For all the time Frase children spend in the water, it’s a wonder they weren’t born with fins.
They’re the first family of Lake Wylie water skiing. Dad Russ is a charter member of what’s now Carolina Show Ski Team. Mom Nancy announces at events. Son Seth, 19, is a former national and world champion who left home for a pro gig at SeaWorld in San Antonio, Texas. He’s the skyboard finale.
Those same aspirations fill sisters Claire, 17, and Erin, 13. Only Erin’s twin, Hope, doesn’t perform in ski shows, but she helps on land.
Russ invites me to the Tega Cay waterfront on Lake Wylie he’s had for 30 years. He attaches a training rod off the port side. He instructs. I size up the skis and wobble to my backside.
“If you fall, just remember to wave and smile,” he says.
I’m not even sure I want to water ski. I can’t imagine I’ll be any good. I’ve always said if the good Lord wanted me to ice skate, I’d have been born 100 pounds lighter and a few latitude lines north. If He’d wanted me to water ski, I’d have been born a Frase.
“You don’t have to,” Claire says, “but it’s encouraged.”
I splash off the dock, and I’m lightening to the idea. I wade out to the pole. It’s pleasant – a calm summer morning, awakening wildlife, water warmer than a toddler pool. Russ rips the throttle.
I’m gaining altitude. I’m half out of the water when my toes head for opposite directions. My body thrusts upstream. The skis don’t. It’s wave-and-smile time.
Wading and waiting for the boat’s return, though aerobic, aren’t too bad. Trying to reconnect my feet to the skis underwater is summer camp at Guantanamo. The fish must be doubled over laughing.
I get one and Russ helps with the other. We discover a blown-out foothold. An inglorious end for a plank that’s seen far better days. Russ tosses me admittedly trickier skis. A few near-identical faceplants later, I’m ready for the girls to have a go.
Claire slips one foot into her ski. That’s all she’ll need. She’s prepping for the Aug. 9 national championships in Illinois. It’s her fifth trip, second straight as the top-seeded swiveler from the southern region. Last year she finished fourth.
Swivel competition is exactly how it sounds. One foot rotates in the boot while the rest of her body twists and turns for a five-minute routine. That’s after the intro “deck dance,” show skiing slang for aqua-cheerleading.
“It’s a circus on water,” Claire says.
Russ revs the motor and yanks Claire slap off the dock. She completes maybe a half dozen passes. Doesn’t fall once. Switches out with her sister, and Erin does the same thing. Maybe I need yanking off the dock.
Erin tried the expert 360 swivel division at last month’s southern regional for the first time, up from the 14-and-under 180 division. She won. Evidently there’s plenty to what she’s making look effortless – eyes up, head up, back and arms straight.
“Every little thing has to be perfect to nail the trick,” Erin says.
Points come with technical precision for each trick, and “how pretty you do them.” The sisters aren’t competitive yet. But soon they could take on the same division. Both want to go the SeaWorld route after graduation, Erin thinking about marine biology afterward.
Forgive Russ if he isn’t looking that far ahead. He and a “band of river renegades” started show skiing on the Allison Creeks in 1987 as the Lake Wylie Ski Club. They moved to a Heritage USA pond after the PTL ministry left. The first competition came in 1997 and July 4 shows in Tega Cay are a 17-year tradition.
But for all the change he’s seen, the biggest may lay waiting. Russ isn’t quite sure what he’ll do if and when the kids do turn pro.
“I’ll have to teach my wife to drive so I can ski, I guess,” he says.
Skiing is the family budget. The boat is all mirrors, spotter seat and tow ropes. There’s a shed full of skis, many made by Russ. The house couldn’t be any closer to the water without pontoons.
Erin can’t even remember her first show, she was so young. But she and her sister say nobody forced them into skiing. Not when they were young and not now – not even dad.
“You’re going to do it because we’re going to put everybody in the boat and you’re going to see it happening,” Russ says. “You’re going to practice with me. It’s kind of a thing that, until you decide you don’t want to do it, it’s going to be our pastime.”
At this point I’m a cork. My best moment comes as Russ tows me back to the dock. Claire has to get to work lifeguarding. Erin has whatever rising eighth-graders have during summer.
Russ offers one more ride for anyone who’ll take it. At some point he’ll tie to the dock, but not yet. There’s a sun too low and a lake too still to leave. Besides, what else does he have to do, anyway?
It’s hardly smile-and-wave time yet.
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