Karen Putz: Finding my passion again… on bare feet

Posted on March 27, 2012

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Way back when I was a teen, I loved barefoot water skiing.

I was the only gal on Christie Lake who could water ski barefoot and I spent my summer days skiing with the guys. Barefooting was the great equalizer; it didn’t matter that I couldn’t hear well on the water or off.

My skills on the water kicked up a notch when Brent Greenwood, a show skier and barefooter from Minnesota taught me how to do a deep water start. This entailed wrapping my feet on the rope and riding on my rear end until I could stand up on the water. I stood up on my third try, with a million-dollar smile on my face.

Toward the end of summer just before my sophomore year in college, I decided to try crossing the wake. I had done it successfully once before and wanted to try it again. I tripped over the wake and slammed into the water.

In an instant, I went from hard of hearing to deaf, except I didn’t realize it at the time. I thought maybe I had water lodged in my ears. The horrible droning sound from tinnitus masked the silence for many weeks.

After several months of grieving, I woke up one morning and had an epiphany: I could continue to fight the change in my life or I could accept it and become the best possible deaf person I could be.

That day was a turning point in my life.

Becoming deaf turned into a blessing. I requested interpreters for all of my classes and began to learn American Sign Language. Life was pretty good. I got married and had three deaf and hard of hearing kids. I taught at the local community college and started a non-profit organization.

Fast forward to my 44th birthday– it wasn’t a happy time.

My weight had ballooned up over 200 pounds. I had long ago abandoned the sport I was passionate about.

I attempted to barefoot the day before with no success. I was too out of shape and it had been too many years since my feet touched the water. I resigned myself to the fact that the best years of life were pretty much over with. Nearly all of the guys on the lake had abandoned the sport as well and none of the younger ones were picking it up.

I looked back on the past with a lot of regret. I wish I had barefooted more while I was young and in shape.

Then my husband sent me a link that would turn my life around: Barefoot Water Skier is Landing on her Feet at 66.

I watched the video over and over in amazement. There were no captions, so I couldn’t understand a word, but watching Judy on the water was enough to stir up all the old emotions inside of me. I wanted to barefoot again.

If a 66-year-old gal could take up this sport at the age of 53, then surely I could get back on the water again. I got in touch with Judy via Facebook and she invited me down to the World Barefoot Center to receive instruction from the two-time World Barefoot Champion, Keith St. Onge.

I flew to Florida with my family and on the big day, I woke up to a rainstorm. Part of me was secretly relieved. I was sure it would be cancelled.

The nerves that came over me were just a bit too much. How was I going to communicate with a boat full of strangers? I was out of shape and overweight– what if I couldn’t get up on the water? And what about alligators– alligators scared me to death.

There were all kinds of thoughts jumbling through my mind. But I knew deep down, that if I didn’t get out there and try, I would leave Florida with a lot of regret.

On the dock, Keith walked me through the steps of what to do. I was so darn nervous that I couldn’t pay proper attention to him. He later told me he thought I was being impatient (and probably rude!) but I couldn’t harness my mind properly that day.

Half of me was cheering myself on. I can do this! The other half of me was terrified. I can’t do this. Keith asked if I wanted to go first, but I shook my head no.

But the moment I finally put my feet on the water and stood up, time faded away. I felt as if I was a teenager again. All of the old passion for the sport came flooding back. And from that moment, life did a 180.

It wasn’t an easy 180. There’s definitely a learning curve when taking up an extreme sport in the mid-40′s, especially after years of being out of shape.

I spent the last two years being sore in places where I didn’t even know I had muscles. There were some days I shed tears of frustration and other days I rejoiced in progress.

As a teenager, I could never have imagined myself barefooting backwards, but in two short years, the folks at the World Barefoot Center taught me to go backwards on my feet and even backwards on a shoe ski with my hands in the air.

If there’s one thing this whole experience has taught me is this: dream new dreams so you can soar to new heights. You’re never too old to unwrap your passion and get a new lease on life.

Karen Putz is a deaf mom to three deaf and hard of hearing kids. The husband is deaf too. The dog, however, has hearing in the normal range. Karen is a writer for the Chicago Tribune TribLocal and ChicagoNow blog. She works as the Coordinator of Deaf Infusion for Hands & Voices and as a Deaf Mentor in early intervention. She is a Senior Distributor at SendOutCards. In her spare time, she can be found walking on water. She tweets as @Deafmom and you can click here to visit her website.

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