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Pan Am Games water skiing a hit with first-time spectators in Toronto

Pan Am Games water skiing a hit with first-time spectators in Toronto

Posted by PanamericanWorld on July 21, 2015

Water ski is among the only Pan Am Games competitions to feature motors, but it was hard to hear the roaring boat engines Monday over a thumping soundtrack and an enthusiastic, if not overwhelmingly experienced, audience.

As preliminary competition in slalom and tricks got underway, fans gratefully got an education in a sport first introduced to the Pan Am Games 20 years ago.

"It's been pretty amazing to see ... it's obviously lovely to be on the water-side all day but I never realized how strong these athletes are," said Jane Calvert, who made the short walk over from her home to Ontario Place to watch.

She conceded that she didn't know the rules before she arrived, but proved a quick study.

"They do a good job explaining it as we go," she said. "I think a lot of people here were new to the sport, from what I could hear."

Whitney McClintock of Cambridge finished first in slalom qualifying while brother Jason moved on with a fourth-place finish in men's slalom. Both also advanced on the tricks side, as did veteran Jaret Llewellyn of Innisfail, Alta.

On a sunny day that gradually grew windy, a cluster of spectators packed the stands and an imposing cruise ship parked nearby to take in the action.

Multilingual commentators took pains to explain the finer points of the competition while a playlist boomed away, including such eclectic CanCon as Drake's "Headlines," Arcade Fire's "Wake Up" and Neil Young's "Heart of Gold."

In slalom, competitors thread through a series of six buoys, their tow rope shortening on each pass. Once the leash gets perilously short, the visual of each rider desperately hanging on is almost reminiscent of bull riding.

In tricks, the skiers have 20 seconds to impress, completing both a hand and toe pass — so named for which body part is keeping contact with the rope.

Preliminary action in the jump segment of the water ski competition, meanwhile, was set for Tuesday.

Monday's crowd seemed particularly mesmerized by the tricks segment — described by McClintock as "ballet on the water" — gasping as they watched the competitors flip, twist and cut halos in the air with their skis.

"It's really unique," raved Sonya Herrfort of Toronto.

McClintock — a five-time world champion who contributed a four-medal performance at the 2011 Pan Am Games — doesn't often meet people who are being exposed to competitive water skiing for the first time anymore, but when she does, their responses tend to be predictable.

"Typically it's been: 'Oh my goodness, that was way more incredible than I ever thought,'" she said after completing her run Monday.

"Or it's: 'How do you do that? That looks scary.' Well, I've trained my whole life to do this.

"You wouldn't do this at the cottage. I think that's the misinterpretation that a lot of people have. It's like, 'Oh, I ski at the cottage,' but then they see us competing in a world-class event and they're blown away by what we're doing out there."

That was the reaction of spectator Victor Gustavison, who as a kid would water ski until his dad "ran out of gas in the tank."

He was more proficient than most, capable of turnarounds and jumps, but he's careful to note that he was riding behind a much less powerful boat than Pan Am athletes.

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