Sit down and ski
Standing up is overrated. Just ask Kerri McMurtry, a national disabled water-skiing champion who’s about to go for a world title
Her strong, bronzed arms reflect summers of being towed behind a motorboat. She’s traveled to England, Australia and Ireland and freckled the United States with her presence. An award winning disabled water-skier, Chico’s Kerri McMurtry is on her way to sunny Florida, having recently taken a first place in the national water-skiing championships and now hoping to conquer the USA Water Ski World Disabled Championships at the end of the month.
In Chico, everyone seems to know McMurtry. It was a wall-to-wall Wednesday at Tres Hombres in downtown Chico on the night we planned to do our interview. The restaurant had agreed to donate a portion of the night’s sales to help fund Chico’s disabled water-ski team’s trip to Altamonte Springs, Fla., and the place was bustling with friends, family and supporters eager to contribute to the cause.
It was too noisy and there were too many interruptions to talk comfortably, so we went outside. Even there, though, not five minutes would go by without McMurtry receiving a high-five, a hug, or an “are you coming to the bar later?” from a passerby on the sidewalk.
McMurtry, along with her teammate, friend and fellow world-record-holding disabled water-skier Matt “Matty” Oberholtz, was hoping the night would rake in $4,000 to cover the costs of their hotel rooms, food and a week of training with the rest of the USA team in Mississippi.
“Nationals” took place in Florida two weeks ago, and McMurtry placed first in the trick competition. Next stop: the world cup competition.
Confident, fresh-faced, and trendily dressed in a black sundress and sandals, the raven-haired 25-year-old continues to achieve physically, mentally and socially, despite life in a wheelchair. She’s been competing on a sit-down water ski for the past eight years, earned a recreational-therapy degree from Chico State, and spends her days working one-on-one with the developmentally disabled at Do-It Leisure in Chico.
“I’m going back to school for my master’s, and I know I want to do something involving people with physical disabilities and sports. I think there are so many people with physical disabilities who are obese, and there’s no need for it. It’s mainly due to inactivity, so I want to develop some programs that are accessible as far as affordability and that use minimal equipment. So that’s my goal right now.”
Born with spina bifida, McMurtry has always used a wheelchair for transport. The disease, she explains, sprouts in the first trimester of a pregnancy, when, due to a lack of folic acid, the spinal column doesn’t develop properly. “So that’s why nowadays you see a lot of cereals, breads and orange juice that are fortified with folic acid.”
Butte County may as well be some sort of disabled-water-skiing mecca. Not only do McMurtry and Oberholtz boast such titles as world champion trickster and 2000 Athlete of the Year, but the first American sit-down water ski was also created on a Biggs porch.
Royce Andes, a former barefoot skier and a quadriplegic for the past 20 years, designed the Kan Ski in the early 1980s with a mouth-held pen, and friends constructed the original unit from his computer designs. A barefoot-skiing accident permanently revoked Andes’ mobility, leaving him with an injury almost identical to Superman actor Christopher Reeve’s. From the seat of his Sip and Puff wheelchair, Andes took a poorly designed European ski and revamped it into a more comfortable and functional piece of sporting equipment.
“I would say the ski looks pretty much just like an able-body ski,” mused McMurtry, “except that it’s wider and a little bit thicker. Then there’s what we call ‘the cage,’ an aluminum frame with a nylon sling that you sit in. Your knees go toward your chest, and your butt sits lower, and there’s a neoprene foot plate, kind of like a sandal, that you stick both your feet into it.” Andes still slips into his ski once or twice a year, comforted by the fact that he’s being followed by a rescuer who makes sure his head never dips dangerously below the water’s surface.
This same inventor proved to be the driving force behind McMurtry’s budding hobby. Gridley grown, she lived a mere seven miles away from Andes, and after meeting at an Ability First! summer sports camp in Chico, he began inviting her out to go skiing. “That was in 1987. But I didn’t actually really go out skiing with him a lot until I graduated high school in 1995; that’s when I got into it,” she explains.
“One day he said, ‘Hey, I signed you up for Nationals,’ so my first competition was the Nationals in Sacramento. It was crazy.” Andes continues to recruit newcomers to the sport and coaches existing disabled skiers.
Physical disabilities vary greatly, so competitions among disabled athletes are broken up into several different categories. The participants range from paraplegics to leg and arm amputees, and there is even a group of blind skiers. Groups are then divided into more-specific realms: fully or partially blind, those with prosthetics, etc. A balance test is given to make sure the skiers compete against others with equal abilities.
The number of contenders continues to grow year by year, but McMurtry says there are always only a few female participants. “I feel bad that I haven’t done enough to recruit girls,” she says. “I try to get someone all pumped up to ski, but then I can’t bring them out on the water right away. If I had more time I could push it more.”
McMurtry and Oberholtz are among the most agile of competitors. He’s spent half his 32 years as a paraplegic, an intense ski enthusiast well before a car accident left him paralyzed. Flirtatious and animated, Oberholtz fits in a ski run daily, lucky as he is to be living on a private lake in Oroville. Apparently practice does makes perfect, as Oberholtz holds two world records, one in trick, the other in slalom, a buoy-happy aquatic obstacle course.
For her part, McMurtry chooses to avoid jumping and feels more comfortable weaving through a slalom course or performing tricks. “It hurts to land the jumps,” she says.
Oberholtz thinks McMurtry has the opportunity to be a top disabled woman skier. “As a skier she has immense ability, but she’s passive, not as aggressive as she needs to be. As a person she’s wonderful, bright and funny—she’s gorgeous.”
McMurtry has also done her share of able-bodied ski competitions. In college, she competed with the Chico State Water-Ski Team, an experience that no doubt strengthened her skills. “It was the first time I was really able to relax and have fun and compete well. I’m horribly competitive, but if I put too much pressure on myself I won’t do well. I can’t worry about what other skiers are doing, and I have to just do the best that I can. Finding that I could do well with other collegiate skiers, and that I could actually beat them, that was cool.”
McMurtry’s mom, Elaine McMurtry, who’s leaving Tres Hombres surrounded by proud relatives, hollers at her daughter from down the block “Bye! I’ll see you tomorrow!”
McMurtry says her mother, a single parent, has never pulled the overprotective act. “My mom’s always been pretty cool. I’ve always gone out and done what I’ve needed to do.” When she was a little girl, she says, her mother never hesitated to allow her to roam free, playing with her older sister, brother and the neighborhood children.
Roaming free is exactly what she’s doing these days. “Technically I’m a free agent.” She’s boyfriend-free (having always dated “guys who walk"), traveling cross country, and will probably spending the rest of summer’s sunny days zipping around Oberholtz’s Oroville lake.