By THERESA WINSLOW
The Capital of Annapolis
SEVERNA PARK, Md. (AP) — Rachel McNealey pops up out of the water like she’s been shot from a canon. The 16-year-old then carefully balances herself on a single ski as the boat towing her zooms along at 32 mph.
As she zigs and zags through the buoys of a slalom course on a 60-foot line, she pulls her body low to the surface. The run is completed on a half-mile-long lake in a matter of seconds, but repeated again and again.
“It’s exciting,” she said, “unless you’re in bad form, then it’s scary.”
Once she finishes, it’s her 12-year-old sister, Bridget’s turn.
Instead of slalom, she practices a variety of “tricks” such as sliding to the side or turning in a circle. The moves are done on a shorter line and at a slower speed, but still require a lot of skill.
“I try to tell myself I’ve done it before, my body knows what to do,” Bridget said. “It feels so good, there’s a rush of relief when you complete a trick.”
From early spring until mid-fall, this is how the McNealeys spend their weekends. When they’re not practicing on the private lake in Vienna, they’re traveling to competitions up and down the East Coast. Both are top-ranked and hold records in their divisions. They hope to continue in the sport in college.
“Every year, it’s been amazing to watch them get better and better,” said friend and fellow waterskier Mike Sturdevant of Trappe, who practices on the same lake as the McNealeys.
The sisters’ affinity for the sport extends to their parents, Mike and Cheryl, who both also waterski. Mike competes in his own division, too.
“I can’t say enough good things about them,” said another waterskier, Mike Warwick of Severna Park. “They’re a lot of fun. Mike used to give me tips, now Rachel can give me tips.”
Rachel, a junior at Severna Park High School, and Bridget, a seventh-grader at Severna Park Middle School, have been on waterskis most of their lives.
Mike McNealey, one of the owners of Severna Park Automotive, remembers dragging Rachel along the carpet on a trainer ski, then graduating to the yard, the beach and finally to shallow water before letting her really get her feet wet in the sport.
“It comes so naturally to me,” she said. “I like that it’s instant. You put it out there and that’s it.”
Rachel prefers slalom for this reason: the speed. Bridget favors trick skiing because of the variety. She knows about eight tricks on two skis and is working on one ski moves.
Mike, 50, started skiing when he was a teenager, took a break from the sport for a while and got back into it in his 30s. It’s not cheap.
Between lake fees, boat fees, tournament entry fees and equipment, he estimates the family spends $5,000 to $6,000 a year.
But it’s worth every penny, he said.
The family has formed friendships with other skiers and the sport has made them closer as a family. “It certainly helps us relate, yes,” Mike said.
Rachel said she’s grown closer to her sister because of waterskiing, and they often coach each other.
“This is something the entire family does and that’s really cool,” she said. “I grew up at this lake,” Bridget added. “It’s a big part of my life.”
Both girls also dance, which helps them with the body control necessary when they hit the water. Neither minds that people generally know much more about tap and jazz than they know about waterskiing.
“I like that no one’s heard about the sport and it’s a small community,” Rachel said. “I get to explain it and that generates a lot of interest.”
Mike said the sport also teaches valuable life lessons, such as patience, because it takes a lot of practice to improve.
“You have to work through plateaus and difficulties,” said Cheryl, a special education teacher’s assistant.
Mike said a lot of top waterskiers lives in climates where they can practice year-round, so he’s very proud of his girls’ accomplishments given the weather restrictions of this area. And even during the season, they usually only get to waterski on weekends. Both have had their share of sore muscles from the sport, but no major injuries.
“(Waterskiing) isn’t just something we do,” Rachel said. “It’s a lifestyle. It’s everything for us.”
Information from: The Capital of Annapolis, Md., http://www.hometownannapolis.com/
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)