Bud Davis was in his 20s when he started playing around on a slalom water ski doing what he calls “hot-dogging” tricks. It was fun and impressive for others to see, but when he was introduced to a slalom ski course, he was addicted to his slalom ski in a whole new way.
That addiction has led him to hold the South Carolina slalom record in the Men 6 division and to groom many others to love the sport as much as he does.
Born and raised in Columbia, Bud did not grow up around water, but when he started water skiing, he sought out what every serious water skier does: a glassy surface.
“In the beginning, I’d do tumble turns on my slalom ski, which is rolling over on your back and then getting back up again. I did ‘tick-tocks,’ which is where you ski up beside the boat, and while you’re gliding along at the same speed as the boat, you jump up in the air on your ski and land backward and then quickly jump back around frontward,” Bud says, as if these were normal things to do on a narrow slalom water ski. “When you passed a group of people on the shore, you pulled out all the tricks you had.”
Bud also learned how to barefoot, executing all the same bag of tricks, sans ski. After about 10 years of hot-dogging, he spotted a slalom course on the lake while looking for smooth water. The challenge was to go around six buoys in a zigzag pattern at a specific boat speed and at a specific rope length, plus enter and exit through a set of “gates,” or buoys marking the start and end of the ski course.
“After that, I didn’t put in any energy on the water unless it was in a slalom course. It became my passion,” Bud says.
He leased the Lexington Mill Pond in 1993 and formed a water ski club bearing the same name. It was here that he installed a slalom course and welcomed other members to enjoy skiing without the normal boat traffic and waves that come with a large public lake.
His wife, Pam, is his main boat driver. She pulls him year-round. “She only complained one time when the snow was falling so hard she couldn’t see through the boat’s windshield,” he says.
Bud’s personal best is “one at 41 off at 34 mph,” in skier speak. What that means is he has mastered skiing through the course at 34 mph (the boat speed slows down from 36 to 34 mph for men over the age of 35) at decreasing rope lengths. The rope starts at 75 feet long, but as a skier progresses at his or her maximum boat speed, the rope is shortened in increments. To put Bud’s personal feat into perspective, the rope at 41 off means it is 3 feet short of the distance from the center of the course to a turn buoy, meaning Bud must use his body to extend the remaining distance out around the buoy.
“Water skiing is a great physical and mental challenge,” Bud says. “There’s no stationary finish line; it’s always a moving goal. There are always more buoys to get, a faster boat speed, and a shorter rope length, even if you’re the top skier in the world.”
Mindy Acree, also of Columbia, started water skiing later in life. In fact, Mindy did not get serious about it until she was in her 50s, starting first with skis and then barefoot. At age 57, she is an accomplished barefooter who has competed at a national level. In her bag of barefooting tricks are tumble turns, riding on one foot, and skiing backward. She can also barefoot slalom, which is a test of endurance while going back and forth across the wake. Pictures of her barefooting at a ski school in Florida were featured in the center spread for the January/February 2018 issue of USA Water Ski & Wake Sports magazine.
“That was kind of cool,” says Mindy, who is proud of her accomplishments but humbled by the support she has received within the water skiing community.
Over the past five years, she has attended ski clinics in Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina and has been coached by world champion water skiers and barefooters. She tore her rotator cuff at a barefooting clinic in May 2016 working with world champion barefooter David Small from Great Britain.
“I didn’t know I had torn my rotator cuff, but I knew I hurt. I told David I could not move my arm up, forward, or to the side, but I could push it backward. He says, ‘Okay, get in (the water). We’ll work on backward barefoot.’ So I was barefooting up until two days before my surgery,” she says.
In 2018, Mindy entered her first barefoot competition. “I’m really not that good. I’m a novice, but I have to try everything once,” she says. “I went to regionals in Florida and placed first in my division. I was the only one in my division, but hey, I get credit for showing up!”
Mindy then went to the U.S. Barefoot Nationals in Polk City, Florida, that same year and placed second in her division for slalom and trick. “Only three were in my division there, but it was an honor to compete at the national level,” she says.
Mindy’s try-anything attitude, especially when it comes to water, has spurred her along in this adventure, which now has her focused on slalom skiing with a water ski. She spent a week at Coble Water Ski & Wakeboard Camp in Lillington, North Carolina, in September 2018. She skied her first slalom tournament the following September and set a personal best by completing the mini course at 15 off at 26 mph.
“I was the only female above the age of 17, so of course, I won first place in my division,” she says. “For me, the competition is not about winning. It’s about getting better at what we do and who we are becoming on the journey.”
Mindy did not grow up on a lake, but she has found the water to be her “solace,” her special place. She’s thankful for friends like Bud, who is there ready to give her a pull any time of the year, even on a February day when the water is 51 degrees.
“You can call him up any time, and say, ‘Hey Bud, do you have the boat in the water?’ And he’ll say, ‘Yeah, I just finished a set. Come on down.’”
In the early 1990s, the Columbia Water Ski Club would host a state tournament on a small lake near the Columbia Metropolitan Airport. The lake had a ski course and a jump that belonged to the University of South Carolina’s Water Ski Club. Jim Parr was in his late 20s during this time, and like many others, fell in love with the challenge of running a slalom course. He started competing in tournaments and worked his way deep into short line, meaning the rope kept getting shorter and shorter.
Jim was skiing into 39 1/2 off at 34 mph before he took a bad fall and snapped the bone in his lower leg. “I came around a ball and hit a wave. I saw it. I knew it was there. I should have backed off,” he says. “I just fell the wrong way.”
His fall is a testament to the dangers of the sport, but the plate and 13 screws in his leg have not deterred him. Jim lives on Lake Murray, so water skiing is part of his family’s daily life. “I love boating, and I love the water. Skiing is fun, and it keeps me in shape. It’s my exercise,” he says. “We basically ski year-round.”
Jim has passed his love for the sport onto his 13-year-old son, Aaron, who has been skiing since he was 3 years old. Aaron is now the competition skier in the family, and they travel to tournaments all over the Southeast. He is skiing at 28 off at 34 mph.
Jim keeps up a ski course on Lake Murray and enjoys the social element that comes with it. “It’s a small community. We’re all tied together and supporting each other,” he says.
Another local water skiing enthusiast is Matthew Pfister. Summer mornings started at 6:30 a.m. on the lake for Matthew when he was growing up in southern Michigan. His best friend’s father, a schoolteacher who was off during the summers, would pick him up and head to the ski course to get two hours of skiing in before the lake got busy with boat traffic. Matthew was also a member of the Devils Lake Water Ski Club and took part in the yearly ski shows the club put on.
“At 10 years old, I was one of four kids going over the ski jump four at a time,” Matthew says. “I quit water skiing at age 12. My dad bought me a stand-up jet ski and that was pretty much it.”
Water skiing may have taken a back seat for a while for Matthew, but he was still around the sport. He lived with the water ski team at Arizona State University, where he and his best friend went to college. His friend had made the team, which won the national collegiate championship in 2001.
Now a high school teacher in Lexington 1, Matthew is reliving the summers of his childhood out on the lake with his two children, who started skiing at ages 6 and 3. Daughter Natalie, 15, and son Ryan, 12, have competed in all three events: slalom, trick, and jump.
“Ryan caught a ski to the face off the jump last year in regionals, so he doesn’t want to jump anymore,” Matthew says. “Both really like slalom and ski into 28 off. Natalie is putting time in on trick and getting really good at surface tricks. As for Ryan, he plays basketball and soccer, so he has a lot of things pulling his attention other ways. But this is the main deal for my daughter.”
Natalie was one of three skiers from South Carolina to be invited to join the American Water Ski Association’s Junior Development program for the Southern Region. This is a nationwide program for water skiers of all levels under the age of 17.
While his kids have embraced competition skiing, what about dad? “I’ll do a tournament here and there with the kids. I’m sloppy and fight my way through it,” he says. “It’s something for me to go out there, play around with the kids, and forget that I’m in my mid-40s.”
Like many others, the Pfisters are recipients of Bud Davis’ generosity. “He’s just been the world to us. We’ve been skiing with him for four years, and the only time he ever said he wasn’t available was because he had to go to a funeral,” Matthew says. “I’ve never met or come across anybody who was willing to give so much of his time.”
Bud retired at age 43 from his business of manufacturing medical fixtures and has devoted the last 20 years of his life to helping skiers achieve their personal best on the water. He built a private water ski lake in 2009 on property that has been in his family for eight generations. Bud Lake is about 20 miles south of Columbia in Sandy Run. It has become the site for the annual Carolina Junior Slalom tournament that Matthew organizes for young skiers.
Bud shares his knowledge and time freely both in person and virtually. Eight years ago he also designed a website, SkiAll6.com, to be a “common ground for all slalom water skiers, from pros to beginners.” Skiers are welcome to post their water skiing videos for constructive feedback, and links are included to instructional videos, helpful tips, renown coaches, and ski schools.
“It’s very rewarding to see people progress and make all six buoys. There’s nothing like it,” Bud says.