Like many Aussies before him, die hard skier Nigel Sparrow has spent time at Coble’s Ski School in North Carolina. while there he spent plenty of time getting to know Chris Eller, who among other things is one of the world’s best tournament drivers.
The tolerances of towing skiers in tournaments are getting tighter and tighter and cruise control systems have made life a lot easier, but there is still the human element of turning the steering wheel at the right time and Chris Eller is certainly one of the best in the world at doing this; the current Men’s Slalom World record is evidence of this. At short line lengths the margin for error is small not only for the skier but the driver as well.
Once again I was lucky enough to spend some time at Coble Ski School last winter and spend plenty of time skiing with, driving for, trying to beat Go Karting and eating plenty of banana pudding with Chris Eller. I can assure you that when a driver of Chris’s calibre is asking you to drive his sets that you had better bring your A game, especially when you have his wife April Coble-Eller sitting in the observer’s seat for each set.
At the end of a set a few times I posed the question of “How was that?” and every time got the same easy going answer of “Yeah good.” They both seem to know where the other is at all times with skiing and Chris drives nearly every set for April and takes on a multitude of roles while doing so.
Chris is very involved with his “work” at Coble Ski School, whether that be some sort of running repair to one of the boats, coaching a 6 year old or driving for a 60 year old, he seems to handle everything with a minimum of fuss and in a very professional manner. It is also obvious when you start asking questions about the intricacies of our sport that his knowledge of what has happened in the past and that of where our sport is heading is beyond reproach.
It was this knowledge that led me to pose the following questions to him to try and get a little more of an insight into our sport at the very top end.
When, Where and How did you get into waterskiing?
My family grew up skiing recreationally at a place called High Rock Lake here in North Carolina. I skied for the first time when I was 8 and spent tons of hours free skiing, making lots of bad habits.
At what stage did you realise that you had talent for pointing the boat in the right direction, and how did you further your ability?
I drove my first inboard ski boat at 18, my freshman year at university. I quickly was able to handle the boat well. Then I began working at Coble Ski School where you have to be fully focused on where you are driving, especially on Lake 2. I was lucky because I was just starting to drive before cruise control came along and was pulling some good slalom skiers, jumpers and trickers by hand.
Not only are you one of the best drivers in the world but you are also a very accomplished 3 event skier, what are your personal bests?
I know lots of waterski officials that forget they were skiers first. I have tried to keep this my main priority while at the same time driving lots of events each summer. My slalom best is 3 @ 38’ off, 2100 points, and 176’ in Jump.
How many world records have you towed?
Currently the Men’s Slalom World Record set by Chris Parrish. I was 2 feet from pulling the Men’s Jump Record last April, and only one trick from the Men’s Trick Record.
What is your favourite tournament site to ski and drive on?
I have been so lucky to have had the chance to drive at some of the best sites in the world, so to pick one favorite would be tough. The top four would be Trophy Lakes, McCormicks, Diablo Shores, and Coble Ski School. Skiing would be Trophy Lakes and McCormicks.
What’s the best and worst thing about driving in tournaments?
The best thing about driving tournaments is being able to give back to the events. In a way it is also a lot like when everyone skis; I am trying to pull someone their best score each and every ride so this means I have to be fully focused while I am in the boat. The worst part about driving is that you have to transition quickly sometimes from driver to skier. You may spend 3-4 hours in the boat with no break and then have to ski within 30 minutes of when you get out of the boat. This is where being a ski school driver has helped the most with respect to tournament driving, being able to change gears quickly is a must for ski school staff.
Who is the easiest pro to drive for (excluding the obvious answer of your wife)?
It is really interesting at the high end of all events as you get to the top athletes it actually becomes easier. I think this is because they are so good at what they do that everything happens in the right places so you just have to make sure you are where they need you to be at the right time. Probably the most suprising skier is Marcus Brown. Everyone always asks me what it is like to pull him because “he turns so hard”. He is actually one of the easiest skiers to pull.
Who is the most difficult to drive for?
It is only difficult once someone gets in trouble. The pro skiers are so determined that at any rope length they are going to run the pass that once a mistake is made you better be ready because it is going to be a wild ride after that.
What event do you enjoy driving the most?
I really enjoy all three, but probably jump the most. There are so few chances during the year to pull the high end jumpers, men or women.
What would be your best piece of advice for boat drivers?
Always learn; we never know everything. You should want skier feed back, positive and negative, if you want to give every skier the best pull.
Perfect Pass or Zero Off?
Both systems are great and PerfectPass has moved our sport forward probably more than any other innovation ever has. As most everyone knows the future is Zero Off and I feel like they are going to make this the best thing we have ever had for cruise control. I have pulled great scores at all levels with Zero Off and I know that it works. For the past two summers it has been exclusive in our Tournament Team MasterCraft at Coble Ski School with no issues in any event. So my choice would be Zero Off.
What would you do to improve our sport?
We have to make it understandable and exciting for people that don’t know anything about what we do. To do this we have to make things happen more quickly and get rid of some of our constraints from an officiating stand point.
What is your best lap time at Rush hour Karting and who do you like to beat the most?
I don’t recall my best lap time, they changed the track on us too many times this summer. I like to beat everyone, but the most fun is our long time instructor Daniel Kennedy. Especially when he thinks he had a really fast race and my times are still better than his!
What is the best part of being a partner in the worlds largest ski school?
We never get bored. Also I feel like April and I make a great team. She has roles she is better in and have roles that suit me more. We both know this and trust each other to do what is best for the school.
Your Mum is well known among instructors at Coble Ski School for her Banana pudding. how much can you eat in one sitting?
I could probably eat it until I was sick! Daniel is probably the record holder for the most.
You drive almost every training set for April and while doing so take on a number of roles (Driver/Coach/support/husband) list these in order of importance.
Husband, driver, support, coach.
Your Children Kamryn and Landis are how old? And what do you think they will be doing in 20 years time?
Kamryn is 5 and Landis is 2. Kamryn will probably be an actress, singer, or artist. She is so talented and artistic it is amazing. Landis may be running ski school, or playing some sport. The kid is so strong and coordinated at only 2 years old. Both are very strong willed so the sky is the limit.
At Coble Ski School there is a fantastic family atmosphere and a massive return rate of skiers, Why?
We genuinely love what we do and I think it shows to our customers. We also make an effort each summer to have instructors who share our passion for teaching people about waterskiing.
It has been an absolute pleasure personally for me to have spent time with Chris and April again, the knowledge and support they have afforded me has certainly helped me become a better skier, coach and driver and would suggest if anyone intends to skip the winter cold that a week at Coble Ski School would be well worth the effort.
Interview by Nigel Sparrow