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Chuck Stearns

chuck-stearns-speed-record.jpgMost sports are blessed with a host of heroes who are worthy of their fame. Just occasionally someone comes along whose excellence overshadows all others.In the world of water skiing, Liz Hobbs and Mike Hazelwood are two names which are world renowned in their respective disciplines and rightly so. Liz in racing, Mike in tournament. But rarely will you find a skier who has excelled to the top in two types of skiing which mix no better than water and oil.

America’s Chuck Stearns is one such an individual, and his ability to have been at the top of both tournament and racing makes him so unique and stand loud from the crowd. Chuck Stearns is a name which has spanned no less than five decades of water skiing. With his days at the top of water skiing behind him, he now lives with his three children and wife Mary on Huntington Beach, California, where he runs an established property business.

Back to the past and 1955
A magazine read, “the favourite for this year’s Catalina Water Ski Race is 16 year old Chuck Stearns. Chucky finished 3rd last year – only the 2nd time he’d ever raced!…since then he has won 12 straight races and the National Championship last month at Lakeland, Florida.”

He went on to win that race and over the course of the next 27 years, he proceeded to win the Catalina Water Ski Race an total of 11 times. And in his tournament career, he enjoyed wins in the Jump, Tricks and Slalom at the National Junior Boys Championships in 1955 and later went on to win the 1960 Men’s National at Minneapolis, taking the overall title with a three event sweep. Already you can probably begin to appreciate how incredible this skier has performed in the course of water skiing history.

His achievements were officially recognized 15 years ago when he became the first male waterskier to be inducted into the inaugural Hall of Fame at Cypress Gardens, Florida. Since then he’s been inducted into the California State University of Long Beach hall of Fame and the Legends Hall of Fame on Second Street. And a tale worth telling is the one where, after being inducted into Cypress Gardens HOF being recorded as 10 time winner of the Catalina Water Ski Race, he came out of retirement four months later and notched up his 11th Catalina victory at 43 years of age, after being labeled as, “over the hill”.


Tournament fans may best remember
Chuck as the only man to ever hold the Masters, Nationals and World Overall titles all in the same year. But let’s not forget that he was also a member of the U.S. Ski Team on six consecutive occasions between 1957 and 1967, High Points skier five times and Team Captain four. And at the 1960 Nationals, Chuck won all three events:  Trick, Jump and Slalom, something never equaled to this day.

But back to Racing and the need for speed. Aside from Catalina, Chuck stole five Lake Mead 75 Miler victories which consisted of 25 rough laps of a course at Boulder Beach. Then he topped his Lake Mead career by notching up wins in the 75 Miler, the 50 Miler and the Men’s Open – all on one hot September weekend in 1969.

chuck-stearns-on-cover-of-water-skiing-magazine.jpgIn Racing¦
Chuck has also hit the record books in terms of out and out speed, because in 1966 he recorded a blistering 119.52 mph at the Quarter Mile Drags in Marine Stadium, California. The following year he set out to break his own record but fell at 118.89 mph (see the fall) when the boat slowed too quickly only to get up with just an injured ankle and record a speed of 122.11mph. And if you’re wondering what it feels like at that speed, next time you’re on a ski at 40mph, multiply the sensation by three and add the worrying fact that Chuck was using a ski that would now be 21 yrs old in design. Are you getting the hang on this guy’s ability?

But it wasn’t all plain sailing
Because when his father Bill, bought their first boat, Chuck was just 15 and had never skied. They spent many a tough day down at Marine Stadium with their mahogany V-bottom boat and skis with metal bindings. After a while they figure that a standing beach start with two skis on just wasn’t the way to go and the deep water start cured Chuck’s repetitive problem of falling flat on his face.

Few athletes enjoy being at the top of their chosen sport for a quarter of a century, particularly where physical strength, endurance and reflexes are all so vita. Chuck says that his Tournament days required learned techniques which had to be perfected by constant practice. Whether it was Slalom, Trick or Jumping, he had to be prepared to perform intricate manoeuvres in relatively short periods of time. Whereas Racing required extreme emphasis on physical endurance, with him having to pace himself in order to reach the finish line totally spent.

And mishaps?
Of course a career as long as Chuck Stearns’ couldn’t have gone without a classic mishap which was destined to be told at ski clubs throughout the world in the years to come. It happened whilst racing arch rival Butch Peterson in the 1957 Catalina. The fog had come down and the two were battling it out, side by side, as they headed out to sea. The two crews suddenly realized they were way off course for Avalon Harbour, but was San Clemente Island which was 20 miles South West of Catalina Island. They headed to the shore and stopped, as by now they were too low on fuel to return to Long Beach on the mainland.

After 18 hours of being stranded on this deserted island which was used for long range artillery practice by the Navy and home to just a few goats, they lit a fire with the little fuel they had left in the two boats. Stearns and Peterson knew little about safe survival techniques and quickly had the entire grassy hillside ablaze! The Coast Guard spotted his raging inferno and the Navy were send to the island with fuel. The two boats followed the ship back to the mainland but before leaving San Clemente Island, Chuck and Butch had kidnapped a goat and smuggled it home in the cockpit of one of the boats as the only trophy they were getting that year!


So that’s a brief insight into the career of one of the world’s most incredible water skiers. Now Chuck enjoys watching other steal the limelight and he admires America’s Lori Dunsmore in Racing and France’s Patrice Martin in the tournament arena.

And finally
A piece of advice Chuck Stearns has for all skiers is, “always marry someone who is sports minded!”

He did – eventually!

By Robbie Llewellyn – with thanks to Chuck & Mary for their input.

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