” says Pagel. “The harder someone falls, the harder everyone else on the boat laughs.”
“We do seem to enjoy each other’s pain,” says Bender.
Bender started water skiing when he was 14 but didn’t get heavily involved in the sport until he and his daughter, Amber, joined the Webfooter ski team in Fremont. That led him to Mitchell, who taught Bender to barefoot. Eventually the time demands of his involvement in Webfooters and barefooting meant he had to rethink his priorities.
“I looked at my work schedule and thought it would be better for the company if some other people would share in some of my responsibilities,” says Bender. “With the help of the ski team I went from 75-hour work weeks to 45-hour weeks. I’m a lot more pleasant to be around at work.”
These early morning runs on the Wolf are perfect for these guys because there’s usually no one else on the water, and because it allows them to get in a few hours of barefooting and “still get to work on time,” says Mitchell.
“Not that work is all that important,” says Pagel.
Because the sport is so physically demanding, it’s not surprising that most barefooters are well under 50.
“That’s because all the fast learners quit barefooting,” says Pagel.
“They’re smarter than the rest of us,” says Mitchell.
“I thought we were supposed to grow out of this,” says Brooks.