Slalom Knows No Season
The unlikely story of a group of fearless adrenaline junkies more in love with waterskiing than the weather.
by William Baker
Published in Chapin Magazine
Spanning four counties and nearly 50,000 acres in the center of our state, Lake Murray has formed the bedrock of what so many Midlands communities, families and businesses have come to proudly call home. For the better part of a century, the vast expanse of murky green water and its diverse shorelines have served as a blank canvas, ripe for the merriment of many. Put simply, everyone loves the lake, though for considerably different reasons. Scores of proud, secretive fishermen and women spend the early, sleeping-sun hours buying bait, finding fish and hiding their best spots. Families, athletes, friends and businesses pile onto the water in the hot-oven summer heat for the fun, excitement and competition of white-knuckled watersports. However casual or competitive the activity, whether airborne in a tube, inverted on a wakeboard, carving across the wake on a ski or cockeyed in a catamaran, Lake Murray has proudly hosted it all. For some people, though, the love goes a little deeper and lasts a lot longer than two or three months of the year.
Jim Parr is one of those people. For a few decades now, Jim, a Newberry native, has spent early mornings, full days and late nights on the Lake Murray water honing his craft and loving every minute of it, often coming back in long after the light had left the southern sky. There’s a reason for all the work.
Competitive slalom skiing is challenging. For those unfamiliar with skiing, slalom is the art of using only one ski to be as quick and agile as possible, darting back and forth across the boat’s wake or, in the world of competitive slalom skiing, from buoy to buoy. “Once you start skiing a course, it’s addictive, I think,” said Jim. “You start chasing buoys. It drives you to be better; you have to be better.” Of course, it’s also physically demanding. Each pass consists of six turns in a zigzag pattern. Age and sex determine the competitive division, with adult women competing at thirty-four miles per hour and adult men thirty-six miles per hour. “Once you get your tournament speed, you start making the line shorter in predetermined lengths,” Jim said. With each increment of shortening rope, the challenge drastically increases as skiers are forced to exploit every bit of their agility and momentum to push their bodies at greater speeds to successfully round each turn buoy.
Finding slalom courses on a public lake is rare. It’s easier to find commercial private ponds and other controllable bodies of water where the water is more easily kept at a consistent, placid state suitable for tournament-grade competition. Competition-grade slalom courses are meticulously planned and measured. “All ski courses should be the same to within two or three inches,” Jim said. The same minute precision also applies to competition boating. “Speed is critical. All the boats now have speed control which will pull you to within a hundredth of a second because there’s a big difference in one mile an hour.” Even with speed control, it takes at least two to ski. That’s where the group comes in.
Jim Parr skis the course with a committed group of friends and fellow slalom conspirators. While the tried-and-true group of regulars consists of about fifteen or so families and individuals, the larger hub of friends and ski enthusiasts envelops approximately thirty. “A lot of people plug in, plug out, come, have fun and ski hardcore year-round,” Jim laughed. He’s not lying. “We’ll generally try to get out, if we can, maybe five days a week in the summertime.” For Jim and his close friends, skiing is not confined to the summer months. “I tell all my friends I don’t have fall; I just have two seasons: winter and summer.” For them, summer truly begins on March 1st and winter around mid-November. Nothing in their routine changes except for the clothing to keep pace with the cooling weather. As the temperatures drop, they begin incorporating neoprene wetsuit tops, then dry suits with sweat pants and shirts and, finally, when the weather is just too bitter to handle, a nice warm beanie to keep their ears warm. One winter, Jim got a call during the weekday at his legal practice from his good buddy and skiing partner-in-crime, Jim Neely. It was effectively winter. “It was around fifty degrees and it was raining a light mist; it was just cold.” Jim Neely had called to ask if he wanted to ski. Not ones to miss an opportunity to go skiing, they headed out on the water. Mitigating the cold weather isn’t easy, but for Jim and Jim, it’s worth it. “If we get ten days of skiing in in December, January or February for the whole month, that’s good,” said Mr. Parr.
The consistency of when, where and how long throughout the year the group meets up to ski and socialize has only served as a boon to their friendships, opportunities to meet new people and further relax the already casual nature of their time together. There wasn’t a group when Jim started skiing. Rather, the group began to form as strangers would stumble upon the course or see Jim and his friends in action on the lake and strike up conversations. “It’s just kind of a welcoming thing,” Jim said. Mutual appreciation of the sport forms the bond for friendships with strangers on the water; that’s what makes this group such a colorful family. “There’s a lot of varied personalities, income levels,” Jim said. They also come from near and far to be a part of the group and chase buoys. Group members come from as close as Chapin, Newberry and Lexington to the far-off rungs of northeast Columbia and the upstate. The distance doesn’t matter. “Everybody’s interested in having fun and everybody gets along great.”
One member of the group in particular has Jim’s attention: his twelve-year-old son, Aaron. The prized nature of their time together is not lost on Jim. “We get to spend time together in an awesome way. I can’t tell you how awesome it is to go out with your son.” That time is only sweetening as Aaron grows up. Last year, at the age of eleven, Aaron got his boater’s license. “He’s twelve now, but you go out with your eleven-year-old child and you pull him and he pulls you and that’s, from my standpoint, pretty cool.” Aaron thinks so too, even at seven o’clock in the morning, much to the chagrin of the lone, disgruntled fisherman. It’s time well spent. “It’s been a really bonding thing. I know Aaron’s challenged,” said Jim. “The speed is challenging, the technique… it’s pretty hard to do.”
While the group has grown and their friendships blossomed through the constancy of their near-sacred ritual in the quiet waters of Lake Murray, a local business has also enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with this cabal of watersport enthusiasts. “The preeminent inboard engine manufacturer in the world is in Little Mountain, South Carolina,” said Jim. Pleasurecraft Marine Engines is only eight miles away from the lake. “They build all of the motors that go in Ski Nautiques; they build a lot of motors that go in a lot of other competition ski boats.” Mutual interest in competitive watersports, affinity for the tools necessary to engage in it and their extremely close geographic proximity to each other made for fertile grounds of great, overlapping friendships. PCM Engines staff members Mark Schneider and Patrick Amann are also regulars within the ski group. “To be honest, they take care of their motors,” Jim Parr admitted. “They build the best motors in the industry.” Skiing year-round, Jim would know.
Lake Murray’s watersports reputation is also beginning to extend beyond the boats and their engines; the Midlands is fast becoming a bastion of champion and tournament contender water skiers. While the popularity of skiing may have lulled at the introduction and ensuing dominance of wakeboarding, competitive skiing hasn’t died out on Lake Murray. “I think, historically, Lake Murray has been a little underrepresented,” Jim said. “On a public lake, people don’t think you can ski seriously, but I don’t know. I think perception’s starting to change a little bit.” Recent state and regional tournament results suggest competitive skiing on Lake Murray is starting to grow again, especially with the younger generation. “We went to a tournament two years ago, a regional tournament, and we had more skiers there from Lake Murray than anywhere,” Jim said. “We go to the state tournament well represented.” Junior state and regional contenders and champions include group members Brooks and Gracie McCants, Aaron Parr, Ryan Pfister; member Travis Stuckey competes in the adult division across the country. “It’s exciting for me to see the kids coming up. We go to some of these tournaments around and there’s a good little nucleus of kids coming up and Aaron’s right in the middle of that.”
While the growth and success of individuals in and outside of their group show no signs of abating, nothing changes for Jim and the group. They’ll still meet up in some quiet finger of the lake to laugh and put their boats and bodies to the test for the sake of slalom skiing. “I’m having fun,” Jim said. “If nobody else in the world does it, then it’s not going to change that.” As group members have come and gone throughout the years, the ripe fruits of their labor and leisure will continue to manifest with wanton disregard for weather, temperature and the fabled existence of four seasons.