Catching Big Air for 60 Years

September 01, 1998

By Bobby Davis ’82

It was a Rollins reunion on the water. For one week last August, about 20 current and former Rollins students and coaches competed at the 2010 National Water Ski Championships in Wilmington, Illinois.

That so many skiers from a small college like Rollins participated in this event is impressive in itself. But even more amazing is that nearly all of them placed in their events—competing in a field of more than 800 of the best skiers in the country, ranging in age from 6 to 85. “There was something magical about Nationals this year,” said Holly Chinnery Pohlig ’01, who works for her alma mater as director of admission. “It was amazing to have so many of us there representing past, current, and hopefully future generations of Rollins.”

Not only has Rollins’ water ski program produced a large contingency of skiers competing at the highest levels, it has created a tightly knit family that spans more than half a century. “The Rollins connection is strong,” said Pohlig’s sister, Amy Chinnery Valmassei ’92, who was prompted by her sister to attend the Nationals—her first competitive performance in years. “When I got there, I couldn’t believe it—there were people representing decades of Rollins water skiing.”

It is no surprise that Rollins was so well represented at last year’s National Water Ski Championships, for by lucky historical circumstance, the College found itself at the epicenter of the new sport when it was invented in the 1920s. Since then, many of the world’s elite skiers have lived and trained in Central Florida, and, starting with Dick Pope Jr. ’52, some of the world’s greatest skiers have competed as Rollins students (many competed professionally before stepping on campus). Yet, most of today’s Rollins students are unaware that the equivalent of Olympic athletes wander in their midst. And despite the “fun-in-the-sun” image of water skiing, Rollins’ skiers have been superior students who have pursued demanding careers while, in some cases, continuing to ski competitively long after graduation.

The Popes of Cypress Gardens

Water skiing came to Florida largely through the efforts of Dick Pope Sr. and his brother, Malcolm. A born promoter, Dick was an enthusiastic skier from the time he was young, and Malcolm drove the speedboat. To promote real estate sales during the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s, the brothers put on exhibitions in South Florida.

Pope Sr. and his wife, Julie, founded Florida’s first theme park, Cypress Gardens, in Winter Haven in 1936. The park quickly drew thousands, and eventually millions, of tourists to its botanical gardens and elaborate water shows. Hollywood used Cypress Gardens and its water skiers in dozens of movies. By 1941, the park was proclaimed the “Water Ski Capital of the World.” Cypress Gardens hosted the Florida Intercollegiate Water Skiing Tournament, and Pope sponsored the second World Championships there in 1950—the year after his son competed at the inaugural event in France.

Dick Pope Jr. became one of the early stars of the sport, winning four national championships from 1947 to 1950, winning the World Championship in 1950 on his “home lake,” and setting the world record jump of 84 feet that same year. He entered Rollins in 1948 and became the vital early link between Rollins and the rapidly developing world of water skiing. “I remember Dick practicing barefoot for hours,” said former Rollins skier Margy Mountcastle Robinson ’51. ”He was so talented, and a very nice guy.”

Despite his stature as a world-class athlete, Pope Jr. was a humble, generous teammate. “He was the best, he was number one, but he wanted to help everyone get better,” recalled his former roommate and fellow skier Peter Fay ’51. “He would help someone who would later ski a tournament against him. He was the best, but he never talked about it.”

Thanks to the Popes, water skiers came to Central Florida from all over the world, which presented a huge recruiting opportunity for Rollins.

“Gramps” Accelerates the Program

Through the years, Rollins relied on its natural gifts to attract skiers. The College did not (and still does not) offer athletic scholarships in the sport and, until the 1970s, team members had to pay to enter tournaments and for boats and equipment. Florida’s lakes provided a perfect place for waterskiing. With Lake Virginia bordering the Rollins campus, skiers had a place to practice their craft and hold tournaments.

As Mike Morgan ’85, winner of more than 30 national titles and Men’s Slalom Champion at the 2009 National Championships, commented during his student days, “It’s time in the water that makes a skier, and getting to the water here is like getting out of bed.” June Worthington Mendell ’61 remembered, “You could wear your bathing suit to class—covered up, of course—then go out on the lake, and then cover up again and go to your next class. It was fun.”

Students first started water skiing at Rollins in 1940, and the College organized a team in 1948. They won the overall title at tournaments at Cypress Gardens in 1949 and 1950, setting a course of dominance that would last to the present day.

Rollins’ first water ski coach, Henry Suydam (1949-65), was an accomplished athlete who had lettered in track, soccer, wrestling, and tennis—despite losing his arm below the elbow in a fireworks accident when he was 16. Suydam placed the Rollins program on firm footing, partly with the help of his son, Skillman Suydam ’56, another early star in the sport. In the same 1950 world tournament won by Pope Jr., Henry won the Senior Men’s crown and Skillman the Junior Boys’ title. Skillman broke Pope’s string of national championships in 1951 (Pope finished second) and led the Rollins men to their first state championship in 1952.

Henry Suydam earned the moniker “Gramps” while at Rollins, his son said, because “he was everyone’s grandfather. He’d invite skiers to stay with us during breaks so they could get some extra practice in.” He also bought the team’s boats.

Another early star was Professor of Psychology Roger Ray ’62, who set a world record in 1961 with a jump of 120 feet. Ray had skied professionally for Cypress Gardens as a teen and traveled throughout the U.S. and Mexico as a show and tournament skier in the junior boys division. Although he gave up pro skiing after entering Rollins, he won twice in jumping and once overall in the four national competitions in which he participated as a student.

While building their history as a competitive powerhouse, Rollins skiers of the Suydam era began another long tradition: exhibition skiing for alumni and special events. Many Rollins skiers over the years joined the fun at Cypress Gardens, where shows featured trick skiing and stunts, including large pyramids of skiers. Skillman Suydam and a group of Rollins skiers toured the country with Bill Barton’s Skicapades. In 1959, Rollins water skiers were filmed on Lake Eola in Orlando for Art Linkletter’s show On the Go. Even today, student skiers put on special exhibitions on behalf of the College.

“Water skiing at Rollins was unique and different and added a mystique to going to college in the South,” Mendell said. “When I went back North in the summertime and applied for ski shows, I had been practicing all year. And the alligators we saw in the Florida lakes made for a great story at home!” In addition to recruiting top skiers at tournaments and exhibitions all over the country, Rollins coaches cherry-picked skiers from the College’s physical education classes. Several of Rollins’ top skiers learned the sport in college, including Mendell, who had never donned skis until her first year and went on to become the women’s team captain. DeDe David Mahler ’77 hadn’t skied competitively before coming to Rollins and didn’t make the team her first year, but went on to become captain. Leza Harrison ’73 had never skied before she was 20, yet she won the Correct Craft Ski Nautique Award, given to the skier with the highest overall score in any division at the National Water Ski Championships, five times. At the 2010 National Championships, she swept gold medals in Women 55+ slalom, trick, jumping, and overall. “I didn’t know anything about water skiing—it was just a PE course,” Harrison said in an article for West Marine magazine. “They asked me if I wanted to ski on the college team pretty quickly, and I thought that they were making fun of me. But I learned so quickly I was able to do as well as anyone else on the team. Learning to ski at Rollins totally changed my life.”

Skiing Jumps into New Era

After some coaching turnover in the late 1960s, 1970 proved to be a banner year for Rollins skiers. The jump ramp was built in 1969 and, prompted by alumna Sally Evinrude Slater ’57, the Evinrude company agreed to provide a free powerboat and ski equipment in exchange for the right to photograph Rollins skiers in promotional campaigns. Later, Correct Craft, MasterCraft, and Sea Ray donated boats to the team.

Rollins also hosted the first Annual Fall Intercollegiate Waterski Tournament that year and won, beating 19 schools. Water skiing legend Liz Allan Shetter Reid ’71, a Winter Park resident, broke her own trick record in that event. Reid was, by her own admission, a ringer at Rollins, a star skier who had grown up in Winter Park. “Water skiing then was mostly trial and error; we got little teaching of technique, but were trying and inventing things as we went along,” she said. “We didn’t wear life jackets, and our slalom skis were wooden, which are much harder to use than modern equipment. We also skied on open water, which most young skiers don’t do anymore. Most skiing lakes today are private lakes with no other boat traffic and protected from wind as much as possible. Skiers in our era had to be able to master the variables.”

Water skiing was established as a varsity sport in 1971, the same year Rollins hired Paul Harris ’45 as coach—a position he would hold until 1986. During his tenure, Rollins finished first or second in the Southeast Regionals all but one year.

Known as a superb and caring administrator, Harris never rode the boat with the skiers as coaches do today. “He dealt with the politics and paperwork and overall organization, and looked to us to help build the team,” said Bobby Reich ’77. “Even though we didn’t have scholarships, the College always supported the ski team. We had a jump ramp, Correct Craft boats, a supply of gas. Paul kept us together and focused. He loved that team. And if anyone’s grades started to slip, he’d talk to you like a big brother.”

Reich, a Winter Park native who started skiing at an early age and twice won the men’s overall at the Regionals during his Rollins career, captained the Rollins team during a period of triumph and transition. “The 1970s was a period of great change in the sport,” Reich said. “We went to all the intercollegiate tournaments around the country and to the 1976 National Championships to get every judge and AWSA administrator we could find to sign a petition to create a National Collegiate Water Ski Association. We succeeded. We went from wooden to composite skis, equipment got better all around, and it was also the time of Title IX, where women gained a bigger role in sports.”

After a dip in performance in 1978-79, a group of 10 first-year students made the team in 1979-80, joining only four returning skiers. They would prove dominating; from 1979 to 1982, Rollins skiers won four Southern Regional Championships in a row, and from 1980 to 1982 they finished second each year at the National Intercollegiate Championship. Lisa Simoneau Tobias ’83, who started skiing at 10, led the pack. She became one of the top six intercollegiate skiers in the country by her senior year and set the women’s intercollegiate jump record of 115 feet. She and her teammates won 19 straight tournaments. Mike Morgan ’85, from Lake Wales, Florida, already an international star, joined the team in 1981-82. He set a trick record and made a collegiate record jump of 153 feet.

Cassie Hillinger-Vandenhouve ’83 began competitive and show skiing as a young girl (she learned how to ski standing on a barstool on top of a saucer for the Mini-Aqua Bats in Wisconsin, the nation’s oldest ski club) and found in Rollins “a school where I could compete at the national level. The threat of gators made you very competent very quickly. Falling was not an option!” Caroline Hogan Shugart ’83 said, “We all learned from each other, and those four years were very important in our career development. I owe a lot to Rollins for my skiing career.” In 1981, World Waterskiing magazine named Morgan and Shugart Skiers of the Year.

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.

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.”

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