International Water Ski Racing Online Since 1996

Darren Kirkland

Written in 1996 by Robbie Llewellyn

It was a sweltering August afternoon near Linz, Austria in 1982. 18 years old, I had just been pulled into 2nd place by the legendary Reg King in the first ever European Formula II Water Ski Racing Championships. Begium’s Rudy Boekx had won that day and it was a stroke of luck for me that Walter Kees (who was in 2nd) suffered a fall when he hit an enourmous wash from a barge.

Pleased with the day, I stood by the side of another ski race the edge of the River Danube to enjoy the Junior event. Together we watched a certain diminutive 14 year old annihilate the rest of the field. Looking up at the guy by my side who had been the guru of ski racing throughout the 70’s, I remember thinking “that kid out there is going to be you in few years.” I was stood by a man named Rixon – Bill Rixon.

But it wasn’t only me who held those thoughts. Because the phrase “he’s the next Rixon” became a bit of a cliche, and over the course of the following 15 years, 29 year old Darren Keith Kirkland has proven the pundits right. And in January 1997, he was awarded the General Lascelles Trophy in recognition of his tremendous achievements in the sport of water skiing.

But the Kirkland story goes back further than that 982 race in Austria. In fact it goes back to the time when this eight year old lad from London was introduced to water skiing by family friend, Michael Teague. And it wasn’t long before the well known faces of Reg and ‘Auntie’ Joyce Williams of Whitstable Water Ski Club, introduced Darren to the amazing world of Water Ski Racing.

By the tender age of 13, Darren was already winning races and although looking up to Rixon for the inspiration to emulate him some day, he describes these ambitions as, ‘just the dreamy thoughts of a teenager’. Even now Darren says that if ‘wrapping’ (skiing with two handles held behind your back) hadn’t come into ski racing until 1980, Bill Rixon would have been the very first World Water Ski Racing Champion back in 1979. At 13, Darren knew little of the triumphs, the tragedies, the hard work, sacrifices and enjoyment that lay ahead of him.

To outsiders, ski racing is a sport which looks quite glamorous at the top. To newcomers, the lifestyles of the likes of Kirkland seem enviable. I can assure you it’s not as rosy as it seems from the outside. Because Darren has spent years moving along the sometimes lonely road to top. Years of training, years of perseverance, years of sacrifice and more, is what Darren has paid to enjoy the privilege of being where he is today.

Right now he has a seemingly perfect set up of two World class boats, an incredibly committed and supportive crew of Robbie Wright and Martin Brooks and other help. But Darren works all hours to make a living in his trade as a carpenter. He trains late in the evening hours and still goes out to successfully compete against the likes of his fellow European competitors Carlo Cassa of Italy, who is more than adequately supported by the Italian authorities.

He’s now aiming to secure a place in his 6th World Water Ski Racing Championships. The competition in Britain is first class, but there’s not one person in ski racing who doubts Darren’s ability to once again secure his spot in the National team. He is on a mission to capture what so cruelly slipped through his hands at the 1995 World Championships in Belgium. After one breakdown and a 10% penalty the gold was gone. Although it was the superb Stefano Gregorio of Italy who snatched the World Title when Darren was hit by an incredible stroke of bad luck, the same had happened to Stefano just two years earlier. And when I asked the newly crowned 29 year old World Champion who he admires in the world of ski racing he replied, ‘Kirkland – he’s so unlucky, but he never gets down. He’s great”.

When Darren lost the World Title in Belgium he told me, “I felt surprisingly ok. I was more disappointed for the people who supported me, especially Barry Larsen and Robbie Wright. They had made huge efforts in the run up to Belgium”. But as many people know, Darren has had more than his fair share of breakdowns over the years, and now he is used to them being a possibility – anytime. In ski racing, the efforts of skier, driver and observer still have to be backed up to the powerboat required to help them complete their performance. End results in ski racing, depend on several vital factors.

But aside from the World Championships, Darren enjoys the continuous circus of events throughout Europe and Classics such as the Catalina ski race off Long Beach, California. In fact one of his favourite all time races is the 1994 Catalina where he finally clinched the crown which ski racers throughout the world dream about. And on the subject of Classic races, Darren has won others such as the Giro del Lario in Italy, the Diamond race in Belgium and the San Francisco Bay race at least once in his career. This is in addition to winning British Dauphin and Junior Championships.

He has been both British and European Formula II and Formula I Champion, winning the British F1 title no less than six times. His collection of achievements is astounding. And what’s more, he has been a World class skier since 1985, when as an 18 year old Formula II skier, he secured a place in the British Men’s team for the World Championships in Spain. Few people have remained at the very top of water ski racing for 12 years! It’s names such as America’s Chuck Stearns and Debbie Nordblad, and Britain’s Bill Rixon who have gone that distance. Kirkland is the latest on this elite list.

But aside from the glory which a world class skier enjoys, it’s the experience of friendships built up over 20 years with so many different characters throughout the world, which Darren values most. It is these people who he has accumulated his knowledge from. All have offered their own opinions, all educating Darren to learn, at 29years of age, what’s right for him. This is called ‘experience’. Experience which few racers have to such a degree. Experience which gives him the edge over younger skiers.

The edge he has earned. And his experience is still growing. Because this gutsy athlete sees at least another three to five years of top level ski racing ahead of him at World level. But Darren, like others, wants to see some changes in the sport. He feels in needs the kind of image which is associated with offshore powerboat racing. This he says “would justify all the hard work that’s done, even by some of the smaller formula”. And of course money is a major issue in ski racing. Money which needs to be gained through sponsors, and the obvious TV coverage which sponsors are looking for. Training is of course a major part of Darren’s life. And although running, swimming and circuit training take their part in his routine, he won’t disclose his real trade secrets. With a World Title at stake, Darren’s giving nothing away to the competition.

But none of these achievements would have been possible without the help of so many people, and Darren names the major players he wishes to thank as Vic and Sandy Austin, Don Carter, Norman and Val Fletcher, Bob Maha, Ken Thorne, David Page of Ambiance Clothing, Alan and Jeremy Symonds, Barry Larsen and Robbie and Linda Wright. There have been so many other people who have played their part in Darren’s career. And although not all named here, Darren told me, “they know who they are and their help will always be remembered”. People such as mechanic Dave Brockington and the infamous Ray Bryant, who set and still holds the official British Speed record with Darren in 1989 using the Black BPM Abbatte.

By Robbie Llewellyn (1996)

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