As the best of the U.S. water skiers—men and women, boys and girls—rocket off the jumping ramp and whirl through extraordinary contortions in the national championships at Minneapolis this weekend, the public address system may let the spectators in on a secret. Almost nobody knows it, but 16-year-old Vicki Van Hook, defending girls' champion, is also the reigning women's world champion. When Vicki won her world title as a 15-year-old in Milan, Italy last September almost nobody in her home town of Long Beach, Calif, even knew she had left town. Vicki's next-door neighbors only recently discovered that she is world champion. The chamber of commerce did not know it, and neither did the sports department of the local paper, which looked with suspicion on Vicki's claim until they had triple checked'it with reliable sources.
The field of first-class skiers that Vicki beat in Milan included her countrywoman, Nancie Rideout, the well-publicized swallow of Cypress Gardens, Fla., whom most people, if they think about it at all, believe is the world champion today. Advertisements featuring Nancie Rideout have billed her as such—it takes careful reading of the finer print to discover that Nancie won only one event, the jump, in the championship competition at Milan. It was by amassing the highest total score in jumping and in trick running and in the slalom that teen-age Vicki, not Nancie Rideout, became world champion.
When Vicki returned home one friend of the few who had heard of her victory innocently suggested that winning the water ski title was like being ping-pong champion—a rather cheap comparison that ignores one obvious difference. In ping-pong a fast-flying celluloid ball takes the beating. In water skiing the fastest flying object is the competitor, who sometimes wakes up in a hospital. In the spine-jarring jump event, women skiers swoop toward the five-foot ramp at 28 miles an hour. From the ramp Champion Vicki consistently catapults 60 feet through the air (she went 76 feet to place second to Nancie Rideout at Milan). At the end of a jump she must cushion the shock by flexing her knees. Skiers miscalculating their take-off, and landing badly, have been crippled and killed. Right now an Italian research team is studying the damage to the spine that repeated landings, good or bad, may cause.
In the trick event a woman skier makes two 20-second runs, executing a dozen different tricks on each. At Milan Vicki took second with a near-perfect series of contortions, such as the back-to-front stepover (stepping over the tow line while spinning a half circle) and the helicopter (a full spin in the air off the jumping ramp). In the slalom event, which Vicki won, each competitor makes four runs through a double row of buoys, passing outside a buoy on the right, then turning sharply across the wake of the boat to go outside a buoy on the left, then back to the right. The pull of the rope tears at the hands and wrenches the arms and back. On the final run at 34 miles an hour every skier, Champion Vicki included, usually misses a buoy and goes down with a rib-denting crash.
Nine years ago, when Vicki was making a start, there was plenty of room near Long Beach for a 7-year-old water sprite to skitter around on cut-down skis. But as boating has boomed, Long Beach waters have become crowded with slips and moorings and cluttered with beer cans and other flotsam discarded by happy boatmen. Vicki for awhile turned to an unsightly drainage ditch in a slough on the inland side of Long Beach; but now, to get the wide, clear water she needs, she travels 125 miles south to San Diego and, sometimes, far north to the San Joaquin-Sacramento delta.
First at the Nationals
At the nationals in 1955 as an 11-year-old, draped in an oversize polka-dot suit, Vicki won her first national title, beating a fetching field of teenagers to win the girls' trick event and in a regional meet jumped 53 feet to tie the existing world record. She has won the national girls' championship for the past three years and defends her girls' title for the last time this weekend (though already women's champion of the world, by the rules, she cannot compete for the national women's title until she has passed her 17th birthday).
For her honors Vicki has paid the going price, a twisted leg here, a wrenched back there, the black-and-blue marks of one meet barely fading before the next meet comes around. Last summer in the three weeks before the nationals she took two bad falls, on the worst of them losing a ski as she rocketed off the jumping ramp. She defended her title running a 102° fever, and with a lame back and leg and one arm laced with blood clots. While physically she is now the hardened, shapely mistress of a sport where confidence counts for a lot, socially she is a rather shy, self-effacing, attractive gray-eyed girl with a common teen-age devotion to pop singers and sweet food (she gives her weight as 120, but her good, honest mother is quick to add, "She means that's what she should weigh").
Last at the banquet
If the past year is a fair indication, Vicki is well on her way to becoming the world's least-known champion, the indestructible, anonymous queen of a very fast-growing sport. Three months after she won the world title, the Long Beach paper, having reasonable faith in the news it gets to print, ran a story featuring another hometown girl, 13-year-old Martha Ann Williams, as international champion. (Miss Williams had won an invitational meet in Acapulco, which Vicki, for lack of funds, did not enter.) Vicki's mother set the paper straight. Later, the cover of the paper's Sunday supplement billed Nancie Ride-out as the world water ski champion. Vicki's mother set the Sunday supplement straight and received the kind, empty promise that when the editors next got around to water skiing, they would be glad to consider Vicki. Champion Vicki appeared as mystery guest on a TV quiz show. Three of the four experts on the panel thought another guest, a pretender to Vicki's throne, looked more like a water ski champion than Vicki. When a bunch of Long Beach boosters held a banquet of champions honoring Channel Swimmer Greta Anderson, Pitcher Bud Daley of the Kansas City Athletics, ex-Pitcher Bob Lemon and the cream of the local Little League crop, Vicki got a seat at a rear table and was introduced at the end of the program, almost as an oversight.
Vicki came to believe her championship status was hardly worth the effort. For three months she virtually dropped the sport and lived the ordinary life of a junior in Long Beach Polytechnic High. But the mood passed. This week Vicki strapped her three pairs of skis on the family sedan again and headed for Minnesota to gather newer, bluer bruises and another title. She likes the sport, and she likes the idea of being champion, even if she's the only one in town who knows it.
THROWING A HIGH WAKE, CHAMPION VICKI CUTS SHARPLY AROUND A SLALOM BUOY