On A Mission
Chris Parrish is good for water skiing. Plain and simple.
Who else brings the sport to life with a buoy count AND a decibel count? Who else can work a crowd into a frenzy intense enough to rattle windows?
And who, for Pete's sake, in water skiing counts wrestler ''The Rock'' among people he'd most like to meet?
In a world of pastels, Chris Parrish screams fuchsia. And water skiing needs him.
''People have told me I have a gift for skiing,'' Parrish says. ''A lot of skiers can go out there and ski great, but I want to go above and beyond that. I love to get the crowd pumped up and I love to feel the energy between the crowd and myself. ThatÂ¿s what the sport needs.''
He might be the closest thing to a showman the sport has seen since Sammy Duvall, but Parrish isn't so much a showman as an entertainer. In that regard, he is unrivaled. Establishment, meet Mr. Excitement.
''He's just natural,'' says Lucky Lowe, Parrish's training and traveling clinic partner. ''He doesn't seem like he's got any enemies. Anywhere he goes, he wants to make a friend.''
''And he wants to stomp the slalom course. That's the way I see it.''
Parrish, 6-foot-5, has been stomping the course since he became the youngest to run 39½ off — at the barely-shaving age of 17.
He's 23 now, and greatness broke out early this season during a glorious three-week span in May, when he won the MasterCraft Pro Championship at Trophy Lakes in Charleston, S.C., and the prestigious Masters at Callaway Gardens, Georgia. Add his victory in Vancouver to wrap up the 2001 season, and his name was on the champion's check in three consecutive North American pro events.
The beginnings of a Mapplesque pattern?
''I feel like forever I've been in a shadow I couldn't get out of,'' Parrish said of the Andy Mapple pursuit. ''I think that shadow's going to be there for a while still because he's so good and he's been around so long. I don't think it's going to be over yet with Andy. I think there are going to be a lot of good battles still.
''But it is hard for me at times because I ski for the same company he does. He has a lot of experience. And yeah, it does feel good to finally come through and feel like you're kind of out of his shadow, and you're actually starting your own streak, hopefully.''
Hopefully? The Shadow still lurks. Who wouldn't have doubts when Mapple is pushing 40 and still setting the standard?
But there are things you should know about Chris Parrish:
— He's a changed man this year, for a lot of reasons, the biggest one being his grandfather's death last year.
— He drives a pickup truck and he likes to hunt and fish — but he's not a redneck.
— He's engaged to Alicia Suggs–he proposed to her last Christmas Eve, using a recorded message in a Build-a-Bear to do his talking in front of her whole family.
— He loves his dog, Dixie, a German shepherd.
— He wants to be a player in bringing his sport back from the brink of indifference.
— Above all, Chris Parrish has the inner drive to take him to heights he has only glimpsed until now.
''I think a turning point in my career is when my grandfather died,'' Parrish said. ''He passed away one week before the Vancouver tour finals last year. My grandfather always said 'Chris No. 1, Chris No. 1. You've got to be the best. Whatever it takes, be the best.'''
That from a man who knew competition. Larry Parrish played football — defensive end, no less — and was 6-foot-4 and 230-plus pounds of role model for an adoring grandson.
''When he died, that put a hunger and fire in me to never, never, ever look back,'' Chris said. ''It put this drive in me that was unbelievable. I wanted to show him that I could be that before he passed away, and I know he's up there smiling at me now. He knows I'm doing well. It just gave me a really big hunger in my heart. I won my first pro tour that following week.''
He won his first Masters title in May, and with it a Rolex watch and a champion's ring. He has promised his next Rolex — which would come with his next Masters victory — to his father, Mike, the coach. ''He's the one who got me here. I'm very thankful for my parents,'' he said.
His parents have also seen the fire in their son since Grandpa Larry died. It started even at the funeral home, when the traditional two- to three-hour visitation stretched to nine hours. Without fail, the grandson who water skis was the most asked-about subject, and the funeral service hit Chris head-on.
''He didn't really know how much respect his Grandpa Larry had for the sport until his funeral,'' said Chris' mother, Debbie. ''The visitation lasted six hours and bar none, they all asked where Chris was. It was unbelievable. And the sermon dealt with athletics. It hit home. …
''His father and I both felt the sermon was being directed at Chris. It wasn't, but it could've been because athletics were so important in his grandpa's life — taking care of yourself and being the best you could be.''
Debbie, also the boat driver early on, said Chris had never trained as hard as he has this season, and success has done wonders for his confidence. Lowe calls it prioritizing.
Parrish's May sweep couldn't have come at a better time. He learned in March at Australia's Moomba Masters that he'd lost Neil Pryde as one of his major sponsors, putting a dent in his cash flow and raising doubts about keeping his shiny new quad-cab diesel truck.
''I had some things that have really changed my life, my maturity and my strength,'' he said. ''I had some things that knocked me down to the ground, and to get back made me a stronger person.''
Prominent among the knockdowns were a broken collarbone last season as well as his grandfather's death. The lost sponsor revenue was the capper.
''I went through some serious financial trouble because I was depending on that paycheck. I didn't know where to go, I didn't know what to do. I went through some really tough times. I went to my parents and talked to them, I went to God, and I went to Lucky Lowe and he's helped me out, too. He said ''Don't worry about it, Chris. Just train, train, train. Don't worry about anybody else; don't worry about your finances. Just work, work, work.''
''And I did that. It was hard sometimes and hurtful. My girlfriend and I went through that together and it was really hard. I'm so thankful. I thank God for giving me the blessing to win those events — you know, to let me get some bills taken care of!''
Winner''s checks are wonderful things — but a guy can never have enough sponsors. Parrish is always plugging.
''Put this quote in,'' he tells the interviewer. ''Seriously, this is a very good quote: Chris is waiting for his new Chevrolet truck with the GM Vortec engine in it, to pull his new Malibu Response LX.''
Still working the crowd. Something he takes from the wrestler/actor ''The Rock,'' aka The People's Champion of World Wrestling Federation and Hollywood fame. The artist formerly known as Dwayne Johnson has transformed himself into, in his words, ''the most electrifying man in sports entertainment today.''
''What's so special about The Rock is that not only is he an unbelievable athlete — he played football for the Miami Hurricanes and he's a great wrestler — but he has great charisma and he is an unbelievable speaker and,'' Parrish is on a roll now, ''he knows how to interact with the crowd and that's what makes him so special.
''I kind of feel like that sometimes when I get the crowd going. A small portion of that, but yeah, I feel kind of like that.
''I'd love to just meet him. That'd be awesome, wouldn't it?''
It would. And so would more championships. Parrish has learned painfully that running 39½ off as a teenager doesn't translate into champion's checks and podium poses. And Playstation marathons can't compete with Mapple's biking and running marathons.
Parrish once said the older guys on tour didn't show him the respect he thought he'd earned with his buoy count. He was all of 19 at the time.
Now he knows why.
''It takes more than just an ability to win,'' Parrish said. ''It takes a lot of experience, a lot of maturity, sacrifice, inner strength, self-confidence. Maybe they were right. Maybe they knew it would take time for these young people to get there. Because winning is not easy at all.''
But wouldn't The Rock be stoked to feel the windows rattle when Chris Parrish rocks a crowd?