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Bears on Skis

Thanks to the passion and hard work of a legacy student, the Baylor club water skiing team has come back from the brink

Joe Gage III grew up on the water, his summer days occupied by buoys and the never-ending pursuit of the perfect gliding technique. His father was part of Baylor’s fledgling club water skiing team in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, and the younger Gage — an avid athlete — quickly adapted the elder’s love of the sport. 

“I’ve played a lot of other sports, but there’s nothing else like this,” Gage III said. “There’s a unique rush with waterskiing, and I’ve always been chasing that rush. I guess you could say it’s in my blood.”

His father, Joe Gage Jr., added: “I can remember going to my tax class with dripping wet clothes because I just came from practice and didn’t want to leave that time with my friends. So to see Joe fall in love with the sport that gave me so much, that’s really special.”

That love ran so deep that when he was a senior in high school, Gage III spent his spring break in a training program for aspiring water skiers. He had dreams of competing for his father’s former club team, too. There was just one problem:

By the time he got to Baylor in the fall of 2021, the team no longer existed. 

COVID-19 altered college sports dramatically, canceling seasons and leading many students to choose new extracurriculars. It was particularly tough on club teams, which don’t have scholarship athletes filling their rosters. Still, Gage III wasn’t deterred by challenges like the lack of a roster, boat, or training facility. 

He got to work rebuilding the team he grew up hearing about.

Team member Riley Hidalgo prepares for his first tournament.

“First, we needed a boat”

Waterskiing works like this:

The skier is pulled by a rope that’s connected to a boat, and they must navigate a course composed of buoys placed in the water. Their score is based upon the number of buoys they successfully pass without touching, as well as factors such as the speed of the boat or the length of the rope. Those scores are then pulled together for an aggregate team score.

So, no boat: no practice. And a team of any kind needs to practice.

“We knew we could practice on the Brazos River, but first, we needed a boat,” Gage III recalled. He enlisted alumni, including many former skiers, to help raise the funds that would help him lease a boat, then he set about recruiting the team itself — largely through word of mouth.

Gage III may be humble about his recruiting abilities (“It’s pretty easy to recruit, because it’s a water sport and it’s 110 degrees outside,” he said) but his father is less modest.

“My daughter is on the water ski team at Miami of Ohio, and when we went to a competition there Joe knew all of the captains of every team we saw,” he said of his son. “He has a natural passion for the sport that I think is contagious; he helps other people catch the bug.”

Keep in mind, Gage Jr. says his son was assembling this team while adjusting to life as a college freshman. 

“At the same time that he’s trying to figure out where his classes are, he walks into the campus rec office and says, ‘I want to restart the waterski team.’ That’s a pretty boss move.”

Much of that first semester was spent doing the administrative tasks necessary to start a club and actually get it off the ground. And even when he and the team were ready to hit the Brazos and start practicing, Gage III was realistic about their expectations. He and his team weren’t ready to conquer the world yet; they were just having fun playing a sport they loved. That said, the newfound president of Baylor’s resurrected water ski team surprised even himself by how fast the team grew, thanks in part to some seriously talented skiers. 

“A full slate”

In the first year of its new era, the team often brought just two or three athletes to a competition. Now the roster includes ten times as many people, including some students who, like Gage III, have been skiing most of their life. 

This, perhaps more than anything, surprises and delights Gage III’s father. 

“If we had 10 people, that was a good team year,” he said of his time repping the Bears on the water. “Nowadays, my son’s got north of 20 on the team. That’s a full slate of athletes, which is what it takes to succeed and succeed consistently.”

Baylor ended the 2022 season ranked 48 out of 55 teams; the following year, they jumped up six spots and ended the season with roughly twice as many team points. That upward trend has continued: As of this writing, the team has jumped another four spots in the rankings (the bulk of the season takes place in the fall, with an additional spring tournament each May.)

“That was always what I loved most: the community.”

They’ve made these improvements while competing against fellow club teams from University of Texas and Texas A&M University, as well as powerhouse, scholarship-fueled teams from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the University of Louisiana-Monroe. Gage III, ever the humble team player, is eager to attribute the club’s growth to anyone but himself. He credits the alumni donors who have supported the team with vital funding for ropes and buoys, which the team has added to its little slice of training territory on the Brazos. He also credits the team’s hard work and long hours — whether they’re practicing on the Brazos or not.

“There are a lot of early mornings in this sport because you don’t want it to be super windy out,” he explained. “Then sometimes you’re hitting the gym afterward to improve your mobility, build your muscle and become less injury-prone.”

This intensive regimen will be key to achieving the goals he has set forth for his squad, which include growing the team from 25 to 40 members and becoming competitive on a national stage. 

His biggest fan — the man who introduced him to the sport all those years ago — has no doubt he can do it. 

“He’s already built an unbelievable foundation in a short amount of time,” Gage Jr. said. “Most importantly, he’s made some amazing friendships. That was always what I loved most: the community.”

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