The Barefoot Legend of Tom Olden

Tom Olden
1936 – 2012
A memoir to my great friend, mentor, and hero, Tom Olden
By Paul Stokes

Tom Olden learned to barefoot at age 40. He was hooked. He was so hooked on the sport that he made a commitment to ski every month and he did for almost 30 years in a row.

Tom lived in Kansas and his ambitious goal was not easy, especially in the winter. At times keeping the streak alive would involve breaking ice at the boat ramp just to get a to the open water. One time when the ice was too thick to launch a boat, Tom strung a bunch of ski ropes together tied to the hitch on the back of a pickup truck. He walked out across the ice and set up so he could ski across an open spot of water on Lake Cheney. He did all this to keep his streak alive. He only stopped his monthly ski rides recently because his body (and his doctors) literally said no more.

I met Tom in 1987 at my first barefoot tournament when I was 15. Tom was the tournament director and he had been running the tournament since 1979. This was the longest running tournament in the country and could still be considered as such today since a tournament continues in Wichita every year organized now by Clay Bourbonnais, a long-time friend of Tom and a contributor to this story.

One year, the tournament had to be moved to a new lake because a tornado tore through and destroyed the other lake. This tournament has brought countless footers from all over together and Tom is the reason that the Wichita barefoot scene has flourished for so long.

Tom knew the importance of having someone all of the competitors could look up to and inspire so he always brought in a top ranked US Team member to his tournament. It worked! I’ll never forget that first tournament of mine– Mike Seipel was there, fresh off a World Championship victory. Another year, Tom brought in Rick Powell who blew us away with his soft touch and fancy footwork. Brian Fuchs also made an appearance. I remember Brian graciously waiving his fee because the tournament had the worst weather imaginable and had lost money. There are many commitments Tom made in his life for the sport– and having his tournament and bringing in a pro was going to happen every year, no matter what.

Another commitment Tom made was to Wichita’s New Years Day ski. Tom not only organized and promoted the event, he was the chief fundraiser and the star of the “show”. Tom would barefoot every year in his speedo to raise money for Muscular Dystrophy. Some years he footed off the boom and some years he would swing out on the five-foot handle.

During one particular year Tom decided to go for it long line! This particular year it was really cold. There was about six inches of snow on the ground and the boats had cleared out about an inch of ice by running in circles for about an hour. Tom did a dock start on a slalom ski. The boat would head down course, buttonhook, and bring him back towards the crowd to step off. Tom had forgotten that he was on Arkansas River in downtown Wichita where there were bulkheads all the way down the shore on both sides. The backwash was ridiculous and the bathtub effect was in full affect. Everyone saw the disaster coming but there was nothing they could do. Tom was going for it! He had barely pulled his foot out of the back binding when he bounced on some huge backwash and wiped out. Everyone on the shore was screaming “Hurry up, go back and get him, and bring him to shore”.

To everyone’s amazement Tom gave the signal to bring the rope around. He was going for it again! It’s important to remember that Tom is wearing nothing more than a Speedo and the ice was just opened hours before by boat wash. The boat came around and took up slack. Now the water was rougher than ever and the bathtub effect was in full force. The boat took him back down, buttonhooked, and then brought him back up to speed. It was clear from the shore that failure was inevitable yet again. Sure enough, Tom fell just trying to get his foot planted. It was brutal to watch him hit the icy water.

The crowd took a deep breath in. Yells were heard across the crowd. “Go get him, go get him, get him in to shore!!!”

Brad Pegg and I met him at the dock, threw blankets around him, and escorted him to the portable heater. I will never forget what Tom said, “What a rush! My heart stopped completely when I hit the water but I didn’t want to let the crowd down so I tried again.”

Now that’s commitment…

Speaking of Brad, Tom and Brad were best friends. Tom drove for Brad, barefooting almost everyday up until Brad’s death. (Brad passed away in May 2010 from a heart attack.) Brad was very special to Tom and his death really broke Tom’s heart. He was never the same after that loss.

Tom was also known as being a little crazy, not literally, but like most footers, he was always willing to be the center of attention. A great example of that is being willing to barefoot naked in front of the newspaper cameras. This photo was actually a part of the Wichita newspaper. Like I said, the man was a little crazy.

Another great story: Tom was at the Nationals in Owego, NY, when a boat on a trailer suddenly started rolling down the hill into the lake. Apparently this was a long sloping hill. Tom jumped to action and took hold to the tongue of the trailer. It was described as a “tumble up to a heal digger,” as Tom did everything he could to try to keep this boat and trailer from uncontrollably launching itself into the lake. The trailer luckily hit the one and only tree on the site that was part way down the hill. I don’t know the details, but this is a famous story amongst the old guys that remember the US Nationals 30 years ago.

Tom had many highlights and successes in his life. He served in World War II and came home with a VW Bug. He was interviewed on Good Morning America. He started and built Olden Auto from the ground up, eventually retiring from selling the business and the associated real estate. He was a founding partner in Ski & Barefoot Marine, which eventually became Marine World. To this day, Marine World is the premier pro shop and Master Craft dealership in Wichita, KS. Tom’s motto was “work hard and play harder”. Tom’s success in business allowed him to invest in his own private lake, many commercial properties, and of course Marine World.

Tom also had his fair share of challenges to overcome. He conquered bladder cancer, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’s. He repeatedly broke his ribs and tore his shoulders into his late 60’s and early 70’s.

Other fun facts about Tom, he had barefoot videos posted on FuelTV. He said it was the most money he ever made skiing. Tom was also the reason that the American Barefoot Club includes Kansas in the South Central region, unlike three-event skiing, which is part of the Midwest.

Tom’s last nationals were in 2011. Clay and I were lucky to spend his last tournament memories with him. We road tripped down to Waco, TX from Wichita, KS. Tom had many health problems and the trip wasn’t easy.

The ABC took the opportunity to pay their respects and Tom received a Lifetime Achievement award for all of his contributions to the sport of barefoot waterskiing. This would be one of his proudest moments. The framed award was one of the few possessions that he took with him to his hospice care room. This was truly his most prized earthly possession.

We miss you Tom!

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6 Responses to “The Barefoot Legend of Tom Olden”

  1. Jim Boyette says:

    Tom was a dear friend and a long time credit to our sport of barefooting. Thanks for posting this article. It brought back some fond memories to me. Also, thanks for bringing
    him to the 2011 Nationals. We were able to talk about old times and it was especially gratifying to be there when he received the Lifetime Achievement award. He’s truily a legend.

  2. Robbie Groen says:

    Thanks Paul for this great write up on Tom. Last year I was very luckly to be able to talk to Tom on the phone for the first time while he was in Hospital. We spoke for over a hour on lots of stuff. Mainly barefooting over the past 40 years. He was amazing person to talk to and thank you Paul for placing a Facebook note about Tom last year so to could connect with Tom. Wow!

  3. Cerise Olden Edwards says:

    Thank you Paul for writing this about my dad. He was also a tender hearted man, caring deeply for his two daughters and he had a great love for his great danes Liz and Sam. Tom also liked to jump off of the Nims Street bridge over the Arkansas river, he would do a flying dock start from the bridge over 20 feet in the air, it was impressive and scary to watch. It seems everything he did was to be able to further his cause to do the thing he loved, barefooting. I traveled with him to uncountable tournaments during my youth and spent many hours with him on the lake. Thank you for your passion to what you loved and sharing it with me. I miss you Dad!!!

  4. Ellen Grabau says:

    My daughter and I watched at the top of the bridge high above the Arkansas River one day when Tom jumped, effortlessly landed, and barefooted away. I won’t ever forget that day! He was a great example how to live life to the fullest. :)

  5. Mark Hanson says:

    Great story and walk down memory lane. My recollection on the boat rolling down the hill was a handle tied to the tongue of the trailer that Tom or someone had been using to practice their trick run on dry land. Seems like we talked about him doing tumble turns down the hill. I’m glad to remember him after all these years. My thanks to Glenn Bennett for sending me the link.

  6. Cerise Olden Edwards says:

    Okay, to set the record straight on the boat rolling down the hill story. I was right there and watch the whole thing unfold. We were at the 1984 Nationals in Bingingham, NY. Dad had a Centurion that was blue and white. We were camping at the sight. Where we were camped was a flat place on top of a steep hill and at the bottom of the hill boulders were piled parallel to the road. The boat was out of the water and they were trying to hitch the boat to a truck to put it into the lake. Whoever was driving backed up way too fast and hit the trailer sending the boat down the hill towards the boulders. Dad grabbed the trailer safety chain and was drug down the hill with the boat. He somehow managed to turn the boat and stop it before it hit the boulders. He was so scratched and bruised, but later that day he managed to win his division. Everyone said it was like he was doing tumble turns down the hill.

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