Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Eskimo Escapades: A Different Way to Celebrate MLK Weekend

Yesterday was Martin Luther King, Junior Day - a national holiday in the United States, but not observed here in Canada. Thanks to Facebook updates, I didn't forget about it or mix up the date (like the Thanksgiving incident). 

Even though it's not observed here in the great white north, I would like to take a minute and show you how I use to celebrate MLK back in Tennessee. Back in my former life, I was a water skier. I still love it, I just don't get out much anymore. There aren't exactly a lot of lakes here in Canada and boats are often a little more than my salary could afford. But back in college, I loved it. I skied on our school's ski team, went to tournaments and drove the boat as much as possible. When you're a college kid, it doesn't get much better than going to class in the morning and then getting to the lake by noon for an afternoon on the water. It just doesn't.

Part of skiing for the UT Ski Team was working and volunteering at community events. Our campus was surrounded by several fabulous hospitals. One of which was Fort Sanders Regional Hospital. Fort Sanders has a fantastic rehabilitation center for stoke victims, spinal injuries and brain injuries. The Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center is an amazing place with amazing results for their patients. Their motto is "Restoring abilities and rebuilding lives." One of the reasons Patricia Neal is so successful is because of their special events for their patients. They offer activities that range from downhill skiing all the way to waterskiing and wakeboarding - all with special equipment and trained volunteers.

This is where the UT Ski Team comes in. Throughout the summer, the Patricia Neal therapists hold water skiing clinics for their patients. To do this, you need a lot of boats, life guards, boat drivers, and volunteers. Our job was to bring our boat and volunteer our time to helping the patients have some fun and enjoy the lake. Every patient is different, depending on their level of injury. Quadriplegics, for example, may only be able to ride in a tube. Paraplegics may be able to ski or wakeboard while sitting on a special, wide ski. Stroke victims have varying abilities. However, all the patients get volunteers in the water with them so we can help keep their balance, get their ski straight, or even ride in the tube with them. Each patient is always pulled by one boat with another boat following closely behind, called a chase boat. The chase boat always has a guard in it that is ready to hop out and help the patient if they fall. Remember, all this depends on the varying ability of the skier. It's a very safe program and unbelievably rewarding to all involved.

As you can imagine, these types of activities require funding.

To help with the funding the Skiers of Knoxville Water Ski Club hosts an annual event on MLK weekend - Eskimo Escapades Shut Up and Ski!

The event is held on the Tennessee River and the whole community is invited to come down and go skiing in the freezing cold water. Each participant is asked to raise a donation of at least $25 dollars. Rest assured, most people raise much more through sponsors who are willing to pay good money to see their friend hop in the frigid water and scream like a little girl.

We always volunteered at Eskimo by bringing our team boat, driving the boats and working as guards - even though we had to show up at the crack of dawn to help set up.

It takes 2 boats to pull one skier at Eskimo too, so the event requires eight boats to run. Even the non-disabled need a chase boat since the water is so cold that a skier can't stay in for more than a few seconds if they fall.

Look at all these crazy people waiting in line to ski. I hope someone told them the water temperature is around 40 degrees. (Note: There are hot tubs ready with bubbles for when the skiers get out.)

Even with 4 teams of boats running, the line still backs up. I'm not sure of this year's turnout, but four years ago we averaged about 300 skiers, if I remember correctly.

I'm telling you, these people are crazy. Look what these guys did to raise money. It is 30 degrees outside and look what they're wearing! They promised everyone they knew that they would wakeboard in chaps and speedos if they would toss in some coin for a good cause.

Not everyone is insane, though. The skier was smart and wore his wetsuit, like a good boy. See that person in the unfortunate outfit next to the skier? That's me. Yes, I am wearing a dry suit, circa 1980. I told you, we rely on donations. You take what you can get. You try to sit in the back of a boat all day, jumping in every five minutes. You'd wear a dry suit too regardless of what it looks like. Under it I had on long johns, sweat pants, a wool sweater and a fleece, and I still froze.

If you look closely, you'll see that I am also sporting bright yellow dish gloves. That's because they're water proof. When you're not jumping in after someone, you're reaching in the water and pulling out their skis while they climb in the boat, so you need all the protective gear you can get - even if it comes from the grocery store.

But, come on, I sort of make the '80s suit look a little badass, right? Right?

See? Matthew wears a dry suit too. Granted, he is paralyzed from his chest down and has issues controlling his body temperature, but that doesn't stop him from being cool like me. You should see him wakeboard - he is amazing. After several years of coming to the clinics, he can do 360s and jumps - and he doesn't even need helping getting started in the water. I don't know if he is, but he should be the poster child for Patricia Neal Rehab. It's pretty impressive to come back from a dirt biking accident and end up a rockstar wakeboarder, I'm just sayin'.

The skiing continues all day, until everyone has had their turn and we've raised as much money as possible for the foundation.

I know it's not exactly about the human rights that Dr. King spoke of, but it's sure about freedom.

Not a bad way to spend your MLK weekend...even if you do wear a neon yellow suit.

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