How Keith St. Onge was saved from prison, poverty and polar winters to become one of the greatest footers ever
A dream can make you do what no sane person would, like sleep in a shed. In the not-so-distant past, that was Keith St. Onge's life. With sweat beading all over his face, he'd lean up and bang on the wall-mounted air-conditioning unit that strained to fight off the thick Florida heat.
After a quick piece of toast or bowl of mac-and-cheese, he'd be out the door to the lake, where he gave his landlord (shedlord?) barefoot lessons instead of rent. St. Onge would grab a few passes himself and then jump into a ramshackle pickup truck. All the windows would be down because there was no AC. He'd head to his under-the-table job of installing lights, and halfway there the truck would overheat, so he'd push it to the side of the road, wait 10 minutes and then start it up again. He'd work, return that night and crawl back into the shed, only to start it all over again.
St. Onge's addiction to the sport was — and is — so strong, he'd do anything for it. What got him through those days 10 years ago was a mission to be the best barefooter in the world. He really had no business even thinking like that, being a kid from the Granite State, New Hampshire, who was on his way to being a prison guard.
And yet, somehow, the 29-year-old St. Onge is now the reigning world champion and International Water Ski Federation's Male Athlete of the Year after powering through one of the best seasons any skier in any discipline has ever had. He broke the world slalom record, that had stood for 12 years. He broke the world trick record multiple times. He won four gold medals at the Barefooting Worlds. What happened between the shed and the supremacy? That's the real story of this dream.
His first hurdle was where he was from. “Coming from the North and working your way into the South is a battle,” St. Onge says. “All the press is down south, the schools are down south. I knew I had to be recognized in the South.” But he did what he could in New Hampshire. Both his parents were fun-time water skiers, and his grandfather had a cottage on a lake, which is where Keith first started his on-the-water passion.
At age 8 he was kneeboarding and two-skiing, at 9 he single-skied and attended a clinic with Mike Seipel. After that, at the age of 10, Keith competed in his first tournament, and he's been hooked ever since. Keith's cousin, Gary “Swampy” Bouchard ran the local ski club where Keith joined. “He told me to just have patience,” says Keith, “and let my ski do the talking. He also said to not say anything stupid that would make you look dumb during competition.”
When he was 14, barefooting professionally became an option. “My parents and Swampy gave me an ultimatum,” he says. “They said, 'You can just barefoot for fun or you can train hard and get to those tournaments. If you choose to train and travel, you have to allow us to motivate you, push you, and you have to ski even on days you don't want to.'” The main reason for this ultimatum was money: Keith's parents couldn't afford the rigorous financial demands of developing a barefooting career if it was just a recreational pastime. Given the choice, Keith decided to pursue barefooting seriously.
He got better — a lot better. He graduated from high school in 1997 and then went to Peter Fleck's Ski School in Orlando to work that winter. St. Onge saved up the money to go to the Worlds in Australia and won the slalom event. He had achieved the dream, but there was a letdown: “After that, I went back home and didn't know what to do,” he says.
Such is the dilemma of every kid: trying to figure out what to do with the rest of your life. For Keith, he had Plan A and Plan B. Plan A was, of course, moving full-time to Florida and barefooting professionally. Finances being what they were, he didn't know how viable that plan was, so that's when he gave serious thought to Plan B: working full-time at the New Hampshire State Correctional Facility. It was the biggest employer in town and all his high school friends had landed jobs there.
The choice was pretty clear. “I moved down South with just $1,000 in my pocket,” he says. “And that's when things got rough.” Keith had met a guy named Mike at Peter Fleck's Ski School who made Keith this offer: He could stay for free in Mike's efficiency apartment/office beside a Central Florida lake in exchange for free ski lessons. Done deal. “I was 19 and couldn't pass up the offer.”
When Keith showed up, though, he found out that the efficiency was more a shed than anything else. Not quite the rock-star lifestyle he'd imagined. “That's when I thought about Plan B,” he says. Plan B never saw the light of day because, soon after, Keith rented a house on Lake Minneola in Clermont, Florida, got a boat sponsor, started teaching and never
What drove him next was a rivalry along the lines of the Ron Scarpa-Mike Seipel competition that once defined barefooting. The battle now is between St. Onge and 24-year-old David Small. “He's one of the best skiers in the world,” says Keith. “We never really talk. He stomped me the last two Worlds and I didn't really feel like talking to him. We all knew David was coming up fast, but he took us by surprise at the 2002 Worlds, especially at such a young age. What most people don't know is that I took second overall the last three Worlds before 2006 — that's a hard pill for me to swallow, the fact that everyone had me as the favorite to win. So I was jealous of David, of course. He was the person I had my mark on.”
Scarpa knows the value of a good rivalry, and of St. Onge himself. “There's not been anyone in a long time to take barefooting up a notch,” says Scarpa. “Keith looks like he might be that guy.” When comparing St. Onge to Small, Scarpa says Keith excels in slalom and tricks, whereas David shines in jumping and tricks. “Keith and Dave are both better than I am in these events,” he says, “but I'm more consistent.” And that's the key, he says. “Keith is a great skier, and he's a humble guy, but there's always going to be someone coming from behind to bite him in the ass. But you can't be average to beat Keith. You have to be better.”
Keith, though, is looking to get better too. “When someone talks about the greats of barefooting,” says Keith, “they always say Scarpa and Seipel. I'd like to be remembered with the other greats of the sport, and I feel that after this year I'm 75 percent there.”
The 2006 Worlds was a huge step toward that. He placed first in every round of slalom and broke the world record in every round, ending with a mark of 10,880 points. The slalom record he set last year is 20.6 points. Beat that, Small.
This season, St. Onge is fully in his prime. Everything is coming together, including the new agreement that his ski school made to be under the BarefootCentral.com banner. He has a list of sponsors — MasterCraft, Eagle Wetsuits, HeadZone, US Gear and Clincher. He's making a living from his feet, and he's gunning for more victories — more of a legacy. He's also looking to help someone else achieve their dream now. “To achieve any goal in life, dream about it, think about it, picture it and write it down on paper,” he says. Along those lines, Keith says he received a small laminated card from a friend in 2002 after Small beat him at the Worlds. It reads: “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.”
“I'm now waiting,” St. Onge says, “to give that card to someone who needs it just as much as I needed it at that time.”
KEITH'S SIX MYTHS AND MYTH-BUSTING TIPS
Myth #1: Speed is always associated with barefoot wat
Myth Buster: Many people can comfortably barefoot at 30 mph. The new system for forward two-foot barefoot water skiing is quite easy. Take your weight and divide it by 10, add 15 to that number, and that's your perfect forward two-foot barefooting speed.
Myth #2: Footers should lean back against the pull of the boat.
Myth Buster: Actually the goal is to glide across the water with ease. There's no reason to play tug of war with the boat because the boat always wins! Think of sitting at a kitchen table with your arms laid out straight across the table. There are three 90-degree angles you can now think about: The first is in your knees, the second in your waist and the third is in your arm pit. This position will quickly fix the current tug-of-war position. Your position will transform into a taller standing position after mastering the 90-degree position.
Myth #3: All water skiers should put a death grip on the handle, especially barefooters.
Myth Buster: I refer to this as white knuckling. Many beginners fall extremely hard because they never let go of the handle until their head is a foot deep under the water, which leads to what we call “the scorpion.” That's when your feet touch the back of your head. If you have a hard time relaxing your grip, put your thumb next to your index fingers so you cup the handle instead of squeezing
Myth #4: When you're a beginner, it's OK to barefoot knock-kneed.
Myth Buster: Many first-time footers are happy to stand up for the first time, which is quite the accomplishment in itself, but barefooting knock-kneed can hinder the learning process. Barefoot waterskiing is exactly like snow skiing or ice skating. Once you overcome the snow plow, it's important to have your feet and chin parallel to each other while keeping your feet and knees just shy of shoulder width apart. This will enable you to save strength and perform one foots.
Myth #5: Moving the handle up and down improves balance.
Myth Buster: The handle never lies. I can tell when a beginner is tense because I see the handle shaking up and down. It's like someone driving while tense. They usually have a hard time staying between the lines, correct? This shows inconsistency in the driving, which is very similar to balancing on the water. Relax your core, shoulders and arms while keeping the handle parallel with the water. When the handle stays parallel to the water, your shoulders will stay square and provide balance as needed.
Myth #6: Barefooters should keep their eyes on their feet.
Myth Buster: Why do barefooters like looking at their feet gliding across the water? I don't know, but it causes crashes that I see coming five seconds before the initial toe drop! Always look where you're going! If you look down, you'll go down. Focus on looking down the runway, like driving a car.