by Chris Kuell
Allan Golabek on water skis takes off for a jump.
From the Editor: Chris Kuell is a leader of the NFB of Connecticut. He wrote the following article to highlight a program in which he and the affiliate are interested. Any time we hear about a program that encourages blind youngsters to become more active and test the limits of their ability, we should all stand up and cheer. Now meet a man and learn about a dream worth cheering about. This is what Chris says:
Try to imagine that it is early morning on a warm summer day. You are floating in a tranquil New England lake. The gurgling sounds of a motorboat interrupt the quiet as a tremendous force heaves you out of the water. Knees slightly bent, arms straight out, you hold on to a small wooden handle and soar across the surface of the water. To your right you hear a voice call, "All right now, we are approaching the 500-foot buoy. Get into position." Heart pounding, you go over your mental checklist: head up, arms in, knees bent, legs together, hold that position. The voice to your side begins to fade away as a countdown begins: "Four hundred feet, three hundred, two hundred. . . ." You tense your muscles as your body accelerates, fighting the strong gusts of wind while attempting to gain balance and control.
"One hundred, fifty...." A sudden thwack! sounds as your feet encounter a hard surface. The handle in your grip wants to pull you downward, your feet want to stop moving, and your equilibrium rocks as you actually glide upward. Before you have time to think, you are launched into space, flying well above the water with nothing but your wits and a seventy-five-foot tether linking you to the speeding boat below. Using all your skill and training, you fight to maintain a stable position for just a few seconds, while simultaneously preparing for impact. Your feet held snugly in big, eighty-inch skis smash into the water, cool droplets spraying everywhere, the jolt taxing every ounce of strength in your body. With a little luck you regain control and balance and enjoy a rush of excitement few have experienced.
This scene is not a work of fiction or a bad dream, but rather a description of something World Champion Water Ski Jumper Allan Golabek does happily every chance he gets. Golabek, who lost his sight in a motorcycle accident in 1993, just started water skiing with friends in the summer of 1995. One of the friends, a nine-time champion barefoot water skier, noticed that Golabek was a natural. He took it upon himself to train Allan for water skiing competition. Local news caught hold of the story and reported on the talented blind skier.
Shortly thereafter Golabek received a phone call from Joel Zeisler, the president of the Lake Zoar Water Ski Club in nearby Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Zeisler explained that he had read about Allan and told him of another blind water skier he was training, who was the world record holder for disabled water ski jumping. Allan eagerly accepted Zeisler's invitation to try ski jumping, and, after only two years of training, Golabek entered his first National Disabled Water Ski Competition. There he took third place for jumping and fourth place in slalom, an event in which you go fast on one ski and are timed as you zig zag through six audible buoys. In the 1999 National Championship Golabek took silver in ski jump, slalom, and trick. Trick skiing is a form of free-style skiing in which skiers do a variety of acrobatic maneuvers like backwards skiing, flips, three-sixties, and helicopters.
Confident with his success from the nationals, Allan joined teammate and mentor Mark Hieftje at the 1999 World Disabled Water Ski Championships in Stannes, England. Hieftje was the world record holder for disabled ski jumping at that time. On his third jump Allan cleared fifty-six feet, two inches, setting a new world record. Golabek took gold in the ski jump, bronze in the overall individual competition, and gold in the team competition. Unfortunately, a hamstring injury kept him out of the 2000 national competition. Despite this setback he plans to ski in the next World Championships in Australia in spring, 2001.
Allan's accomplishments are impressive; however, his goals and dreams do not stop with gold medals. Speaking at the National Federation of the Blind of Connecticut's 2000 state convention, Golabek down played his personal accomplishments. Instead he discussed visiting local schools and speaking to groups where he passes on his you-can-do-it philosophy. He takes advantage of every opportunity to meet with and talk to blind children and adults. As a result of such interactions he became inspired to provide fun and confidence-building activities to blind people in the area. Together with Zeisler, Golabek brainstormed ways to bring the confidence and self-assuredness that he had learned from waterskiing to others. "I know there are many blind kids out there who would benefit from experiencing the thrill of water skiing," he said.
In early 1998 Golabek worked with a lawyer to set up the Lake Zoar Water Ski Club as a tax-exempt, non-profit organization and began to search for funding. Because of his local celebrity and likeable personality, Golabek was successful in raising enough funds to run a full-day water ski clinic for people with disabilities in 1998. It was a huge success, and in summer, 2000, the club hosted two full-day clinics for disabled children and adults, as well as six five-day summer camp sessions for blind kids. "You should hear the happiness and excitement in the voices of the kids when they get out of the water," explains Golebek. "It's awesome."
Lake Zoar is an eleven-mile, approximately quarter-mile wide lake in rural Sandy Hook, Connecticut. At the camps and clinics the club has three premium ski boats and twelve American Water Ski Association-certified instructors, as well as many volunteers and enthusiastic family members. Participants are first fitted with beginner skis, then shown on land how to get up and maintain proper position so they will know what to expect. Next they are fitted with life vests, and into the water they go.
Once skiers are in the lake, trainers simulate the take-off by pulling skiers up and carefully explaining what they should do. When they are comfortable, the next step is to hold onto a twelve-foot boom--a pole that extends from the side of the boat's stern--about two feet above the surface of the water. "The boom is a great device," Golabek explains. "It gives kids a big head start getting up out of the water and provides a stable support for them to hold on to as they begin skiing." There is no turning when novices are on the boom; they just find their ski legs and listen to the instruction called by the trainers at the back of the boat. Almost all the students soon master the boom and move onto the five-foot bridle. This is basically a standard water-ski rope handle attached to the boom with five feet of rope. This is real water skiing, from getting up out of the water to making small turns. It is smoother, though, because skiers never have to cross the wake and are close enough to hear instructions and tips from the boat.
Finally, for the courageous is the full seventy-five foot rope. Just like sighted skiers, these blind skiers are pulled out of the water and feel the thrill of skiing around the lake. Local police cordon off eight miles of the lake so there is no danger of running into other boats or skiers.
By relying on flyers, local news coverage, and word of mouth, club organizers are finding that interest in their activities is growing. Ultimately Golabek wants to expand summer programs to increase the number of children at the camps, include canoeing as a confidence- and team-building exercise, and perhaps make the camps residential. This would allow more kids from farther away to attend. "Finding corporate sponsors and other funding is our biggest challenge at this point," he concedes. "We want to provide more kids with this great opportunity and continue to train World Class Water Ski Champions."
When asked if winning the gold medals was the highlight of his life, Golabek smiled and said, "Well I don't know; I once made an appearance at a boat show with Twiggy, the water-skiing squirrel. But I can tell you this, the best is yet to come."
To find out more about the Lake Zoar Water Ski Club, call Allan at (203) 743-9238.