Thick New Year's morning fog shrouded Lake Norman, hanging on the horizon like a quiet gray wall, an uncertain backdrop for the 33rd Annual Lake Norman New Year's Day Barefoot Challenge at Lake Norman Marina in Sherrills Ford.
The Barefoot Challenge was momentarily on hold. The tournament, hosted by Lake Norman Marina and the Carolina Show Ski Team, is one of the longest-running barefoot water ski tournaments in the world.
The Carolina Show Ski Team was in a huddle. Eleven barefoot ski contestants, friends, families, spectators, and those who attend in the tradition of bringing in the New Year, were waiting.
Sherrills Ford resident Terry Cody launched the tournament in 1978 with some buddies to promote barefoot water skiing in the area. It worked. In 2011 he was surrounded by several generations of barefoot skiers, some he had skied with, and others he watched grow up on skis.
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One of those was Jeff Blair, 34, of Mooresville. Blair started skiing on High Rock Lake and Lake Norman when he was 3. His father, Dr. Bill Blair, taught him how to barefoot ski when he was 12, the first year he entered the Barefoot Challenge.
"I grew up skiing with my whole family. It's a great family sport," said Blair, who came in first in the open division. He and his wife, Allison, were both collegiate water skiers. Jeff went on to ski at Sea World. Now, they are bringing up their boys on skis. Will, 6, and Wesley, 4, both started water skiing when they were 3.
The skiers were hard to spot in their street clothes. They wait as long as possible to suit up into wetsuits and a dry suit that helps protect them from the cold. The feet however are naked, with the odd pair of woolly bear bedroom slippers for cover, before the plunge.
This year, for the first time, the Barefoot Challenge partnered with Samaritan's Feet to raise awareness and funds for children who have never owned a pair of shoes and millions more without access to proper foot care. A donation of $10 buys a new pair of shoes for a child. This partnering inspired John Gillette, a former U.S. Barefoot Ski Team member, to ski the Challenge again for the first time since 1996.
Gillette, who worked at the marina from 1991-1998, also announced the event. He addressed the crowd, "Right now we don't have any visibility to ski."
The water was like glass - a barefooter's dream - but not for long.
Charley Glassey and his dog Hotrod were the only ones on the dock to watch the first pass of the towboat as it circled by on a test run.
As if by magic, the fog began to lift. Tournament Chair, Justin Landers, called the barefooters together to go over the rules. The Carolina Show Ski Team opened the show with a three-level pyramid pass by the dock.
Fourteen-year-old Connor Ulyatt of Tega Cay, S.C., was the first to take the plunge with a flying dock start and jump into the 41-degree water. Other skiers included Becky Welch, Russ Frase, Brett Berry, Greg Fossett, Travis Shulenberger, Ron Meeks, Ken Wagoner and Danny Richardson.
The towboat followed the same circle pattern for each skier, best for the crowd to watch, but more difficult for skiers to maneuver. Skiers went in back first, feet first and face first. The average towing speed was 40 mph. All of them eventually ended up on their very cold, very red feet.
Competitors earn points for every second they stay on their bare feet, their starting method and any tricks they perform. Landers tallied up points in the towboat, asking for a calculator as he added points for Blair.
Blair went in with a face plant - intentional - and came up for three full circles, frontwards, backwards, spinning on his back, and waiving to the crowd as he came in first in the open division with a score of 816.
"I don't have a lot of endurance," said Blair. "So I do a lot of tricks."
Young Will and Wesley were running circles around their Dad as the skiers continued their barefoot circles. The next generation of barefooters preparing for the Barefoot Challenge.