GETTING MY FEET WET IN THE DESSERT!
BY STEPHEN MICHAEL
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES – Ok, yes, I do know something about skiing. Afterall, my father threw me my first rope when I was 7 years old on our lake outside outside of Minneapolis, in Minnesota. How long ago was that? Well, here’s a hint, it was behind our 1948 Correct Craft. Careful now, I’m not that old. But I remember the summers of nothing but worrying about how I was going to get enough money to buy the next tank of gas for another day on the water with friends.
Well, as in life, things change and I moved away from the lake to the ocean and lost those skies, but not the love or the respect for the sport. I know what it takes for the people who do it well and I respect that. Well, this past week I ran smack into the world of "real" skiing once again. This wasn’t expected as I flew a total of 32 hours from Florida to Abu Dhabi for my 4th year to broadcast as the television commentator of the final round of the U.I.M. F1 World Championship for powerboating.
With 10 hours in the air, 10 hours on the ground and a second attempt to get into the air about to begin on our trip from Amsterdam to Abu Dhabi, as luck would have it, of the 260 persons on board I got to sit next to defending 3-time World Champion Jaret Llewellyn, a Western Canadian from Calgary who now makes Palm Beach in Florida his home. Well, as we quickly got to know each other, eh, he and I realized how small the world really is as he found out that I had bought a seaplane airplane from his close friend and coach of the Canadian Junior Water-Ski team Joel McClintock. After telling old war stories about Joel and his love of daring, I let him know that I wasn’t a complete novice of the sport since back in 1992 I had done a TV series of the Ski Ray Tournament of Champions with my friend Rick McCormick for ESPN. Yes kneeboarding and skiboarding were different then ski-jumping but I reminded him I was excited about seeing the competition once again walk hand in hand with boat racing to make it a "full" weekend for the spectators.
Arriving in Abu Dhabi at the ungodly hour of 6:30am instead of the scheduled 1:30am arrival time, sleeping was next on the docket and the afternoon to the paddock area for the first time. Quickly upon my arrival I realized that I was going to broadcast the event for the crowd and on tape. Meeting for the first time IWSF’s General Secretary Tognala Graziano was a treat. He got me reved up at the start and for the next day and one-half he and I raced around to make sure that the crowd mike would be available for the final’s. The world’s best "10" were all great to hang out with. You could tell that "Moses" Bruce Neville was kinda the unmentioned troop leader. I guess at 34 years-old and your watching over young men and have been in the "biz" for 15 season’s you automaticlly get the nod. No "smak" to the World Record Holder as Neville gets the respect he diserves. Skiiers and boat racers aren’t brothers, but are related in speed and both respect each other. Despite not knowing the enviournment, the IWSFers fit in well as they got down to getting ready to really put on "a show".
On elimination Wednesday, yes and Thursday are "weekend" days in this part of the world, a hobbling Jason Seels of Great Britian did his best but couldn’t hid his knee problems and failed to reach the finals as did 20 year-old youngster Jesper Cassoe of Denmark. My "seatmate" Jaret Llewellyn had the best mark of the day with a 56.7 meter and would go last in the finals the next day.
The night life in this part of the world isn’t open. For non-natives, getting together for a few drinks means going to a hotel were its allowed. This night life consists of Pakistan bars and Philippineo women filled rock bands and surprisingly good Tex-Mex restaurants. The worries of the jump site were quickly dissmissed on arrival the first day and continued to be perfect on Thursday as the final 8 jumpers were ready to battle for the prize money that included a $10,000 top prize for the winner.
Sunshine, temp’s in the mid-30’s and a good crowd were on hand to see which skiier had done his best to stay in shape for this last battle of 1998 on the IWSF’s calander. With His Highness Sultan Bin Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan who is the prince of the country and also the President of the Abu Dhabi International Marine Sports Club on hand we headed for a tent on the beach to cover all the action. With my "new partner" on the airwaves Jaret Llewellyn joining me early in the competition, France’s Christophe Duverger set the early mark with a 52.3 meter attempt. Up next was Andrea Alessi of Italy and he realed off a 55.9 meter jump while the excitement found me yelling more into the microphone than I could have imagined. With the 8 meter jump being only meters from the beach and our location, it was easy to feel the speed and precision needed to get things right!
Germany’s Steffen Wild was 3rd and did a 56.2 moving into first, while Kyle Eade struggled to get it right as the New Zealander finished with a 55.9 best on his 2nd attempt. I let Jaret go and get ready for "business" and joining me the rest of the way as my sidekick was Jason Seels who did a great job answering my many questions. Up next, 5th on the docket, World Record Holder Bruce Neville proved he still had the magic with the crowd gasping after he reeled off a new standard here with a 61.6 meter attempt. From that point on, American Scott Ellis chased, came close with a 60.9, but couldn’t catch Neville. Austrian Daniel Dobringer was out on the water forever as the skiboat got the rope caught in the prop and finally the 30 year-old had to settle with a 57.0.
It all came down to my new "bud" Jaret Llewellyn and his attempt to dethrown Neville’s 61.6. Well, it couldn’t have scripted better. The final jump, the 54th of the competition and sure enough, the farthest jump came, a 61.9 meter mark got the $10,000 in his pocket at the end of the day. With my tongue hanging after an hour of solid entertainment the crowd was treated to a fun time and some tremendous talent.
The day ended with an awards ceremony in front of the Sheikh and other dignitaries as the party went into the early morning hours. For me, it was back to the television truck for the voice-over of the F1 powerboat race. A flight at 2:30am on Saturday morning did the trick. Despite getting a chance to sit in the cockpit for the landing in Amsterdam, that 6 hour wait and 10 hour flight back to Florida forced a well deserved day of retirement. The memories, WOW! What talent and these young atheletes from throughout the world were true class guys along with their Secretary General, pushing this sport to the 21st century and recognition it well deserves! I can’t wait to see it again! But first, some sleep!!!
Stephen J. Michael