As someone who has gotten back on the water at the age of 44, I’m always interested in stories of people who enjoy their passions at any age– especially in the later years of life. Since my sport is barefoot water skiing, I was intrigued to learn about Mary McMillan, a woman from Australia who was the first female to barefoot water ski backwards. She also has set records in ski racing. In 2011, 81-year-old Mary was all set to ski in her 50th Bridge to Bridge Water Ski Race on the Hawksbury river in Sydney, Australia. Just weeks before the race, Mary received a letter from the Water Ski Federation denying her admission to the race. No specific reason was given, just that the decision was final and would not be reconsidered.
Many suspected age was the reason behind the decision to ban Mary from the high-speed race. She was the oldest woman competitor in ski racing.
Mary was quite upset at the decision. For starters, she had a long history of ski racing since the very first race. She was the only woman to compete in all 49 previous Bridge to Bridge races and this was to be her last and final race before truly retiring from the sport. She planned to wrap up her career by skiing the 112K race with her great-grandson, Brock, with her grandson driving and Brock’s mom observing.
To get an idea of Mary’s history and impact in the sport of water skiing, let’s go back to the first time Mary strapped on water skis back in 1960. Mary didn’t know how to swim, but her husband Ron convinced her to try the sport.
“I couldn’t swim back then and I still can’t swim, but I fell in love with water skiing,” Mary said.
Just a year later, Mary entered her first Bridge to Bridge race. The longest run she had ever done at that point was just two miles. The 112K race meant she had to hang on at high speed for nearly 70 miles. Just an hour and half later, Mary and her ski partner triumphantly finished in first place. “I was so sore I couldn’t walk–but that was the start of my ski career,” Mary said.
It wasn’t long and Mary learned how to water ski on her bare feet and took up barefoot competition. Despite having very tiny feet, she was no match for the other skiers. In 1962, Mary got up backwards on a ski, planted her foot, kicked off the ski, and became the first woman in the world to barefoot water ski backwards. She continued to compete in various ski races as well as barefoot competitions, becoming the six-time Australian champion.
In 1973, Mary competed in the Adriatico Coast to Coast 80 mile Ocean ski classic with her husband driving. She had done two previous crossings of this race. They began the race in Paola Yugoslavia, with Mary battling the open Adriatic ocean for 80 miles in the some of worlds busiest sea lanes to Ceriva, Italy. Twice, they got lost. A supertanker ship almost collided with them. And for thirty minutes, Mary bobbed in the ocean after Ron lost sight of her. Despite the serious delays, Mary set a record for completing the run in 2 hours, 23 minutes, and 5 seconds.
Ski racing was in Mary’s blood. The thrill, the challenge, and the competition kept her going year after year. Mary did her final barefoot run at the age of 60, but continued to train for ski racing. Twelve years ago, Mary’s husband passed away of a heart attack while watching Mary in a race. Mary was devastated. She and Ron had shared every aspect of water ski sports together for years. Mary kept going, often thinking of Ron and dedicating races to him.
At the age of 81, she was looking forward to retiring her career with the final Bridge to Bridge race with her grandson. When the letter came with the decision to ban her from the race, an uproar ensued. There truly was no reason to be concerned about age, for Mary was strong and fit. The water ski community wrote letters and emails in support. It wasn’t long and the Federation reconsidered the decision and gave the go ahead for Mary to race. Mary and her grandson, Brock, crossed the finish line together for the milestone race.
I love Mary’s story because I think there’s a lot of significant lessons from her journey. Here are some that stand out:
- Your inability to do one thing shouldn’t stop you from trying new things. Mary couldn’t even swim, but she took up a sport on the water. Just because you can’t do something doesn’t have to stop you from enjoying what you do. Either find a way around it or learn it.
- If someone hasn’t done it before, don’t let that hold you back. Lead the way and be the first.
- You are capable of big leaps. Mary went from just two miles of experience to completing and winning a very long race on her first try.
- Don’t take no for an answer if there’s something you believe in. Persistence is the key that opens up opportunities.
- You can stay safe on the shores of life…or you can get out there and live big.
Karen Putz is an author, speaker, and Passion Mentor who helps others unwrap their passions at any age. For fun, she walks on water with the assistance of a rope, boat, and driver. Connect with Karen via Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and her website: Ageless Passions.