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Jane Sowerby sitting by the lake

Winter weather doesn’t dampen water-skiing spirits!

By Jane Sowerby

The British Disabled Water Ski Association is based at Heron Lake, which has been almost like a second home to me over the last few summers. It’s an idyllic little spot located, somewhat incongruously, right next to the M25. Once you immerse yourself in the water skiing activities, you don’t even notice the lorries stacked nose to tail behind you. 

So when I was asked to group lead a ‘learn to water ski’ week I jumped at the chance. We had six participants, all with a spinal injury, who were trying water skiing for the first time. Heron Lake is the ideal place to learn as the club has a whole range of adapted equipment, which ensures people with practically any disability can get out on the water. Plus, the expertise is second to none – these guys have been teaching disabled water skiing for years, so really know what they’re talking about. 

We begin by fitting people into the right size seat – basically just a frame that sits on top of a wide ski. Then we assess their balance and grip strength to determine what extra help they may need in the water. 

The weather was absolutely horrendous – rainy, windy and cold. I was really concerned it would be hard to motivate people, but I didn’t need to worry though, it was a fantastic group of people who were all still very enthusiastic about trying out waterskiing despite the bad conditions. This made my job as group leader so much easier; however we did need to make sure everyone was managing to get warm after being in the water – people with a spinal injury generally can’t regulate their body temperature as easily. 

To begin with, the learner skier has another sit skier either side of them to help with balance and control; this is particularly important for people who have poor balance or limited upper body strength. Also, the starts are the most difficult part of water skiing to master, so everyone needs buddy skiers with them to begin with, regardless of physical ability. Gradually, the support given is decreased, with the aim of skiing as independently as possible by the end of the week. 

After two days of battling conditions more suitable to November, not June, we woke up on the third day to glorious sunshine. Of course, everything seems brighter in the sunshine, so things went from strength to strength. The group made fantastic progress – one of the boys in particular looked like he’d been skiing for years after just five days. It also meant we could have some nice BBQs outside in the fresh air, which is what the facilities at the club are more geared towards. 

We included some wheelchair skills sessions as part of the course as well. I’ve taught wheelchair skills in spinal units for a while now, but the lake is a great opportunity for participants to try some new skills in real life situations. There’s a relatively steep ramp down to the jetty, so being able to comfortably back-wheel balance is essential if you want to be able to carry your kit down yourself. 

I also managed to acquire a new skill myself over the week, by hitting the water ski jump for the first time; now that’s what I call an adrenaline rush. They lowered the jump to three feet – most competitive disabled water skiers would jump at least five feet. So that’s another crazy ambition I’ve got to work towards this summer!