Posts Tagged ‘Germany’

Featured Footer: Patrick Wehner

Monday, March 3rd, 2014

“Put your foot in the water and step off,” Hans Pfister told Patrick Wehner back in 1984.  In those years, barefoot instruction was mostly a do-or-die approach and nothing fancy. Patrick was a tiny little kid when he stepped off a ski behind the boat for the first time at the age of eight.   He went about a quarter of a mile down the Rhine river with stiff legs straight out in front of him before he hit turbulence and let go.  It was the last run of the evening but on the ride to his home in France, Patrick was flying high inside. “My dad thought I had some skills and he pushed me at first,” Patrick recalled. “I didn’t enjoy it in the beginning. I was a shy kid. My dad was completely crazy about it. He loves barefooting.”

A few weeks later Patrick and his dad, Hilmar, drove eight hours to compete in the 1984 Nationals in Germany.  It was Patrick’s first tournament and back then, skiers could kick off a ski.  The moment Patrick kicked off the ski he immediately faceplanted.  He repeated it a second time and crashed again.  Patrick came off the water crying.  He went up to his dad and complained. “The driver didn’t give me the speed I asked for.  I want to go back–and compete and beat them!” he said.

In 1986, Patrick connected with National Champion, Thorsten Robbe, who taught him basic tricks and wakes.   Patrick took his first clinic with German skiers and annual trips to Florida to train with Robert Teurezbacher.  When he first arrived in Florida, Patrick couldn’t do much more than the basics and one foots.  After two weeks with Teurezbacher, Patrick could slalom on one foot and learned to barefoot backwards.

“When I was a kid, my father was the one who pushed me. He motivated me when I needed motivation,” said Patrick.  “When I was 15, my dad decided to stop sponsoring me, telling me I wasn’t training hard enough,” said Patrick. “So I had to think, did I want this?  That’s when I knew I was passionate about barefooting and I started doing it for myself.”   Patrick picked up a job doing roof and tile work to save for another trip to Florida to train with Teurezbacher.  As soon as he arrived he handed over a “Christmas Wish List” of all the tricks and skills he wanted to accomplish. Whenever Patrick struggled on the water or endured crash after crash, Robert would tell him, “Boy, the situation with you is desperate…don’t worry, we can fix you.”

“Robert was a complete coach. He taught me the proper kind of thinking and mental focus.  He influences every skier he works with. He’s very good at fine-tuning and noticing details,” said Patrick.

Patrick skied in several tournaments but didn’t rank high enough to place until the 1988 Junior Europeans when he came in third Overall.  The following year, he placed first in Slalom and Overall in the Junior division and received two three-inch-high trophies made of real silver.   By this time, Patrick was deep into the sport with his father as his coach. As soon as school finished for the day the two of them took off at 4:30 for a one-hour drive to the lake. The lake Patrick skied on was a public lake that was incredibly busy on the weekends. Patrick was not a morning person (still isn’t!) and he dreaded waking up early to get his runs in.  Hilmar had to tear the covers off and occasionally resorted to throwing a wet towel to rouse Patrick out of bed. Patrick skied no matter what the conditions were.   “Bad weather, bad water, or pain–there was no excuse because it was such a long drive to the lake. My father’s coaching was a ‘do or die method’,” Patrick chuckled. One day, he busted his eardrum during a back-to-front turn. His father simply gave him a wad of chewing gum to stick in his ear and sent him back out on the water. “It’s a real awful feeling to burst your eardrum–it happens when you fall sideways on the ear and hear a pop–all of a sudden in the water, everything is upside down you get afraid to drown. You don’t know where you are and  feel out of balance.  It doesn’t hurt so much right away–it just hurts a little–but at night when  back home lying in bed  the pain starts and becomes really ugly,” said Patrick.

The year Patrick turned 18 was a stellar year for him.  He graduated from high school, got his driver’s license, and won the Europeans.  He put off college/university for a year and went to work for his father.  At this point, Patrick began coaching himself.  “My dad would still coach me, but he wasn’t my main coach anymore,” Patrick said. “I was doing my own thing.  My dad was tough on me as a kid and I accepted it, but as an adult, it didn’t work–I didn’t accept it then.”

During the following summer, Patrick worked as a show skier in Germany and won the Europeans once again.  In the fall, he started classes at Colmar which had a special program for athletes. The nearest lake was two and half hours away and every weekend, Patrick would  get in as much water time as he could. During the week, he enjoyed other sports–swimming, football, and inline skating.

In 1996, Patrick began the process of switching from the German to the French team. “I skied my first tournament for France in 1998  for the World Championship in Sydney, Australia,” Patrick recalled.  “By this time, I already had previous contact with the team so my integration with the team was smooth. My skiing was at the peak–I was enjoying the fruits of all my years on the water and training sessions.”

It was at this tournament that Patrick started to realize he could aim for the Overall.  When he arrived at the Worlds, Patrick had no expectations as he had taken a year off from competing due to the team transition.  He spent a week tweaking his runs and getting some practice in. During the preliminary round, Patrick was one of the last skiers in the group.  By the time it was his turn, the crowds had dispersed and the rain was pouring down. The judges gave him the option of waiting for the rain to cease, but Patrick opted to go ahead.  “no one else was there–no spectators, no team, no announcers– and I skied the top score for the preliminary. So the next day, when all the skiers came to see the scores, they saw my name at the top and they were shocked.  ‘The top guy did 6,500 points –who the hell is this???’ they said.  It was a cool moment,” Patrick laughed. “I was a newcomer on the French team–no one was expecting me.  We always had an Australian or an American in the top and it was nice to have a French skier in the top.”  The score turned out to be a personal best and an European record.

At the start of the final round of tricks, Patrick was in the lead.  Ron Scarpa skied a personal best and returned to the dock all pumped up, pouring on the pressure. Patrick fought to calm his nerves and managed to go out and ski another personal best. At first, the unofficial results showed Patrick to be in first place, but the judges took off 100 points for what appeared to be “butting out” on one trick.  Patrick was stunned because he knew he completed the trick without the penalty.  At the awards that night, the trick runs were shown on a big screen and one by one skiers noted the discrepancy in the scoring.  One of the judges came up to apologize to Patrick.  “I knew in my heart I was really close and in my heart I can say I got it,” Patrick said.   “I don’t need the medal for that–I know for myself that I made it. Over the years I’ve discovered the medals don’t matter–they don’t mean anything if you’re  satisfied what you did for yourself–that’s the most important thing.”

Around this time, the competition in the barefoot community began to heat up, with David Small working his way up the European ranks and Keith St. Onge hot on the tail of Scarpa.  At the 2000 Worlds, the aim was for the top spot.  Patrick went into the tournament with the expectation and the goal of winning the Overall.  His friends and family were sitting in the stands, adding more pressure to the event. A fall during the slalom event took Patrick out of the running so he concentrated on winning tricks instead.  During the semi-finals for tricks, Patrick took a  hard fall and his eardrum burst.  The tournament was over for him. Scarpa walked away with another Overall win.

“I entered that tournament with the goal to win  instead of skiing the best I can–it was the wrong goal,” Patrick explained. “I was disappointed, but I wasn’t bitter. Somtimes you need to experience defeat to become better and do better the next time.  Sometimes you have to step in a pile of shit to know what it feels like–so the next time you won’t do it again.”

Patrick returned home determined to put the mistakes behind him and start over again with a renewed attitude.  At the next Europeans, he took the Gold in Slalom, Tricks and Overall and walked away with his first World Trick Record.  Small came in third and Patrick could feel the heat from his rapid progress up the ranks. “David was like a shooting star–his career just took off like a rocket,” Patrick said. “It took me a while to realize he would be a leader–I probably didn’t want to accept it at first.”

By this point, Patrick was on the water nearly every day, hauling the boat 45 minutes each way.  His dad took up coaching him again, although sometimes it was a tough dance  to put aside the father/son relationship on the water.  During one training session, Patrick approached the jump only to realize too late that the jump was moving.   He launched off the jump at a crooked angle and landed in the water sideways, painfully wrenching his knee.  “I remember floating in the water with my knee hurting like hell, feeling as if it were on fire. I thought the season was over for me.”

A doctor concluded the same thing: Patrick’s season was over.  He had a possible torn ligament which would require surgery.  A second opinion with an orthopedic specialist gave him hope–he could build up the muscles around the knee with cycling and walking for six weeks and let the knee heal.  Just two weeks before the Europeans, Patrick taped up his knee, slapped on a knee brace, and returned to practice.  At the tournament, he tricked a personal best and a pending World Record.  Just ten minutes later, Keith St. Onge set another record in tricks. Patrick walked off with his sixth European Overall title.

During his preparation for the 2002 Worlds, Patrick injured his knee once again during a practice turn.  The doctor prescribed complete rest and no skiing until the Worlds. It was a crazy gamble for Patrick–was it even worth it to compete with a mangled knee?

This was the Worlds where the competition was intense. Patrick skied well and captured a gold in Tricks.  David Small exploded on the water and captured the Overall.  Keith St. Onge took second.  Patrick and Ron Scarpa were battling for third and Patrick edged him out with a jump.    “I think Keith was desperate as I was when David won.  We felt like, ‘Damn, we deserve it!’ David came out of nowhere and got it–that was a bit tough to swallow.  We both skied the worlds a long time–me since 1988 and Keith since 1996–and neither of us won.   That’s the game, and there’s  nothing you can do about it–the best always wins.”

A few weeks later after a jump tournament, Keith and Patrick were drowning their sorrows with a few drinks and reflecting on their losses.  Keith poured out his disappointment in missing his dream of a World Overall title. Patrick reached into his wallet and took out a card.  John Pennay, another skier, gave the card to Patrick during a challenging time. It was a card with a quote by William Arthur Ward:

“If you can imagine it, you can achieve it. If you can dream it, you can become it.”

The game began changing for Patrick in 2003. His daughter Olivia was born and Patrick was smitten with his little girl. He still managed to get a lot of skiing time in as the weather in France was unusually warm that year. He captured his seventh Overall at the Europeans.  Life was pretty good with work, skiing, and family, but Patrick was finding it hard to juggle it all with a new house thrown in.  His skiing went downhill the following year.  He didn’t medal at the Europeans. The Worlds proved to be anti-climatic for him. “Somehow,   it’s a  blank tournament for me, maybe because not much happened.  David won again, Keith came in second again, and for my skiing, well… I didn’t ski up to my expectations.  I skied average and that’s not good enough for any ranking.  I felt old during that tournament.  I wasn’t ambitious enough.”

Patrick bounced back at the World Games in Germany, taking first in Slalom and third Overall and a gold in Tricks at the Europeans. Slowly and surely, without him really being aware of it, his passion for the sport began to wane as he shifted his focus to work and family.  It was becoming increasingly difficult to schedule the training time required to keep up with the competitors who were pushing the scores higher and higher in the tournaments.  Even with the stiff competition at the 2006 Europeans, Patrick grabbed a gold in Slalom and Tricks.  “That surprised everyone, me included, because everyone was skiing so strong there. I didn’t think I would take the gold in that tournament,” Patrick said.

The stress of work, family, and skiing took a toll on Patrick until one day, after an intense argument with his dad about trying to fit it all in, Patrick decided to quit. He was not going to ski in the 2006 Worlds. When the team captain heard the news, he urged Patrick not to give up. “You’ve had a good start to the season, do it for the team,” he said.  It took several phone calls to convince Patrick to ski once again.

“I went to the tournament and I decided not to put any pressure on my shoulders–no stress. I decided to do well for the team and not focus on myself.  I skied that tournament  with a really relaxed  attitude.  I enjoyed the whole tournament, being there with the team and  hanging out with the other competitors. I enjoyed the skiing and I was happy with my results (third Overall)– it was really recreational tournament for me, almost like a vacation.”

Keith won the 2006 Worlds, culminating his life-long dream to make it to the top.  He thanked Patrick for the inspirational quote card. (The card has since passed through three more people. You can read the story of this card in Gliding  Soles, Lessons from a Life on Water).

Patrick, A.J. Porreca, and Keith with the quote card

After the Worlds, Patrick found himself burned out and took a complete break from tournaments and skied occasionally for fun. At the end of 2007, he decided to enter a small local  tournament just for fun and ended up scoring close to his personal best in all three events.  “That break fed my passion back,” Patrick said. “I shifted my focus to becoming a Senior skier.  I came to realize it was not about the medals, it was about being with friends and living the fun moments.”

In December of 2008, Patrick drove to the south of France to spend a week at a training camp to get ready for the Nationals and 2009 Worlds in New Zealand. During his second run, he caught a heel and severely injured his knee again.  He missed the Worlds and focused on healing his knee for the World Games.  When he returned to his training, something wasn’t quite right. Patrick found himself dragging on the water and not having his usual strength. Once again, he injured his knee landing a jump. “I knew I was done for the year,” Patrick said. “I was starting a new job which took a lot of energy, so I decided to take a leave from barefooting and ski just for fun.”

As the year passed on, Patrick started to notice his strength was waning despite working harder to keep in shape with mountain biking and judo.  Occasionally he would lose  his grip on a glass or drop things.  His speech began to slur at times and his mom urged him to see a doctor.  Patrick was referred to a neuro specialist and underwent a battery of tests.  The diagnosis was a grim one: Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. The average life expectancy was two to five years.  (You can read more here: Patrick Wehner, Living with ALS).

At first, life took a horrible turn for Patrick. “Your barefooting days are over,” the doctors told him.

But barefoot water skiers are a different breed.  You have to be mentally and physically tough to rise to the top in this sport.  So Patrick applied the same mental toughness to ALS and started doing some research. At first, the information depressed him and pulled him down. He shifted his focus to health and wellness instead. He quickly learned that the quality of his life depended on his outlook and his daily choices. He decided he was going to choose health and happiness.  He quit his job, got married, and took up sailing.

Even though he could no longer compete, Patrick wasn’t going to give up his passion so easily.   He took off for Texas to watch the 2012 Worlds and support his friends.  At the end of the tournament, the World Barefoot Center surprised him with the Patrick Wehner Sportsmanship Award, a biennial award given to an up and coming Junior skier.  Patrick’s nephew was the first recipient.  At the end of 2012, he took a trip out to the World Barefoot Center and took a run with Keith.

Patrick and Keith

“One of the things I learned from Patrick is that the little things matter,” said Keith. “At the World Championships, Patrick was watching the fireworks and really enjoying them.  After it was over, he turned to me with a big smile and said, ‘I love fireworks!’  Just the way he said it–he was deep into enjoying the little things that most people take for granted.  So that’s what I try to do nowadays. Patrick helped me see how the little things in life can be so awesome, so monumental. I try to enjoy the little things more often and not work so hard all the time.  Focus on what really matters. I’ll walk down the dock stop and look at the flowers or notice the little lizard on the dock.   I’m always fast-paced, in-a-hurry mode.  We don’t stop and give thanks for the little things in life that make up this world and realize the other things that matter.”

Life has slowed down for Patrick, but in a blessed way.  He and Helene’ occasionally travel but they cherish their time at home. “Since my ALS diagnosis, I appreciate that I stayed close to my roots and that my family and friends are near,” Patrick said. “Even when I travel, I like to come back home and enjoy the forests, hills, and trails around me. Before my diagnosis, I never noticed those things.  Now I put on my walking shoes and go for a long walk.  If you open your eyes, you will find it’s a great place–there’s no place better than the place you are. Sometimes the beauty is right next to you but you miss it because you’re looking for something further away.

“It’s all about perspective,” Patrick continued. “When you want something so much you fight for it, then you get it–and then after the first satisfaction, then you become frustrated and think, okay, what’s next?    If you focus on what you have and enjoy it, and take things step by step, minute after minute,  then you’ll notice after a while that you don’t have to be eager to get it– somehow life will throw that at you.  You have to learn to appreciate what you have right now.”

By: Karen Putz

Patrick, Helene, and Olivia

Patrick Wehner Inspires Keith St. Onge

Friday, August 17th, 2012

Patrick Wehner. Who is he, one might ask.

He is one of the BEST BAREFOOT WATER SKIERS the sport has ever seen!  If you don’t know him or have ever met him he is one of the most modest people you will ever meet.  His mother is from France and his father (world renowned coach) Hilmar is from Germany.  Patrick has skied for Team France and Germany in his career and has won many individual World Titles.  He has put endless hours of training in on the water and has a deep love for the sport.

Patrick Wehner "One of the Greats"

I met Patrick for the first time at my first World Competition in 1996.  We did not speak to each other much during the competition, but our respect for one another was mutual.  He was a better skier than me and we were close to the same age.  Young men amongst the best in the world.  Patrick and I saw each other at many world championships and began a great friendship.  It’s hard to describe how two people can be such close friends and live so far apart.  I’m in Florida and he’s in Europe, but whenever we connect, time fades away.

I had taken 3rd Overall in 1998, came runner up (2nd) for the Overall title at the world championships in 2000 and 2002.  Over the course of six years, I just couldn’t seal the deal as a World Champion.  It was a tough break for me and a hard pill to swallow, but I simply did not ski to my capability.  One night after the 2002 Worlds, Patrick and I were discussing my continued losses and I broke down and cried.  I was completely depressed and did not want to finish my career without having at least one World Title under my belt.  It seemed like the task was impossible.

Patrick reached in his wallet and pulled out a card. He handed it to me.   It was a quote by William Arthur Ward: “If you can imagine it, you can achieve it.  If you can dream it, you can become it.”    Another barefooter, John Pennay gave it to Patrick during his own low point in life.  John told him to keep the card until he achieved his dreams and then pass it on to someone else.   This simple quote got me motivated again!  Because I had so much respect for Patrick, it was a memento which meant a lot coming from him.  I kept the card in my wallet and read it from time to time; to remind me of what I needed to accomplish.

The card with the Inspirational Quote that Patrick Wehner gave to me.

Nothing else seemed to matter after that moment but one thing: I wanted to become a World Champion!  It was time for me to change the way I looked at life and how I would prepare myself for the next world championship.  I was going to give it everything I had, because I could “Imagine” it and I had “Dreamed” about it for several years!  I was going to make sacrifices and do whatever needed to be done.

Motivating Quote that Inspired me to Fulfill my dreams

Keith StOnge, Even Burger & Patrick Wehner. I received the card later that evening.

It didn’t happen overnight; in 2004, I still came in second once again behind David Small.  I was so disappointed.  This guy beat me two worlds in a row and he was standing in front of my dream.

It took another two years and many more life changes before I finally achieved my dream: in 2006 I won my first World Championship. I passed the card on to someone else.  The card went on to yet another barefooter after that.

The 2006 World Overall Champion, Keith St Onge

Keith St Onge receiving his 1st Overall World Title

Thank you Patrick Wehner for keeping me motivated until I reached my goal.  You are more than a great friend and “One of the Best!”  You are the true example of how we can all help OTHERS around us in our lives. Thank you!!

Click here to read another story on Patrick Wehner

This story and more can be found in greater detail in my upcoming book, “Gliding Soles, Lessons from a Life on Water” to be released in September, 2012.

By: Keith St.Onge
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