The Ultimate Program
Amazing skiing worthy of full scholarships and championship rings – the ULM Warhawks represent collegiate water skiing at its finest.
ULM Water Ski 2011-2012 (image: Heather Raley)
By Josh Sampiero
Homework? Check. Textbooks? Check. Water skis, swim trunks, sunscreen? Check, check, check. If you happened to be one of the lucky few on the renowned University of Louisiana at Monroe water ski team, your day might look something like this: (1) Wake up. Shake off grogginess from last night’s partying. (2) Scoot on down to campus to pull a quick slalom set before attending Brit Lit 2420 in the admin building. (3) Eat lunch out of a sack at the student union, have a quick study sesh with class mates for an upcoming econ quiz, and then head back to the boat for some tricking before the sun sets on another day of your college career.
It’s OK to be jealous. I imagine that just about every other college skiing program in the country envies ULM’s success. In terms of competitive collegiate water skiing, ULM is essentially unrivaled. From its beginnings in ULM student-athlete Frank Ingram’s backyard, in 1978, to 23 national championships spanning three decades, no other school has been as dominant behind the boat – and ULM shows no signs of stopping.
Want to know what makes it even more impressive? There’s no coach. That’s right – the skiers coach themselves. Of course, when you have near-pro or soon-to-be-pro skiers in your program, that might not be a bad thing. In fact, the level of skiing is so high at ULM, the program attracts athletes from all around the world. Twenty-two-year-old British senior Will Oliver is a case in point.
“One great thing about ULM is I can ski year round,” says Oliver, who has been skiing since he was 4. “You can’t do that back home, and we don’t have collegiate- or university-level skiing in England. I definitely ski harder and train more competitively in the U.S.” And given Oliver’s desire to have a career in pro water skiing, he couldn’t be in a better place. ULM’s program has produced several pro skiers: Ryan Dodd, Natallia Berdnikava, Freddy Krueger, Regina Jaquess and Thomas Degasperi have all skied behind the ULM Warhawks’ maroon-and-gold Correct Craft.
And with the Bayou Desiard practice and tournament area running directly through the middle of campus, the ski team is highly visible. “It’s the most visible program on campus,” says Tyler Scott, a junior skier who grew up just down the street, in Covington, Louisiana. “If you’re on campus, you know about the ski team. You’ll see us practicing all day.” Oliver concurs. “Teachers work with us when we have to miss class for a tournament, and the new university president, Dr. Nick Bruno, has really helped get the program some recognition.”
For students like Tyler Scott, who won the slalom event at collegiate nationals last year, it’s a dream come true – a chance to ski while getting you education paid for. Even though Scott grew up skiing competitively and knew about ULM’s ski team his entire life, his main reason for being at ULM is the pharmacy school, one of the university’s most prestigious programs. Scott and the rest of the team pay for their books, housing and meals, but their tuition is covered by athletic scholarships. What’s it like for other schools to ski against a program whose university sets aside $1.50 of every student’s tuition for the ski team?
John Mommer, graduate of rival program University of Louisiana at Lafayette and marketing director for HO Sports, recalls going head-to-head with the Warhawks. “They were always really good, and they had such a deep team,” he says. “And while they are very well funded, that doesn’t make the difference – it’s their team cohesion.”
Of course, all the attention means that the pressure is on – and the team knows it. What does that mean? Practice, practice, practice – even without a coach. “The boat is pretty much running from daybreak to dusk, every day of the week,” Scott says. “You learn who on the team you like to ski with, and pair off for hour-long practice sessions with three of four people. Everyone on the team has been skiing so long, so we help each other tune up our game.” Many of the three-event skiers practice three times a day, three days a week or more – and that’s on top of gym time, class and, of course, road trips.
6 of the Most Dominant Collegiate Skiers of All Time
1. Rhoni Barton
The winningest collegiate skier of all time, Barton graduated from Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, and swept all three events at the NCWSA Nationals in 1995, 1996 and 1997. She has a total of 14 national collegiate titles.
2. Will Asher
Skiing for ULL from 2002 to 2005, Asher broke the collegiate slalom record (3½ at 41 off) in his sophomore year and finished his collegiate career with two national slalom titles and one overall title.
3. Regina Jaquess
This ULM powerhouse still holds the women’s collegiate slalom record (2 at 39½ off), which she set in 2003. Winning numerous national slalom, trick, jump and overall titles, Jaquess earned valuable points for her team from 2002 to 2005.
4. Zack Worden
ULM’s three-time national jump champ and current record holder (195 feet) was also a dominant force in trick and slalom from 2009 to 2011.
5. Clementine Lucine
She represented the best talent at Florida Southern College from 2006 to 2009, when she set a national collegiate trick record (4,530 points) and claimed seven NCWSA national titles.
6. Natallia Berdnikava
The ULM three-event all star won three NCWSA national jump titles, and at the 2007 NCWSA Nationals, she took the top spot on the women’s podium in slalom, trick, jump and overall.
The Perfect College Ski School
When Ryan Dodd arrived at the ULM campus in 2003, he was in heaven. “Within walking distance of my apartment was a gym, a pool, the ski area, my classes and a bar right on the bayou, call the Library Lounge,” the pro jumper, who coaches current ULM student Matt Wenninger, recalls.
Surely a bar on the bayou means trouble for a large group of hard-partying college students, no? Dodd says: “Not really. The group dynamic changes from year to year. After my first semester at ULM, when everyone on the ski team was really partying hard, things got a little more serious. We were athletes and students, and we were there to compete and get and education. Of course, all that pent-up energy has to release itself sometime, so about once a month there’s be a big rager, and they’re still some of the best parties I’ve ever been to!”
So what other sorts of hijinks go on when college skids have the keys to a brand-new ski boat? Dodd laughs. “I can say with certainty that I can’t say officially whether or not I may have heard of any nighttime skiing.” He tells of a certain individual who’s light on his feet – let’s just call him possibly the best ski jumper of all time – who wanted to show off his giant vertical leap on a stroll home from the bar, and hopped over a railing near the bayou. He fell 15 feet to the grass below, which knocked the wind out of him, but fortunately left him without any injuries. “That guy definitely learned one lesson in college.” Dodd says. “Keep your vertical jumps to the water!”
Team manager Triena Landrum coordinates the travel and accommodation for tournaments. The team frequently piles into the athletic department’s 15-passenger van to travel when a tournament is within driving range. “Definitely some memories there,” Oliver says, laughing. “There’s been quite a few singalongs!” Of course, driving the van and booking hotels isn’t Landrum’s only job. She also helps arrange scholarships, helps the team work with teachers to make up schoolwork, and helps international skiers like Oliver adjust to life in the States. Oliver laughs thinking back to his first few months here. “I thought it would be easy, because it was the same language,” he says, with a very obvious British accent. “But I didn’t understand anyone with a Louisiana drawl for months.”
And while Landrum’s not a skier herself, she plays an integral role on the team; she helps recruit new athletes to the program. “When a prospective skier is interested in attending ULM, I really only want to know one thing: What’s your tour ranking?” Landrum says. The standard is high, but once you get there, you’re taken care of very well. And of course, ULM skiers receive a solid education while they’re honing their skills on the water, both in acclaimed programs like meteorology or pharmacy, as well as programs like sports marketing, in which many ULM skiers earn their degree, to help bolster their chances of a successful pro career.
So, is there competition within the team? Absolutely. Only the top five team skiers in slalom, trick and jump get to compete at nationals, so there’s plenty of incentive to work hard. “We push each other quite a bit,” Oliver says.
Of course, winning one year just means that more pressure is on for the next year. In just a few short weeks, on the weekend of Oct. 18 through 20, the 2012 National Collegiate Championships will be held in their backyard, in Zachary, Louisiana, and all eyes will be on the ULM skiers as they hit the water, hoping to win yet another national title. Scott, skiing for his second at ULM, is optimistic. “It’s never easy. We lost Zack Worden, which is going to hurt, but we got some new recruits that can hopefully step up. I think we’ll be in the running, but we’ll see what happens this fall!”
But whether the Warhawks win or lose in October, one question has already been answered. When it comes to collegiate competition, ULM has the ultimate program.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2012 edition of Waterski Magazine.