Before 1991, the United States had never been beaten at the World Championships. For 19 straight Worlds, dating back to 1953, the Stars and Stripes was rarely even challenged.
But times have changed. Team USA has yet to win a world team title this decade. At the 1997 Worlds in Medellin, Colombia, the bottom fell out as the country that couldn't be beaten through four decades dropped all the way to fifth behind France, Italy, Canada and (swallow hard) Russia.
The 1997 Worlds collapsed unexpectedly for the United States when Scot Ellis had his gates taken away on his first slalom pass at 28 off and Rhoni Barton fell around the first buoy. The fact that the U.S. won tricks and jump, which normally would secure the team title, became insignificant.
Patrice Martin, who won his fifth straight men's overall title and led France to the team championship, says the U.S. team had the potential to win. And former Canadian coach Joel McClintock says the selection for the '97 team was, to his knowledge, “the best it's been.”
Still, anyone fluent in water skiing history wonders where all the trophies have gone. There will always be arguments about team makeup, but there's more to the slide of the U.S. – namely, the rise of the rest of the world. More countries are participating in the Worlds, and the most competitive teams have developed at least enough depth to compete with the U.S. six-on-six.
Some also point to the U.S. pro tour, which has pushed skiers into single-event specialization. And then there's the matter of financial support. Some of our best skiers are staying home because of a lack of funding.
The U.S. team had backing from the United States Olympic Committee for the first time in 1997. Greg Nixon of the AWSA says USOC's grant amounts to $194,290 per year through 2000, some of which goes to junior development programs.
At least one skier, Carl Roberge, thinks the funds were spread too thin. He says too much of the money went toward administrative costs, sports psychology sessions and an elite athlete training camp at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, which included paying a fellow pro skier for coaching the U.S. team.
Coble agrees that the money spent on the Colorado trip could have been put to better use. “I think the money would have been better spent had we used it maybe a month before the Worlds to fly down to the site [in Colombia]. If they'd have taken us to the site, even for one day, to look at the setup and feel the depth of the water, then we'd know that when we came back for the Worlds we'd have been there before.”
That's exactly what other countries have been doing for years. Roberge cites France and Canada as countries that do more with less, and they are, not surprisingly, the countries that have won the past four Worlds.
The top skiers in Canada earn as much as $500 per month for training, but more than that is the unity of the team's support staff, coaches and even skiers, something McClintock says he doesn't see on U.S. teams.
“The primary reason for our drop-off isn't necessarily that our skiing performances have decreased, as much as other countries around the world have devoted quite a bit of time to training,” says AWSA executive director Steve McDermeit. “Most of the world athletes train in the southern part of the United States and that, to a great extent, has contributed to their success.”
While other countries are getting better and deeper, the U.S. still sets the pace. It will be a long time before the well of talent runs dry.
Whether or not a world title is meant to be in 1999 will determine if the U.S. can return to the dominance of years that seem gone, but not yet forgotten.