SADSBURY TOWNSHIP — Maria Hoge was making up for lost time on Conneaut Lake on Tuesday.
After water skiing in the morning, the 24-year-old from Venetia was back behind the boat after lunch for what she expected would be two leisurely circuits around the southern half of the lake. She got her two laps and then two more, smaller this time but still allowing her to catch the occasional bit of air over wakes from other watercraft as she waited to be taken back to the shore near the Iroquois Boating and Fishing Club. Other skiers using the loading and unloading area resulted in bonus ski time for Hoge.
The 26-minute ride was her third time skiing in two days, and she planned more.
Hoge has been water skiing for more than eight years, but it’s not every day she gets a chance to get in the water. Despite the skills she demonstrated at the end of the rope, it’s not unusual for her to go years between hot-dogging opportunities.
In fact, for Hoge and the 30 other skiers departing periodically from the Iroquois Club this week, the annual water sports clinic held by Three Rivers Adaptive Sports (TRAS) is one of just a few chances — perhaps the only chance — they have each year for water skiing.
The lack of opportunities isn’t the product of a lack of desire.
“It was really nice — kind of choppy, but cool and refreshing,” Hoge, a data analyst for PNC Bank, said of her afternoon ride. “My favorite thing about water skiing is that it gives you the freedom to experience the speed of going across the water.”
Instead of a lack of interest, the limiting factor for Hoge and other participants is the labor-intensive effort required to make water sports safe for the event participants.
In addition to the specialized ski that allowed Hoge to remain seated during her four laps around the lake, numerous volunteers were involved in making the ride safe: In the boat were a pilot, a quick-release monitor ready to disconnect the tow rope if Hoge had fallen, and third person in charge of communications with crew members on shore; behind Hoge were two jet skis both carrying two volunteers ready to go in after her if necessary; at the Iroquois Club another seven volunteers waited in the water as Hoge glided to a stop at the end of her afternoon ski session. About 60 volunteers will participate over the course of the event, organizers said.
The elaborate safety precautions were necessary because Hoge and other participants in the event had a variety of disabilities that affected their ability to water ski.
For Hoge the physical challenges were significant: Transverse myelitis, a spinal cord injury, left her paralyzed from the neck down when she was 6 months old. Throughout the course of her childhood, she engaged in extensive physical, occupational and aquatic therapy treatments, multiple times each week, to gradually regain function in her upper extremities. Hoge has been downhill skiing since she was a child and her therapy work proved effective enough that she was able to attend college independently, she said.
Even so, water skiing presents enough concerns with disabled skiers that it’s not an activity that a family or friends can safely engage in as a weekend whim. It really requires a community, and that feeling of community — of family, almost — is what helps to bring back volunteers like Steve Wanovich of Pittsburgh each year.
Wanovich has been working with TRAS for decades. His specialty is snow skiing, but he has been working the Conneaut Lake clinic off and on since nearly the time it started in the early 1990s.
“Seeing the participants get older, seeing them get better at this stuff, it’s really what most of the people here do this for — the people, the participants that you get to see every year,” Wanovich said after operating the walkie-talkie during Hoge’s extended tour of the lake. “You get to see kids grow, get bigger, get stronger — and the smiles on their face. I have to be honest. She was smiling, having fun — she could care less we went an extra three laps.”
It’s a sight that has been hard to spot over the past 16 months: TRAS, like other organizations, canceled many of its events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Limited snow skiing took place last winter, but biking and bowling events that usually take place in the spring were postponed until fall. Last year, the water sports took place, but the all-virtual format didn’t afford much of an opportunity to get wet, let alone ski.
“This is what they want to do,” organizer Marcia Logan said Tuesday with a glance toward the crowded Iroquois Club beach, where volunteers and skiers milled about amid the smell of sunscreen and various forms of adaptive equipment.
Participation this year is down significantly, from about 50 over the course of four days to about 30, likely due to pandemic-related concerns on the part of past participants, Logan said. Still, the four-day clinic drew skiers from the Pittsburgh, Erie and eastern Ohio areas.
The event’s return to normal this year was much needed, according to Logan, as much for the social element it provides both skiers and volunteers as for the athletic experience.
“For a lot of the disabled, COVID was really hard because any contact that they had was minimal to begin with, and then that was eliminated,” she explained. “We definitely don’t want to see it [the water sports clinic] disappear. There’s not that many opportunities. A lot of these people just ski here.”
And while they don’t just ski at Conneaut Lake, they ski plenty, as Hoge demonstrated.
Earlier in the day she had released the tow rope from its block attachment on the adaptive ski, choosing instead to hold it with her arms — not her hands, since she lacks the necessary dexterity. Doing so makes for a more challenging, and more tiring, ski experience. In the afternoon, she opted not to pull the rope out from the block.
“I found it exhausting enough just trying to hold onto my legs and keep it in the right position with the wind and the activity of the water,” Hoge said from her seat on the beach a few moments after returning to shore. “I’m feeling pretty content right now just calling it a day, enjoying the sun and everything else.
“But,” she added, “I’ll be ready for tomorrow.”
Mike Crowley can be reached at (814) 724-6370 or by email at [email protected]
The 31st annual Three Rivers Adaptive Sports Water Sports Clinic at Conneaut Lake concludes today at the Iroquois Boating and Fishing Club. The event, which is free to participants, welcomes volunteers on water and land. No experience is necessary. Those interested in volunteering in future years should contact Marcia Logan at [email protected] For more information, visit traspa.org/water-sports-clinic.html.