When Chris McWatters is not at his job as a nurse in a local Florida hospital, you can find him on the water over at the World Barefoot Center, learning something new. And when the day is done, he heads back home, to the home of a legend. The McWatters are staying at Banana George’s house, renting it for a few months. Chris is the quintessential snowbird– the other half of the year he works as a nurse in a hospital near Detroit, Michigan.
Chris’ first dip into the life of water sports began with a slalom ski and a slalom course. Then he was introduced to barefooting from a friend of a friend. “I got up on my first try, off the boom,” said Chris. “It was like a poison in my body, I was hooked!” Chris spent the summer learning to barefoot off a kneeboard and at the end of the season, he completed a deep water start.
In the summer of 2004, a bad fall left him with a twisted ankle, but he continued to learn new tricks on his own, especially tumble turns. “I watched videos of Keith St. Onge and Mike Seipel barefooting and taught myself from the videos,” said Chris. “I wanted to barefoot like Keith!” A friend introduced him to backward barefooting and Chris beat himself up on the water trying the start over and over. He studied continued to study Keith’s videos and tried to put that into practice on the water. “I never had shoes– thought it was for sissies,” Chris laughed. “I kept trying. I could do a backward start on the boom in 2005 or 2006 can’t remember. But backward long line, I couldn’t do it.” Chris got in touch with Seipel, who advised him to get a tower and shoes, but Chris stubbornly wanted to learn the start on his feet. So he grabbed a driver one day and for two and half hours, he worked on it until he finally stood up backwards behind the boat. He ended up bruised, but triumphant at his accomplishment.
The front and back flyers were also on Chris’ “self-taught” list. He ended up taking a trip to the hospital after doing a front flyer from a houseboat. His left ankle tangled in a loop on the landing and the next day, he could barely walk. Fortunately, there was only some muscle damage and it healed. To this day, Chris still has the rope indention around his ankle as a reminder of that trick. But that didn’t deter Chris from continuing to teach himself on his own. After watching Keith spin around on the water, Chris hurled himself around as well. “Front to back, back to front– I thought it was the coolest thing since sliced bread,” said Chris. “I taught myself on my feet, 42 mph, and I would fall and fall.”
Chris’ introduction to barefoot competition came from a chance encounter on the water. He was out with some friends on a boat rigged with a boom on each side of the boat and five of them footin away. During a pause, another boat drove by and guy joined them. They continued to barefoot together, enjoying the day. “Why don’t you compete,” the guy asked Chris. “I’m just a backyard barefooter,” he said.
The “guy” turned out to be Marc Donahue, legendary for Figure 8 tournaments. Chris agreed to give competition a try so he headed up to Wisconsin for the 2009 Frostbite Figure 8. It was 35 degrees out, the water was 41 degrees and there was a 25 mph wind kicking up. To top it off, Chris had never stepped off a ski before. He put his foot on the water twice, faceplanted twice, and just like that, his first tournament was over.
But did he give up? Nope.
At the Mad City tournament, Chris ended up with the same result: double faceplants and out. But he walked away with St. Onge’s blue hat as a raffle prize. At the St. Louis tournament, Chris advanced a round only because the other guy fell faster than him at the step off. “I spent so much money going to tournaments only to faceplant and double out each time,” Chris laughed.
But he still didn’t give up.
Chris went up to Crandon, Wisconsin, home of the famed Footstock tournament. While waiting in line to get a drink at Duck’s bar, his idol turned around to greet him. “Hi, I’m Keith St. Onge.”
Chris couldn’t hear him in the din and despite the countless KSO videos he had reviewed, he didn’t recognize the guy. “I’m Keith St. Onge,” he said again. He pointed to Chris’ head.”And you’re wearing my hat!” Chris was thunderstruck, but he soon discovered that the two-time champ was laid back and down to earth. “He’s just one of us,” said Chris.
Dave Mueller, the Footstock announcer, quickly made mincemeat out of Chris the moment he doubled-out of the tournament. Chris soon earned a nickname: “Two Step.” “They made fun of me, ‘two steps’ and I’m out of the tournament– but one guy from St. Louis gave me some encouragement afterwards and introduced me to barefoot races,” said Chris.
Chris continued to teach himself tricks on the water but still hadn’t had a formal barefoot lesson at that point. He persisted with Figure 8 tournaments and ended up contributing his time to organizing tournaments. “I set up rules to involve more people,” said Chris. The idea was a “no barefooter on the beach” motto. If you can’t step off, you can deep start. If you need a wheelchair, we’ll start with that.
“You can ski against KSO and Smallz in these tournaments– that’s the coolest thing,” he continued. “You can duct tape your feet. We are friendly, and we include the backyard barefooter.”
Things began to turn for Chris. He actually learned how to become a Figure 8 barefooter and stay up on the water. At the WBC Figure 8 final, Chris was helping to wrap things up when Keith asked him if he was interested in learning more and becoming a sponsored skier. Chris jumped at the chance to ski and learn from his idol. “What I liked about Chris was not just his passion for barefoot waterskiing which is obvious, but I liked his enthusiasm to help build the sport and put tournaments together,” said Keith. “He put in a lot of time that not many people see. I commend him for all the work he has put into the sport and respect him for that.”
In November, 2011, Chris received his first formal lesson on the water with A.J. Porreca and Ben Groen. “Honestly, I was nervous and scared,” said Chris. “I’m a shag barefooter– everything I had learned was from watching videos.” The WBC staff ended up getting a little surprise: toe holds, tumbles, tumble to ones, backward one foots– the bumbling Figure 8 guy actually had some good skills on the water despite never having a lesson.
He had some jump experience before arriving at the WBC, but only off the boom. Before long, Small’z had him jumping inverted.
Despite his lack of three-event tournament experience, Chris’ goals are big and bold: to qualify for the Nationals and the Worlds. “I need to score 2,400 points, but I tricked only 400 or 700 when they timed me. I did bad and I looked awful,” said Chris. He was really discouraged when he climbed in the boat. Ben shared a story about his own early experience at the Worlds; he scored just 200 points and came in dead last out of 38 skiers. Encouraged, Chris continued to hammer away at the tricks.
“My proudest moment on the water was when I got my first back one foot toe hold in front of David and Swampy,” said Chris. “And by the way, I love Swampy to death– he’s like a grandfather. I make sure Swampy is happy!” To build up consistency, Smallz ran him up and down the lake, to the tune of 31 back toe holds.
Even with both feet raw and bruised after the tough runs, Chris loves every minute of it. “What I like most about barefooting is that you feel free–there’s nothing on your feet,” said Chris. “It’s awesome to stand on your feet at 40+ mph– it’s a moment that is pure as you can get– standing there, looking around thinking, ‘Wow, you’re standing on water on two feet!!!'”
Written by: Karen Putz