Love him or hate him, everyone this off-season has been talking about Dr. Jim Michaels. Even slalom icon Andy Mapple got in on it when he called Michaels one night last December, suggesting the gossip is nonstop because he's “the mystery man.”
Nothing like Michaels has ever hit the water-ski world before. The scuttlebutt has been rippling since the Wisconsin dentist first came out of nowhere to peck away at the slalom record for 34 mph. After he shattered that mark yet again last August with an official score of 2 at 43 off on his private lake in Dousman, Wisconsin, Michaels made a couple remarkable New Year's resolutions for 2005. “I have two primary objectives: to compete effectively at the Malibu Open and to break the 36 mph world record,” he told WaterSki at a gym workout in Florida this past December.
Those goals of skiing alongside pros and besting the hallowed 1 at 43 off have provoked a torrent of opinions, as if, well, a 48-year-old, 5-foot-11 dentist from Wisconsin had said he could break Barry Bonds' home-run record. On the Skifly online slalom discussion board, for example, the “Dr. Jim” thread at one point had 225 replies. Runner-up “Monza/Sixam” had 95. Pro skier Drew Ross has instructed Michaels in the past, yet even he was taken aback by this latest twist. “Really good skier, strong guy, nice guy, good commitment,” Ross says. “But do I think he's capable of competing with us? Not even close.”
Yet others aren't so quick to dismiss him. Tech guru Steve Schnitzer has said since last July that Michaels, who Schnitzer first saw in 1998 as a 35-off skier, could break the world record: “Jim has everything it takes to accomplish what he has set out to do.” Longtime ski and wakeboard coach Mike Ferraro has been working with Michaels extensively and says, “Jim has taken the most professional approach to slalom skiing that I've seen in 25 years.”
Michaels decided on his 2005 quest at the end of last season when he felt he should ski exclusively at 36 mph, a speed he had been working to improve at for a year, getting into 41 off 100 percent of the time. At that speed in a September set at Matt Rini's ski school near Orlando, Michaels recalls, “With a tournament driver, with good times, I got 21¼2 at 43 off. I actually thought I was going to run 43, which is probably why I screwed up. I surprised myself out of 2 and got out of the moment.” Ferraro adds that when the rope was measured, it came up 6 inches short. Rini will only say of Michaels, “I've seen him do amazing things when he trains, and it will be exciting to see him take his practice abilities to tournaments in 2005.”
Whether or not Michaels can have that type of performance in an official tournament setting this year, his out-of-the-box approach to skiing could set a new precedent. When WaterSki caught up with Michaels, he had flown himself and one of his three personal trainers to the Lake Nona Golf & Country Club in southeast Orlando for two days in the gym with Kai Fusser, elite trainer to stars such as golf's Annika Sorenstam. Michaels has also consulted top minds in snow skiing, short-track speed skating and chess, and has gone through the NFL combine test. “I don't watch guys who water ski,” he says. “I watch people in other sports.”
His eyes spark when he remembers a photo he once studied of Michael Jordan. Michaels jumps up from the workout bench to act out the way Jordan blew past a defender without taking a single step, shoulder by the guy's head. The key was not to start in the traditional feet-apart basketball stance, pushing off with the left foot to move to the right. Instead, Jordan's feet were close together, and he had hinged his ankles to make his body instantly freefall in the direction he wanted to go. “That was a huge revelation for me,” Michaels says. “We're trying to move our mass sideways. I'm discovering everything is the same — basketball, football, snow skiing, water skiing. It's a body in motion.”
What isn't the same is Michaels' off-season regimen this year. Rather than diving into the ski season cold turkey at his own lake in late spring, he'll be traveling to Florida every other week, starting in late February. He stopped racing airplanes, another hobby, which has freed up more time and energy. He has tweaked his diet and is working out seven days a week, three of which for three-hour sessions, to get his body fat down to 7 percent. And he'll incorporate Fusser's biomechanics expertise into his preparations.
How that comes together could be the story of the year, depending on whether all of it allows Michaels to achieve his goals. “He could be the 'great white hope' for slalom skiing,” Ferraro says. “There's hope for us 40ish guys who want to have a job, want to slalom at a high level and want to do other things, travel and have friends. Here's this guy who's able to enjoy the sport and enjoy life.”
Or this story could be the bust of the summer. Ross predicts that, in looking at the likely list of competitors that Michaels would face in a pro tournament, “I think he'd have a hard time beating No. 30. I think he could run 39 off at 36, but he'd be pressed to the max to do that.”
That's impressive, but a far cry from 1 at 43 off and beyond. Yet if the world record does become his, Michaels acknowledges he would not be the No. 1 skier. “Andy's the best,” he says. “He's the best at any speed. That will just mean I hold the record. He's still better than me. He has this long record of superb performance. I don't have that.”
And if he achieves his goal, what's next for Michaels? Fusser chimes in with a suggestion: “There's always golf.”
Prescription for success
The exercises themselves aren't as important as you might think. Last December, Dr. Jim Michaels flew to Orlando for a two-day workout with Kai Fusser, water skier turned personal trainer. Fusser put Michaels through the paces, not necessarily to drive home how many reps to do on which equipment, but to have the body memorize three fundamentals of athletic movement, and a fourth for the psyche.
1. Abs tight.
Whether Michaels is twisting with the medicine ball or crouching in a ballet move, Fusser repeats this mantra: “Abs tight, abs tight. It's easier to think about than anything out here,” Fusser says, motioning to Michaels' outstretched arms. That point becomes clearer on the pulley. “The arm is just an extension of your tow rope,” Fusser says. “Abs in, rotate, and slowly let the handle back. Feel your abs control the speed. They control the movement.” Michaels understands: “Try to take it away from my arms.”
2. Stance centered.
In the crouching move borrowed from ballet (called a plié), when the left foot swings behind the right, Fusser says, “Your flexibility increases in your hips.” Fusser favors a stance in which the hips are rolled forward a little bit, making the posture straight and the body centered. “If somebody pushes you, they can't push you over,” he says. “A good stance will teach your body to have a good foundation to work off of.”
3. Spine aligned.
As they work around the gym, Fusser wants Michaels to keep an eye on the mirror. “When you're stacked, forces can go straight up and down your body, not at an angle where a lot of power gets lost,” Fusser says. “Draw an imaginary line on the mirror. You don't want your spine to go out of line.”
4. Mind cleared.
er points to his golf-star client Annika Sorenstam as letting her body swing the club without conscious thought. “She doesn't think about her mechanics at all?” Michaels asks. “Zero,” Fusser says. “Is it possible to clear your mind for 16 seconds?” Michaels wonders, imagining getting into the zone with these fundamentals and staying there for the entire slalom course. That's the big question. — C.T.
Dr. Jim Michaels addresses what's being said about him.
He's only good at his own private site.
“I have performed at many, many sites. I actually find my site more difficult than sites in Florida. I ski primarily at home, but who doesn't?”
He doesn't use a legit boat path or legit times.
“I've skied with ropes that were even too short, in hot boat times, in crosswinds, et cetera.”
He can't handle the pressure of tournaments.
“I've found that I ski the same at practice as I do in a tournament, no matter the boat or which site it is. Maybe there's less pressure on me than others because it's not my career.”
His muscle mass is suspicious.
“I went from 182 to 195 pounds over a year and a half through cleaning up my diet and working my ass off. It's hard work is all it is.”
He can't possibly have all this time to train, ski and work.
“I don't engage in frivolous social activity, and I don't watch TV. I get to work by 7:30, home by 5.”