Patience, persistence and perseverance. How often do you see all three of those in action?
Joann O’Connor is 62 years old, but you’d never guess it. She’s legendary on Lake Lucerne up in Crandon, Wisconsin: she’s known for water skiing up and down the lake– on her bare feet. Joann was the first woman to barefoot competitively in the Midwest in 1967. A motorcycle accident in 1975 left her with a fused ankle and a long rehabilitation process. “Barefooting was the last thing on my mind back then, I just wanted to walk again,” said Joann.
Joann took up barefooting again, this time, at the age of 54. She outfitted her boat with a boom and got on the water by scooting out on the boom and putting her feet down. She found that her ankle held up well and she really enjoyed being back on the water. She entered the Footstock tournament in 2004 and 2005, an endurance barefoot tournament which pitted her against much younger skiers. While browsing through Waterski magazine, she came across an article about Judy Myers, the oldest female barefoot competitor. Joann got in touch with Judy and began training with Keith St. Onge, the two-time world barefoot champion at the World Barefoot Center. She competed in the Midwest Regionals in 2007 and 2008, winning the Overall in her division.
But remember those words, patience, persistence and perseverance?
In the winter of 2008, Joann was down at the World Barefoot Center in Florida and watched Judy barefoot backwards. She immediately wanted to try but was met with a challenge: the backward deep water start required flexible ankles and her fused ankle had almost no bend. It seemed almost impossible for her to learn this start, but Joann learned how to make some adjustments on the water to compensate for her left ankle. It took patience to do the start over and over. It took persistence to figure out how to deal with an ankle that would not bend. It took perseverance to finally make it happen: Joann stood up on the water a year later and took a ride down the lake backwards, on ski shoes. It took a whole lot more of the “three P’s” to learn how to do it backwards on her feet, without the shoes. And all of this took place on the side of the boat. She still had to learn to accomplish it behind the boat on a 75-foot-line.
When I met Joann last year, she was on her third summer of trying to learn how to ski backwards behind the boat. Three summers. Hundreds and hundreds of tries. Throughout the hundreds of tries, Joann never gave up, even when frustration mounted. In March 2011, Joann stood up behind the boat for the first time at the World Barefoot Center. Even after that, she was still struggling to master the start. Behind the boat, her left ankle kept steering her off to the side and she had to remember to push in harder with her right foot to keep herself straight. She dug in with even more resolve over the summer, determined to barefoot backwards behind the boat.
Patience. Persistence. Perseverance. Joann embodied those words. All summer. Hundreds of starts. She got up once. Failed many more times. Got up again. Failed again and again.
When I arrived in Crandon last Thursday, we hit the water right away with her sister driving. I videotaped one failed start after another. We went back to the house and Joann studied them. She decided to tweak two things– to get her feet out faster and punch up the driving speed. She got up once and keeled over– the speed was too much. But we celebrated– how we celebrated that start– she got up! But several more starts later, Joann was frustrated again.
Then Joann said something crazy. “I want you to drive.”
You gotta be kidding me.
While I had boat driving experience behind me, I had never driven an inboard and I had absolutely no experience pulling someone backwards. It required three different speed adjustments at critical times. “I’ve tried everything,” she said. “I’m out of options, let’s try it.” Patience, persistence, perseverance– that’s Joann. And how could I say no?
The first start was a mess, but the second start– Joann stood right up. And she did it again the next day, riding backwards the entire length of the three-mile lake. The real test was Sunday morning– a choppy lake. Would she make it up? The first start failed, but I blamed my driving. Doubt began to creep back in her mind, but she resolved to try again. And here’s where I give her credit– she faced a lake that even champions would hesitate to barefoot on. But 62-year-old Joann planted her shoes in the water, stood up and rode the waves backwards.
Patience. Persistence. Perseverance.