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Wayne Mawer: The Next Chapter by Jessica Greenwood

The article below was written for the 2011 World Championships programme

In every athlete’s life, there comes a time of monumental decision making; a cross roads. There comes a time to decide what the future will hold; a time to be brave.

For four-time World Champion, Wayne Mawer, that time came just two months before his 34th birthday. It was October 2008 and the skier was settled back into life in his hometown of Cairns in Far North Queensland, Australia. After an incredible career of competitive Water Ski Racing and Wakeboarding, Wayne was finally retired and free for the first time in 12 years to enjoy some sort of relative normality – the kind that only an athlete would appreciate or understand. He was running his own small business, married to his wife, Natalie and together the pair was enjoying life with their young son, Sunny.

At the time Wayne’s career accolades already included the 1997 IWSF World Water Ski Racing Championship, the 2001 IWSF Pro Wakeboard World Championship and the 2005 the World Wakeboarding Association World Championship – that’s a World Title every four years of his life from the age of 21. So when is it time to stop?

Wayne’s decision to give one final World Championship a shot wouldn’t have come as a surprise to those people who paid close attention. Wayne started skiing at a very young age, thanks to his father Roy’s great passion for ski racing. The Mawer family and many other Cairns water skiers live and breathe ski racing and Wayne stayed very much involved in the sport, even in retirement. He also stayed fit. Although intense training was a thing of the past, running, cycling and skiing to the reef with his family on the weekends became a part of Wayne’s ‘newly adjusted’ fitness routine.

But try as he might, Wayne couldn’t stop the determination within and the instinctive drive that comes from the love of competition. “I had been toying with the idea of doing the worlds, especially when I heard they were going to be held in Belgium,” says Wayne. “I had raced in Belgium before and I knew the conditions well.” He also knew what was required to get his body to where it needed to be to compete once again at the top level. With all of that taken into account, Wayne made the life-changing decision to come out of his 12 year retirement from Water Ski Racing, to embark on the biggest challenge of his life. He had nine months to be ready.

The tight, unforgiving canals of Belgium are renowned for pushing even the most experienced of skiers, observers and boat drivers to their limits. Like a game of chess; one wrong move could cost you the race, or worse, the title. “Racing in Belgium requires an enormous amount of skill and fitness from the skier, and nerves of steel from the driver and observer. The water is rough, choppy and unpredictable,” Wayne explains. The Australian skier would need to be in peak physical and mental condition if he was to win. His training routine was carefully worked into family life and running his small business. “It took a lot of organising and balance to make it work,” he says. Wayne’s training consisted of weights twice a week, cycling three times a week, and skiing three times a week on a fence paling, race ski or freeboard. Being 12 years older this time, the body’s recovery was also a little less forgiving.

Together with his new team, driver Mark Cranny and observer Damien Matthews, the trio were selected for the Australian team. Having only been racing together for a short time, they quickly grew a strong bond. “Mark and Damien make up one of the most professional teams I have been involved with. As a team, we had been together for nine months; not long in the world of ski racing,” explains Wayne. That mutual respect would turn out to be the most important ingredient when the trio headed to Belgium on July 5, 2009.

The Australian team that was selected for the Worlds was strong, as were teams from the USA and Belgium. The first race was held at Gent, in Northern Belgium. “Our team’s mechanic had the boat, Tru Blue running perfectly,” Wayne recalls. “Mark and Damien were cool and calm as ever and I was ready to race. Two flags went up and I can remember seeing thousands of people lining the concrete walls and looking down into the boats and I thought, ‘this is it.’”

The circuit course was marked with single-buoy turns, making the corners very tight and dangerous if they weren’t approached properly. “We used rope lengths for each race between 50 and 60 metres (165 and 195 feet,) and I can remember how fast the first straight felt that day with such a short rope. There wasn’t much wake left for me to ski in,” he says. “As we approached the turn buoy to complete the first lap, we were positioned in pole three, about half a rope length ahead of the field. By the time we pulled out of that turn, we were already more than a rope length behind. This really set the scene for how hard we had to work just to stay in the race.” At around the 40-minute mark, Prime Time, towing American skier, Todd Haig made their charge. Todd finished in first place, Wayne finished second and Dimitri Bertels from Belgium came in third.

Race two was held in Genk and team Tru Blue had its work cut out for it once again. Cranes winched the boats into the water with enough time to allow the teams to do a pre-race lap for the spectators along the canal. It was during that lap that Mark noticed the right-hand extractor of the engine had a small crack in it. There they were, just 15 minutes before the start of the second race, a race they needed to win, and Mark had a tough decision to make. They could either take the risk, unsure if the engine would handle the hour-long race, or use a substitute boat. In a split second, the crew was heading back to the dock. They would need to swap the intercom, helmets, rope and spare rope into another Australian boat, White Noise, all in just minutes.

The Australians had a very tough job on their hands, especially considering neither Mark nor Damien had ever raced with the boat before. With the clock ticking, the crew still needed to find a crane driver to winch the boat into the water. After overwhelming help from other Australian teams and with just five minutes before the start of the race, White Noise was finally in the water. “Cranny and Damien got us to the start line just as the 30 second flag dropped. It was really amazing,” recalls Wayne. “We got a clean start and we were in with a shot, taking a slight lead after the first lap. Prime Time was hot on our heels.” But that lead was soon lost, as Prime Time once again took full advantage of the single-buoy turns and traffic, making tight, fast turns. White Noise fought for the lead for the first fifteen minutes of the race, but as the boat traffic got heavier, they began to fall behind. “Cranny decided to move into Prime Time’s wash, where we settled until about the 45-minute mark. Then Damien gave me the signal ‘we have to go.’ We managed to wind them in within three laps and with just one lap until the finish we were racing alongside the Americans. The pressure was on as we both approached the finish line and with only half a lap to go, we were still side by side. With just 300 metres to go, we really put the pressure on and started pulling away,” explains Wayne. In one of the closest finishes in a world title race, White Noise crossed the line first. Todd Haig finished closely behind in second place and crashed straight after he crossed the line. Australian skier Chris Stout came in third place behind No Mercy.

The third race took place in the beautiful Belgian city of Antwerp. Tru Blue was again running perfectly and the team was ready. This would be the fastest of the four races and was yet another extraordinary show down between Wayne and Todd. “On one side of the course we were hitting speeds of approximately 145 kilometres per hour (90 mph) and on the home straight, speeds were back down to 96 – 112 K/ph (60 -70 mph),” says Wayne. The race came down to the wire with Tru Blue finishing just two seconds ahead of Prime Time.

After a day’s rest, competitors woke to the morning of the final race. This race would decide the 2009 World Champion. The fourth race was held at Viersel, the home of the annual world-renowned Diamond Race. This canal was the narrowest of all, at just 110 metres wide (360 feet.) Depending on the overall time of the race, the Australians would need to finish within at least two seconds of the Americans to win the World Championship. Wayne recalls the final moments before that race, “Two flags went up and I went into the water. The rope pulled tight and I had a short pause, preparing for the flag to drop.” Away they went. Tru Blue got off to a great start and by the 20 minute mark they were about one rope length in front of Prime Time. That lead increased to about four rope lengths about 35 minutes into the race. At 40 minutes in, Prime Time began closing the gap. Within two laps, they were level with Tru Blue. “Turning around the single-buoy turns with Prime Time right next to us was exhausting, both physically and mentally. Each time we approached the turn among the heavy boat traffic, Prime Time moved to the inside of the course, while Mark stuck close to the wall. This meant the Americans had the lead coming out of every corner,” adds Wayne.

With two and a half laps to go, Tru Blue became caught up in boat traffic through a corner and fell one rope length behind Prime Time. One rope length soon became four as the Americans continued to pull away. “Urgency became a priority and I knew we had to go. In one lap, we managed to wind in Prime Time by two rope lengths. The blue flag went up indicating one more lap, and we were chasing hard,” recalls Wayne. Todd and Wayne rounded the final turn with half a lap left to decide the 2009 World Title. “My rope length took me about 48 metres (160 feet) behind the boat and I knew we needed to finish at least two seconds behind Prime Time to win,” Wayne explains. On the second half of the final straight Tru Blue made more ground and with only 300 metres left, they were just half a rope length behind Prime Time. Tru Blue was now just metres from Todd. Wayne and Todd were both charging for the finish line. “We had 100 metres to go and the acceleration from Tru Blue was intense,” Wayne recalls. “We had the inside position and I could see the chequered flag when all of a sudden, there was a wall of water and I got a heap of slack rope. As I looked up, I saw Mark do a huge power turn to avoid contact with Todd.” Prime Time had turned in front of Tru Blue, leaving Mark with nowhere to go, forcing Wayne to sink into the water just metres from the finish line. “Mark’s quick thinking avoided a major incident from occurring,” Wayne says. Prime Time had continued on to do another lap, claiming they didn’t see the blue flag. Tru Blue picked Wayne up and pulled him across the line to finish the race. After deliberation, the judges ruled the overall positions – Wayne first, Todd second and Chris Stout third. Wayne Mawer was the new World Champion. But what had happened?

This is a big question that I know my brother Wayne has asked himself time and time again. When Wayne claimed his first Ski Racing World Championship in Sydney in 1997, he won four out of four races and became the first skier in history to do so. Family and friends watched him cross the finish line first during the deciding race, run up onto the beach and throw his hands into the sky, tears streaming down his face – the new Champion of the World. This incredible victory has inspired all of those people who were there to witness it and continues to do so even today. An unknown skier from Cairns had just beaten the world’s best, and he was just 21 years of age.

Belgium didn’t unfold like that. It wasn’t the fairytale finish both Todd and Wayne had hoped for. It was however, a privilege for everyone involved to have been able to witness the two fastest men on water fight what they wanted. They both deserve the utmost respect for their incredible guts and determination and while Wayne came away with the World Title, he or Todd would have been worthy of the crown.

Wayne’s experience in Belgium has made him a stronger person. Back home in Cairns, he is now focusing on growing his small business and spending time with his family. Earlier this year Wayne and his wife, Natalie welcomed a beautiful daughter, Jada into the world. “Life is good. I am enjoying every minute of it.”

Although his life has changed, Wayne hasn’t ruled out ski racing in the future. His 5-year-old son, Sunny is now ski racing and Wayne also gets out on the water to social ski every chance he can. “Skiing is more than a sport for us, it’s a lifestyle. It will always be a part of my life.”

In every athlete’s life, there comes a time of monumental decision making; a cross roads, and as my brother now looks towards life beyond ski racing, the possibilities are endless.

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