Joel Poland wins jump at the US Masters

Changing of the Guard: Young Stars Shine at the 2024 Masters

News

Changing of the guard: Young stars shine at the 2024 Masters

Joel Poland wins jump at the US Masters

Joel Poland celebrates his victory in men’s jump (image: Mitchell Miller)

By Jack Burden


History. Prestige. Tradition. No tournament matches the pageantry of the Masters. From the boat parade to the historic pavilion, down to the presentation of a semi-automatic rifle to a wounded veteran in honor of Memorial Day, the tradition of the event runs long and deep. This year however, unlike in the past, defending champions stumbled as a new generation rose to the top of the ranks.

On Saturday, 21 men and 19 women entered the three events scheduled for the preliminary round of the 64th Masters Water Ski and Wakeboard Tournament in Callaway Gardens, Georgia. For all of them, it was a matter of winning today or not skiing tomorrow – sudden death water skiing at its best. The reward was a chance to split the largest prize purse in tournament water skiing.

Following Saturday’s action, the cut for Sunday’s finals was razor-sharp; only four skiers in each event qualified for Sunday. Many of the biggest names in the sport found themselves out, including defending champions Pato Font and Nate Smith, and seasoned competitors such as Freddy Krueger, Whitney McClintock Rini, and Freddie Winter.

The men’s slalom semifinal concluded with a drama-filled runoff, with Adam Sedlmajer, Stephen Neveu, and Winter vying for the last spots in the final field. Ultimately, it was Sedlmajer and Neveu, both searching for their first professional victory in over five years, who punched their tickets.

Joel Poland, the first man to ski three events at the Masters in 24 years, came agonizingly close to making the finals in all three events, falling short of the bubble score by a fraction of an inch under video review. The British overall phenom qualified as the top seed in men’s tricks and runner-up in men’s jump with scores over 12,000 points and 70 meters (230 feet) respectively.

In a generally low-scoring tournament, where seasoned campaigners struggled in every event, Poland’s first-round scores stand out. His semifinal marks were less than three buoys shy of the current world overall record, and a higher overall score than any other skier has ever achieved even on a perfect man-made lake.

The women’s semifinals were perhaps the only part of the event that went according to script, at least in jump and tricks, where the four competitors with personal bests over 10,000 points all qualified, along with four of the five capable of 55-meter (180-foot) jumps, including Brittany Greenwood Wharton competing in her first professional event in two years.

Women’s slalom, much like the men’s, was a slog in challenging conditions, where two of the favorites, McClintock Rini and Allie Nicholson, failed to qualify in the variable conditions of Robin Lake.

In women’s tricks, the trio of Erika Lang, Anna Gay Hunter, and Neilly Ross were locked in tense battle as they have been at every event for the past decade. Since 2015, the three have secured over two-thirds of all podium positions and won all but three titles. Hunter led the pack after the semifinals with 10,500 points, while both Lang and Ross stumbled with scores in the mid-9,000s.

In the finals, defending champion Lang found herself in the unfamiliar position of first off the dock and set the pace early with the highest scoring hand pass of the tournament, on target for an 11,000-point score. However, a messy finish to her toe pass, falling at the end, left the door open for the rest of the field. Peruvian Natalia Cuglievan, the most recent woman to join the 10,000-point club, wowed the audience with a toe-wake-line-five out of the wrap, but couldn’t quite match the flipping ability of the rest of the field. Stand-up passes from both Ross and Hunter left the title up to a tight judging call. Ultimately, it was the newlywed Hunter who claimed her 3rd Masters trick title.

“I’m so excited. I went out [and] felt like I did the best I could do, [standing] up both passes,” shared Hunter on the TWBC podcast. Hunter had initially planned to perform a higher-scoring hand run, but after watching the skiers before her, she “decided to go for my normal run [and] try to do it a little faster… Ultimately, I’m very happy with what I did out there.”

It has been a tough week for Patricio Font. After having his world record superseded on Thursday by Jake Abelson, the 2024 Jr. Masters champion, he found himself unable to defend his Masters trick title after falling toward the end of his hand pass in the semifinals. The 21-year-old shared good-humoredly, “Felt good with my plan and my skiing. The swimming not so much, we’ll try again next year.”

The level of men’s tricks has been soaring to new heights in recent months, with all four in the final field capable of tricking over 12,000 points. Martin Labra, the highest scoring toe tricker in living memory, set the pace early with 11,810. Each knowing they had to pull out their A-runs, the rest of the field struggled to execute, handing the 18-year-old Chilean his first professional victory ahead of compatriot Matias Gonzalez, Poland, and world overall champion Louis Duplan-Fribourg.

“I thought [I needed] a little bit more,” shared a still out-of-breath Labra. “I thought it wasn’t enough because we have such great skiers going after me, [but] I was lucky enough to get the win.”

Fresh off a contentious runner-up finish in the trick event, Ross opened up the slalom finals with 3.5@11.25m (38’ off). In the notoriously challenging conditions of Robin Lake, the score held off challenges from compatriots Paige Rini and Jaimee Bull before the veteran Regina Jaquess stood up around four for her 10th Masters slalom title.

“It’s great, it’s actually my third [victory] in a row since my ACL [injury], a continued great comeback from that event in 2021 [where] I had to miss the first Masters I’ve ever missed since I started,” shared Jaquess. Reflecting on the conditions, the 39-year-old said, “It’s Robin Lake… even if it’s not rolly and it seems great, you’ve got the pressure, the pavilion, the athletes, you hear the announcers out there, people are in the water… Every year, every pass, every moment is different out there.”

The men’s final was another low-scoring affair, as Neveu, Sedlmajer, and Will Asher all failed to navigate 10.75m (39.5’ off) before the top seed, Cole McCormick, took to the water. The 28-year-old, competing in his first ever Masters final, was the only skier to run the pass in the preliminary round and needed to repeat the feat in the final after Asher had set the lead at five buoys. McCormick scrapped his way to five and a half, before ejecting spectacularly from his ski to clinch his first ever professional victory.

McCormick, whose mother is a five-time Masters slalom champion and father among the most decorated in Masters history, reflected on the achievement: “Words just can’t even describe what this means to me. To accomplish something that you dream about as a kid, to finally deliver a win for someone who has believed in you enough to make you the face of his waterski brand, just feels unbelievable.” His comments alluding to Kris LaPoint, another legend of the tournament, who has backed McCormick through his ski company, LaPoint Skis.

In women’s jump, we were treated to an all “American” final, courtesy of Wharton, Lauren Morgan, and two formerly Belarusian athletes Aliaksandra Danishueskaya and Hanna Straltsova. It was Wharton, in her comeback tournament, who put some serious pressure on the World Champion. Straltsova appeared to come up short on her first two attempts before a technical malfunction gifted her a small respite in pressure, and she clinched the title on her reride jump.

“It’s never easy at the Masters; it’s more about the mental game, the psychological game, than anything else. Everyone is strong, everyone is capable of jumping far, but it comes down to three jumps here at the Masters,” shared Straltsova after her second consecutive title.

In the men’s jump, 20-year-old Italian Florian Parth clinched his first professional podium before it came down to a shootout between the past two Masters jump champions, Poland and Ryan Dodd. Poland rode a gusty head breeze to an impressive 68.2 meter (224 foot) lead. The Brit appeared to be buffeted around by the breeze through the air before landing and sharing his elation with the crowd. It then came down to the veteran Dodd, chasing his seventh Masters title. The 39-year-old Canadian threw everything at the ramp but came up short of the title.

Poland shared his rollercoaster of emotions while watching Dodd chase his lead: “I was definitely holding my breath, but when you put a score out like that, it definitely puts pressure on… He has to go out and try to jump 230, didn’t quite get the hang of it, and it worked out for me somehow.”

In many ways, this Masters felt like a changing of the guard. The average age of the podium finishers was five years younger across the board compared to the 2023 tournament, and was under 30 for every event except men’s slalom. Burning questions from the start of the season, such as who would be the next man to win a professional slalom title and whether the old guard of Krueger and Dodd would continue to dominate men’s jump, appear to have been answered.

“[The] future’s looking bright, we’ve got a bunch of young guys coming through, and there’s more of them that aren’t at this tournament. I’m excited for the future,” reflected Poland.

Once again, the Masters has kicked off the summer in spectacular fashion. Strap yourselves in, water ski fans, there is a professional event nearly every weekend for the next three months. Let the action continue!

Subscribe
Notify of
3 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Mark
16 days ago

Great summary!

Antony Lightfoot
16 days ago
Jack Burden
14 days ago

Thanks for providing these interviews! Always fascinating to hear from the athletes