Catching Big Air for 60 Years
By Bobby Davis ’82
Historical photos courtesy of Rollins College Archives and Special Collections
Warren Witherell succeeded Harris as coach in 1986-87 and continued the tradition of superior water skiing at Rollins. Witherell, whose daughters Heidi and Holly skied for him at Rollins, was a legend and innovator. Among his accomplished students were Helena Kjellander Valentin ’90, a Swede who won four World Championship gold medals in slalom, and twins Britt Larsen Kovak ’91 and Tawn Larsen Hahn ’91, who were at one time ranked number one and number two in the world in tricks. Witherell recruited Kjellander at a ski tournament in Orlando. She hadn’t thought much about college, but she liked what she saw at Rollins. In the 1986 National Collegiate Tournament, Rollins placed fourth and Helena won the women’s overall. She ended her career at Rollins as the College valedictorian. The Larsen twins dominated women’s trick skiing for more than a decade.
Leading the men was Russell Gay ’92, a four-time All-American, six-time winner in open men’s tricks at the United States Nationals, a two-time U.S. Open Champion, and 1994 World Champion. He has skied professionally almost without interruption since graduating from Rollins, placing second at the prestigious Moomba Masters tournament in Australia just this past March.
“Coach Witherell’s sole purpose was to develop a superior water ski team,” said Brenda Nichols Baldwin ’92, who spent two years under his tutelage at Rollins. “He’d get to the Boathouse in the morning and drive the boat all day for us. He maintained the courses and the jump, organized everything so we could focus on both our studies and our skiing,” Baldwin said.
Under Witherell, the team earned international stature and took on a more international cast. At the 1987 World Championships in London, Rollins skiers represented Sweden and Canada, as well as the United States. Kim Laskoff ’91, who had set the women’s collegiate slalom record the previous year, won the World Championship in that event.
That year, Rollins hosted the National Intercollegiate Water Ski Championship Tournament at Lake David in Groveland and finished second as a team, with Kjellander winning the women’s overall and Chris Swann ’88 winning the men’s overall.
Rollins finished third in the 1988 National Championship tournament, with Kjellander second overall, Laskoff winning slalom, and Gay finishing second in tricks. That same year, at the nation’s most prestigious water ski event, the Masters Tournament in Callaway Gardens, Georgia, Kjellander won slalom and Tawn Larsen won tricks.
Nineteen eighty-nine brought the single biggest accomplishment in Rollins water ski history: a National Championship title, which broke an eight-year run by Northeast Louisiana University and earned the team a photo on the cover of The Water Skier magazine. To this day, Rollins is one of just a handful of colleges—and the only small college—in collegiate water ski history to win a Division I title.
Witherell left Rollins in 1990 and was succeeded for two years by Mike Baldwin ’92MBA, who had skied at Rollins as an undergraduate for two years before transferring to the University of South Florida. Under his brief leadership, the wins kept coming. Brenda Nichols Baldwin ’92 became the next great female skier at Rollins, winning the women’s overall in 1990 and then winning both jump and overall in 1991. Later, in 1997, she set a world jump record of 166 feet.
(l-r) Russell Gay ’92, Britt Larsen Kovak ’91, Tawn Larsen Hahn ’91, Brenda Nichols Baldwin ’92, Helena Kjellander Valentin ’90, and Mike Morgan ’85 at 1993 World Water Ski Championships in Singapore. Those in stars and stripes represented Team USA, Kjellander skied for the Swedish team, and Gay and Hahn were independents.
Riding the Wake of Success
The past two decades of Rollins water skiing has been led by Marc Bedsole, a former All-American skier for rival Florida Southern College who came on board as coach in 1992-93—bringing with him world-class expertise in trick skiing, both as an athlete and a coach. Bedsole has coached numerous national and world champion water skiers. A five-time U.S. National Tricks Champion, he continues to ski competitively, having won tricks at the National Championships and placed second at the Senior World Championships in Italy in 2010.
Under his direction, the Rollins water ski team has continued to build its long list of achievements. Bedsole led the Tars to five consecutive top five finishes at the Division I National Championships (third place in 1994, 1995, and 1996, and fifth place in 1997 and 1998), followed by back-to-back Division II National Championships in 2002 and 2003. In 2010, the team finished fifth in the nation in Division I, competing in a field of 22 schools. Bedsole got a huge boost early in his Rollins career when Rhoni Barton Bischoff ’98 of Canyon Lake, California decided to come to Rollins. “I was impressed by the small class sizes, the personal attention the professors gave, and the school’s strong varsity sports program,” Bischoff said. “Coming to Rollins was the best decision I ever made.”
Bischoff joined Dana Preble ’95 in leading Rollins to a third-place finish at the Collegiate National Championships in 1994. Rollins finished third in the nation again in 1995, with Bischoff and Benny Lohr ’99 leading the way. In 1996, 1997, and 1998, Bischoff swept first place in tricks, slalom, jumps, and overall at the Collegiate National Championships. By 1997, she was ranked the world’s best female water skier, and she went on to finish her Rollins career as the “winningest collegiate water skier of all time.”
Benny Lohr was a four-time All-American skier for Rollins. When Rollins finished third in the nation in 1996, he was runner-up in tricks, and in 1997, he won tricks and came in third overall. In 1998, he finished fourth overall in the nation and won overall at the Collegiate World Championships.
Bedsole’s 2002 and 2003 squads accomplished what no Rollins squad ever had: they won two consecutive Division II Collegiate National Championships, led by Ty Oppenlander ’06HH, Michelle Simpson Tuegel ’06, Sara Roach Lemley ’05, and Tarah Benzel Mikacich ’06. In an interview with The Sandspur after Rollins beat the University of Texas skiers, Oppenlander said, “Nothing compares to the competition and the atmosphere that’s present at water ski tournaments. I have three straight Division II national slalom titles and this last one is the most special because everybody has high expectations for me.”
Tuegel won a bronze medal in the World Water Ski Tournament in 2003 and took third at the U.S. Open, then won the women’s slalom at the Division II Collegiate Nationals. She earned the title of world slalom champion at the Waterski World Cup in 2005.
High Achievers on the Water and in Life
Rollins’ water skiers have often been among the College’s strongest students. Three skiers have been Rollins valedictorians (Helena Kjellander, economics; Holly Chinnery Pohlig, mathematics; and Jenna Mielzynski ’09, biochemistry), and a host of others have ranked near the top of their classes. “We used to bring our books to meets, sometimes reading in the boat,” Caroline Hogan Shugart recalled.
After graduating, Rollins’ skiers have continued on to successful careers. Mike Morgan, who graduated summa cum laude in biology, is a dermatologist who teaches at three universities. Lisa Tumarkin Haile went to medical school and law school and is now a patent attorney for a biotech firm. Leza Harrison was a NASA engineer working on the space shuttle for 26 years. Mark Crone ’77, who held the collegiate slalom record and later was two-time national slalom champion, made a career out of water skiing. He has been an athlete, volunteer, and industry member for more than 30 years.
“The people who came to Rollins to ski also came to get a great liberal arts education—and we did,” said Bobby Reich, who recently left a long-term career in the water ski boat manufacturing industry to pursue a PhD in business administration.
Those years of juggling competitions and academics weren’t all work, though. “With all the time spent practicing and traveling together, we had a lot of fun and shared a lot of camaraderie,” Reich said. “Before college, I had only experienced competition as an individual. At Rollins, I was part of a team, part of a family—and those connections have remained strong to this day.”
Members of the Rollins Water Ski Family at a recent gathering at the Alfond Boathouse: (front row, l-r) Geena Krueger ’12, Michaela Cooper ’11, Michale Briant ’13, Delfina Cuglievan ’13, Jenna Wolfe ’08, Anna Davich Lohr ’02, Holly Chinnery Pohlig ’01, Jane Peterson Gay ’93, Brenda Nichols Baldwin ’92, former coach Mike Baldwin ’92MBA, and future Tars Ryan Gay, Ella Gay, Anna Gay, Brooke Baldwin, and Kristen Baldwin; (back row, l-r) Grigorios Sarantis ’12, Drew Phillips ’14, Robbie Vezina ’13, Drew Doty ’13, Coach Marc Bedsole, Gary Bosses ’97, Benny Lohr ’99, Jeff Pohlig ’99 ’01MBA, Rhoni Barton Bischoff ’98, Russell Gay ’92, and Drew Ross ’92