The best skier on Lake Wylie this summer doesn't use water skis – just the hardened soles of her size 7 feet.
Rachel Normand is the reigning Barefoot Water Ski World Champion and starts work the first day of summer camp next Sunday at Camp Thunderbird on Wylie as head instructor of special skiing.
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“Until you see it for yourself, you just can't believe what Rachel does with her bare feet on the water,” said Dave Purcell, executive director of operations at Thunderbird. Normand, 28, grew up in Ohio and learned on two skis when she was 7, slalom at 8 and barefoot at 10.
“As soon I learned to ski, I always wanted to go to the next level,” she said. “I begged my dad to teach me to barefoot.”
Normand, who was home-schooled, spent most summer weekends during her teenage years shuttling around the country with her parents to water-skiing schools and competitions.
And a trickle of awards soon became a deluge: eight-time National Barefoot Water Ski Champion and USA Water Ski's Female Athlete of 2004. She won her first World Championship in Australia in 2004 and her second in 2006 in Washington State (held every two years).
Camp Thunderbird officials say demand is rising among summer campers for more challenging extreme sports such as barefooting, kneeboarding and rock climbing.
“Particularly with the more gifted athletes, they want to try these edgier kind of sports, and we're trying to meet those needs but doing so with qualified instructors in a safe environment,” said Purcell, who oversees the largest summer camp in the Charlotte region with about 2,500 campers.
On a recent morning on Crowders Creek cove, Normand put on a padded wet suit and slipped over the boat's side. After consulting with Thunderbird boat driver Bill Holyfield about acceleration and wind speed, she prepared for a “back, deepwater start.” She stretched out on her stomach in the water with her feet toward the front of the boat, gripping the handle behind her back.
As the boat took off, she was face down and her head sent up a rooster tail of water. She quickly shifted her weight, flipped over and popped to her feet. She hooked one foot into the handle and held her hands over her head. She put both feet back in the water, turned backward and hooked her foot in the handle. She was skiing backward, and the only part of her body touching the water was the front three inches of her right foot.
Normand, who earned a bachelor's of science degree in athletic training from Florida Southern College, said she's been fortunate with her training and injuries. She's dislocated her shoulder twice and the only foot injury was when she hit a dead fish and a fin spine was driven into her foot.
“I like to slalom ski but it's just not the same thrill as barefooting,” said Normand, who also trained in classical ballet and has worked in a professional dance troupe. “There's just something thrilling about going fast and gliding across the water on nothing but the bottoms of your feet.”