Canadian Olympic gold medal skier Kathy Kreiner-Phillips has traded in her alpine skis for a set that gets a lot more wet, and she’s got a couple of close companions along with her for the ride.
Earlier this month, Kreiner-Phillips – a 65-year-old native of Timmins, Ont., who has called North Vancouver home for many years – took part in the 2022 IWWF World Over-35 Water-ski Championships in France. She was joined there by her husband, Dave Phillips, and good friend and training partner Johnny Hayward, both of whom were also competing against some of the best masters water-skiers in the world. The trio trains on the waters of Indian Arm near Deep Cove, the only three skiers on the team that Canada sent to France who do most of their practising on salt water rather than on a freshwater lake.
The transition from mountain slopes to behind a boat was a natural one for Kreiner-Phillips, who said she did a lot of both types of skiing as a kid growing up near Ontario cottage country. Alpine skiing dominated her life when she was racing for Olympic gold, but now her favourite place to be is behind a boat.
“I just love that feeling of water skiing and whipping across the wake, that after-water-skiing feeling of being tired. There's nothing like it,” she said. “It’s such an adrenaline sport, very addictive. It’s just really a lot of fun, and we’re really passionate about it.... I don’t want to be a masters [alpine] ski racer now – I’ve been there, done that – but the water-skiing really is just a good outlet for me.”
Kreiner-Phillips, who won gold in giant slalom at the 1976 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, said she sometimes still has the urge to ski like she’s on snow when she’s behind a boat, a tendency which has resulted in a few faceplants.
“I want to ski like a snow skier – that’s so ingrained in me – and you have gravity when you are snow skiing, but here you have the boat pulling you,” she said. “If you bend forward like you do on snow skis, that doesn't work very well. You have to lean back, let the boat pull you and work with the boat.... When I get in trouble or when I'm stressed, then I tend to pull out the snow skiing.”
All three North Vancouver skiers, however, displayed plenty of talent on their way to the world championships. Phillips, also age 65, finished fourth in over-55 men’s slalom; Kreiner-Phillips finished 11th in over-55 women’s slalom; and Hayward, age 51, finished seventh in over-45 men’s tricks, 11th in jump, and 35th in slalom, placing him 10th in the overall standings.
The three of them, along with national head coach Steve Bush, who also lives in North Vancouver, have all helped push each other to new heights.
“For me it’s a dream come true,” said Hayward. “I joined the club and they were already seasoned experts in international water ski travel. To be able to ski with them and joining them on a trip like this is amazing.”
The trio has bonded over their shared experiences training in Deep Cove, a location that provides unique challenges compared to the typical places people do serious training.
“We’re the only ones that have seals and killer whales,” said Hayward with a laugh. “We’re the only ones that have crab fisherman come through the course.”
They also have to keep an eye out for random logs popping up in their path, as well as other oddities of ocean skiing.
“The course might sink because there are mussels growing on it,” said Kreiner-Philips. “We’re used to interruptions.”
Those obstacles didn’t slow any of them on their way to the world championships. Hayward is a professional photographer by day, shooting for the Canadian Press, and water skiing has given him a great outlet to channel his competitiveness and maintain a healthy lifestyle.
“Going to the gym is hard, but when you have a goal – like, say, the possibility of going to worlds – all of a sudden that drive to the gym or that run through the Cove becomes a lot easier.”
Hayward also said he took pride in following in the footsteps of his grandfather, Ferd Hayward, who competed in the 1952 Olympic Games in race walking, and was inducted into the Sport Newfoundland and Labrador Hall of Fame.
“I’m proud to be my grandfather’s grandson,” he said.
Phillips has competed in multiple masters world championships, and boasts a pretty strong athletic resume from a previous life as well, competing on the freestyle skiing national team. Water-skiing is now his No. 1 passion as well, he said.
“Physically it's a very demanding sport, because when you cross the wakes at certain line lengths, you're actually surging 600 or 700 pounds, or maybe 800 pounds, on the line – there’s a lot of pressure.” he said. “Your body has to be in great shape to do those sorts of things. ... I think it probably keeps us young, when a lot of people [our age] are shutting it down. We feel like we’re just getting started.”