Karen Putz reignites her water skiing passion

Karen Putz learned how to barefoot water ski in June, 1983 at the age of 17. A true water baby whose family owned a summer home on Christie Lake in Lawrence, Mich., Putz was inspired by an older brother who could seemingly walk on the waves at 38 mph.

"No other girls on the lake were barefooting," the 45-year-old mother of three from Bolingbrook, Ill., recalls. "One day I just decided, 'Man, I want to learn this.'" She got up on her first try and was instantly hooked on the adrenaline rush, oblivious to the sport's dangers.

Two years later, Putz was attempting to cross the wake barefoot -- a feat she had only successfully executed once before. "My toe caught in the wake and I slammed into the water sideways -- usually I tuck and roll, but I was out of position and going a little faster than normal," she said.

When Putz climbed into the boat, she noticed things seemed quiet.

"My friends' lips were moving but I wasn't hearing anything," she said. Putz assumed she had water trapped in her ears. But as the next week came and went, the world was still silent. Putz's hearing has never returned.

Her hearing loss was due in part to a rare genetic defect extending back five generations in her family. Putz, her mother and four siblings were all born with normal hearing, but all lost it at varying ages as a result of a fall or other trauma. Putz had experienced hearing loss as a child, but still had some residual hearing prior to the crash.

Putz stopped barefooting a few years later. Two decades passed. She attributes the leave of absence to family, kids, weight gain and lack of time, but also admits "deep down, I think I was scared."

This makes her upcoming debut in the Barefoot Water Ski National Championships in Waco, Texas, from Aug. 10-13, all the more extraordinary.

"My breaking point came on my 44th birthday, when I was sitting on a pontoon boat, watching water skiers go by and feeling pretty down," Putz recalls. "Some of my happiest times had been on the lake, yet there I was, the pounds had piled on, thinking the best years of my life were gone and it was just an uphill battle of growing older."

Fate stepped in. Putz's husband sent her a link to a "Today Show" segment featuring Judy Myers, a 68-year-old barefooter who entered the sport at the age of 53.

"I thought, 'What's my excuse?' Something inside of me woke up," Putz said.

Putz phoned Myers, who invited her to Florida to get back on the water. And so, in March of 2010, Putz met Myers. and two-time world barefoot water skiing champion Keith St. Onge. Her first practice run in two decades took place on an alligator-infested lake surrounded by a slew of male pros who could barefoot on one leg.

"Apparently my love for the sport outweighed my fear of the gators," Putz quipped.

My life did a 180 when I got back on the water. A friend saw and said, 'Look at you -- you're glowing!' That's what happens when you unwrap your passion. You come alive.
Karen Putz

She was more intimidated by her competitors, and had to try on three wetsuits before one fit. At the time, she was 5-foot-4 and 192 lbs. She fell on her first attempt, but as she got up "everyone cheered -- it was a defining moment in my life. I rediscovered my passion and felt pure joy."

Putz began slating return trips to Florida. By June, 2010, she'd nearly mastered the deepwater start (a standard competition technique) and soon thereafter she was barefooting backwards.

"Skimming along the water on your own your two feet is thrilling. It's challenging," Putz said of her rekindled obsession. "My life did a 180 when I got back on the water. A friend saw and said, 'Look at you -- you're glowing!' That's what happens when you unwrap your passion. You come alive. You meet people in the path of your passion and that leads to new opportunities. The first time I got up backwards, I came away with the realization of 'Holy cow, if I can do that, I can do anything!' I started applying what I learned in barefooting to other areas of my life," including a 50-plus pound weight loss.

Although her deafness can prove challenging on the water -- Putz can't use a traditional training helmet equipped with headphones to hear her instructors -- her sharply honed visual sense allows her to effectively translate her dry land practice runs to the lake.

She also practices Bikram yoga to improve her balance, which is hampered by her deafness, as balance is governed by the inner ears.

Now a World Barefoot Center-sponsored skier, Putz does have a secret weapon: size 9, extra-wide feet that St. Onge has dubbed "flippers." That hardly makes up for the fact that, as Putz describes, "your feet burn up on water -- it feels like a million razors slicing into them."

The thrill of executing fancy tricks, like barefooting backwards on one foot, overrides the pain potential. Putz knows this from experience. She blew out her knee last year executing a tumble turn -- where skiers lie down, spin around on their back and stand back up -- and wound up in rehab for two months.

Putz's sking has affected her family, in all the right ways. Her oldest son, David, 18, barefoots and her youngest son, Steven, 13, is eager to learn. Her 15-year-old daughter, Lauren, prefers wakeboarding.

All three are hard of hearing, too, but it has never stopped them from participating in sports.

"You can't tiptoe through life," Putz said. "I know that every time my kids play a contact sport or go out on the water, they have the potential to whack their head and possibly lose the hearing they have left. But I refuse to worry about the 'what ifs.' There's too much life to experience ahead."

You can follow Karen Putz on Twitter @DeafMom.

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