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Team USA faces challenges in preparing for world tournament

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Shelly Birkelo
September 8, 2012

— Co-directing Team USA in the inaugural World Water Ski Show Tournament is the pinnacle leadership experience for Matt Heilman.

"For an amateur lifetime show skier, this is exciting and intriguing to lead a water ski team in an international competition," Heilman said.

The honor doesn't come without challenges.

Team USA's 35 members were collected from across the nation—Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Ohio, South Carolina, Florida and Texas.

"So getting folks together for a long period of time to train, practice and put the show together is one of our most difficult challenges," Heilman said.

Heilman lives in Verona and has served as show director of the Mad-City Ski team nine times in 15 years. He and co-director Chris Coupland of Naperville, Ill., organized April practices in Florida for Team USA.

"We took a long weekend and trained there," he said.

"Florida was really kind of experimental time to see what we could and couldn't do and how people meshed together. We had jumpers do tricks who normally don't jump side-by-side to develop chemistry," he said.

It helps, Heilman said, that Team USA has some of the best skiers in the world.

In addition to folks who have skied on national champion water show ski teams, the national squad includes professionals who ski at Sea World, Tommy Bartlett and LEGOLAND.

"It's the best of the best in show skiers today, so we feel we've got the strongest team," Heilman said.

People who attend the tournament Sept. 15-16 at the Rock Aqua Jays Stadium in Traxler Park will see more skiers involved in individual acts, he said.

"We might have three or four barefooters simultaneously doing barefoot turns, have some bigger jump acts than ordinary, and some combinations of jumps people have never seen before," he said.

One highlight of the jump act will be the mobius—a full twisting back flip that only a handful of people in the world can perform. Team USA has five people who can do the stunt, Heilman said.

Team USA also boasts of some of the best wakeboarders, swivel skiers and hydrofoilers.

Heilman said co-directing Team USA has required an immense amount of work for him and Coupland just because it's never been done before.

"Chris and I find ourselves doing a lot of work besides just focusing on producing the show. It's been fun, but we're doing a lot of behind-the scenes work such as fundraising, finding sponsorships, taking care of team clothing apparel and all sorts of other logistics such as making travel plans for the practice in Florida," he said.

That's why Heilman is excited about the team reuniting to practice this week in advance of the tournament.

"We'll block out a meeting time Tuesday so everybody knows their role, practice a good chunk of the day Wednesday then rehearse our show two different occasions Thursday and one final time Friday morning," he said.

Heilman said the goal of Team USA is to put on the best water ski show folks have ever seen.

He's not counting out the competitors.

"There's talented skiers all over the world," he said.

"The Australians have some really talented folks, including some world class barefooters and good all-around water skiers.

"The Chinese do really unique things with doubles and neat sort of parasail gymnastics things that nobody else in the world does.

"And the Belgium team has been together quite a long time with the ability to practice more than some of the other teams," Heilman said.

"They will all bring unique things and different aspects we don't typically see in show skiing in the United States," he said.

To win, Heilman said, Team USA will have to deliver a "standup show" with no falls.

"We have so much talent and ability from top to bottom on our team. The goal is to ski a clean show. If we do that, I think the audience is going to be awfully impressed," Heilman said.

"Being part of a national championship is exciting, but this is a unique experience in pulling together such a diverse group of skiers—some of the best in the world."



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