An Hour with a World Champion
16-year-old Jackson Gerard Making His Mark
Last updated 3/13/2019 at 8:55am
When we were kids, we all had hobbies. It may have been Little League sports, theatre, music, Scouts, or any other menagerie of things that were fun. We loved being around our friends, gaining skills, and even getting rewards for success we had earned.
How early in your life did you find your passion? For most of us it wasn't at four and 10 years old. Heck, some of us still haven't found it and to get to our age you would have to multiply four and ten together.
This is definitely not the case for Jackson Gerard. The 16-year-old is on a path not many take, has a passion that is beyond his years, and possibly could accomplish some of his major goals before he turns 18.
Sitting down with Jackson was a pleasant experience. He is calm, even when things were distracting from the task at hand. There were drums beating and dogs barking, and he just laughed it off and slunk back into the couch with comfort and grace.
Jackson is the current World Champion in the tricks element of barefoot waterskiing. Yes, you read that correctly. Last season he was able to compete in juniors and open and battled grown men for the overall before eventually finishing third overall in the World. He was fifth in slalom, first in tricks, and twelfth in jumping.
In the junior competition he never fell off the podium, achieving a third in slalom, an astounding 14,050-point first place in trick, and a second in jumping. These finishes solidified a first place at the 2018 IWWF World Barefoot Water Ski Championships. The trick score was a pending world record.
Jackson is so matter of fact about the record and knows that a kid coming up will aim for that record as he did in his pursuit of it.
Jackson's love of barefooting started at an early age. By six or seven he was skiing. He learned to kneeboard, ski, wakeboard, and wake surf behind the little Bay boat his family has.
As he got better, he wondered if there was more available and his dad, Clark, mentioned that there was barefooting. Mom, Joni, wasn't too excited about this potential because the speeds are quick and the falls are fairly rough. Well, mom left for a trip and dad asked if he wanted to give it a try. After his third attempt he got up for about 15-20 seconds before he ate it.
Mom came home from her trip and being 10 years old he couldn't help but express his excitement for his new-found skills and asked her if she wanted to see what he had learned. They went out on the lake, video recorder in hand, and she watched him barefoot almost half way around the lake before the ride came to a quick crashing end. She got it all on video and posted it on her social media page. A family they were friends with, the Dearys, saw the video and contacted Joni to let her know that there was a barefoot school in Winter Haven and they should go check it out. After a visit to the World Barefoot Center and a lesson, Jackson was hooked. Ten years old and hooked on skimming across the water with no skis.
Things progressed quickly as his discipline grew. By 11 he knew this was the path he wanted to take and by 12 he was directing his energies on being the best he could be.
The reason he knew at such an early age was because the sport was just so challenging. Each run, which in competition is 15 seconds, brings a different challenge. He stated that you can learn all the tricks but doing them perfectly is almost impossible. He also noted that there is no conclusion to how well a trick can be done.
When he was 12, his coach, Swampy Bouchard asked him what he wanted to achieve in the sport. He laughs because Swampy still asks him the same question today. This discussion helped shaped the path. Before that talk he was still playing Little League baseball while barefooting.
As he has grown so has the time commitment and risk. There are times they are being towed in at 45 mph and when they fall it is quick and violent. Injuries occur and the management of those along with a pre-determined off season mean that time management is super important.
Think about when you were 16 and what time management meant to you. For Jackson, it is a bit different. He is currently on a five-month break which is a little longer than he would like. During the World's last year, he tore a ligament in his shoulder and didn't know if he would be able to complete the competition. The trainer did therapy with him each day and the injury actually helped him focus and he skied some of his best runs.
During his normal off season he is just a normal 16-year-old boy. He has friends who still play baseball, his group from church, and of course his skiing buddies. They play catch, go out for food, go to camps and concerts with the church, and even ski for fun.
He has been known to bust out some tricks on his wakeboard during his downtime. Jackson even mentioned when he is in his off season he loves pizza and Chili's cheese fries with jalapenos. During the off season he still trains three days a week compared to during the season where he skis three times a day.
When asked what the worst part of his program was, he stated that the transition from off season to being in season was the most difficult. Of course, it would be, eating pizza compared to a strict diet of chicken, eggs, and broccoli. Once the transition occurs the gym time picks up, he rarely eats any fast food, and his mindset becomes a lot more focused.
As we spoke the talk of time management came up multiple times. Between school, skiing, and church there really isn't time for much more. He attends Central Florida Aerospace Academy in Lakeland where he is also working on his pilot's license, skis at the World Barefoot Center in Winter Haven, and attends church near his home.
During his busy season that is what his world consists of every day. His demeanor turns serious and he talks about how important it is for him to prioritize what needed to happen first. His first love, barefooting, comes first and when there is something else fun that he might want to do he will push it back until the training has been accomplished.
When asked if he felt like he was missing out on anything he just smiled and said that he feels like he is missing nothing and loves that path he has chosen.
The sport that Jackson excels in is barefoot waterskiing. It consists of three disciplines, all done at high speeds and no skis. There is the slalom, which is two runs of 15 seconds in which the number of times you cross the complete wake of the boat count towards your score. One run is done forwards and the other run is done facing backwards. If you cross the wake on one foot you get a full point and if you cross two footed, you get a half a point. There are also the trick runs. You get multiple runs to nail your best tricks.
The last discipline is the jumping. This is simply nuts. It takes a special person to come into a ramp at 45 mph on bare feet, hit the ramp, lay out, and then land 80 plus feet out and stick the landing on your butt or feet.
With the trick portion of the competition being judged there is always a chance for a bit of subjectivity. Asked if he has ever disagreed with the judges, the maturity of Jackson again shined through. He stated that he knows his runs so well that he knows what he has done incorrectly before the score is even posted. He then turns his attention to the next run so that he can correct it and nail the next pass.
Since we were talking about competition we spoke about the best memories from past competitions. Even though he has had amazing success he is not a huge fan of the big celebration. There is more of an appreciative introspection of what he did well.
When he is home and all is quiet there is the time alone where he starts to build on the accomplishment so he can do it again or better the next time. Building on those successes are enjoyable to him and being in the moment of the success are his favorite memories.
Being so disciplined in one sport can pigeon hole many people. It is no different for Jackson. During the conversation the question of having a skillset that he didn't have came up. Without hesitation he said if he wasn't barefooting he would be a football player. This led to a conversation about the excellence demonstrated by Tom Brady. He made sure to make it clear that he wasn't a fan of the Patriots, just Tom.
Jackson stated he appreciated the fact that Tom continually pushed himself to the limits. He has shown what it takes to be successful continually. Since we were talking about continued success the question of motivation came up. Jackson spoke about how there is no stopping the progression of the sport. He also stated that perfection is continuing to move further away as he and his competitors get better.
Since there has been a great amount of success at such a young age there would be a common thought that complacency could set in for Jackson. No way is that happening.
Since he has had the opportunity to compete against the best adults there are no surprises. He knows what to expect and his expectations are high. His next goal is to win the overall World Championship. That would mean winning all three of the events. There is no reason to doubt him at this point. He trains with the current world number one in David Small and with Keith St. Ogne. Both of these men motivate him to get better. Keith and he are super close, laugh at one another, and pick on each other but once they hit the water they become fierce competitors. Jackson stated that there is a great appreciation of each other's talents, but they are all targets.
As we finished up our conversation a few random questions popped up. Jackson has a secret talent for gymnastics. He learned it from an exchange student who worked with him and his interest in it is still there.
Being a world-class barefoot skier means that he has been to many places. His favorite place he has ever skied was in Italy. Each place has different water and different vibes, but Italy just was awesome.
When asked where he saw himself in two years the response was very clear; he wanted to be working on his pilot's license while he is in school, becoming a better barefooter, and amping up the level he is currently skiing. He'd love to be a professional pilot and an overall world champion.
Jackson sees himself competing in barefooting for a very long time and his career aspirations are to be a commercial pilot. He feels his close group of family, coaches, and support will guide him and push him to the levels he knows he can achieve. He loves skiing at the World Barefoot Center and appreciates everything Ben Groen and Ashley Stebbeing have done for him.
As he approaches his in-season training program there are some other items on his plate this season. Jackson stated that he will be working on building up sponsors for the sport he loves. All the skiers appreciate what they have but Jackson sees it as a challenge to let others know about the extreme nature and fun that the sport has to offer. Hey Red Bull, Monster, and Rock Star, are you all listening?
Jackson is a great young man who proves that if the dream is big enough there will be a way if the work follows. His love of skiing and airplanes can be attributed to the value his parents put on showing their children what the world has to offer.
Even though he has been skiing since he was six and barefooting since he was 10 his love of aviation started when he was four at the Sun 'n Fun Fly In. Heck, he has even barefooted behind a sea plane for a shoot with Go Pro.
The kid has skills, drive, and passion. Watch out world and fellow competitors, Jackson knows what he wants and has the desire to pursue them.