“Line the skis up over there. Bring those ropes over here.”
The blonde woman in a wheelchair was barking orders left and right. A whole crew of people swarmed about, moving equipment to the front of the park pavilion. I sat down with a group of volunteers and zipped up my jacket. Even though it was summer, the Wisconsin air was chilly.
Ann O’Brine Satterfield, the drill sergeant in charge of the adaptive water ski training, sat facing us all and smiled. My heart instantly warmed up. A group of us spent two days learning the ins and outs of adaptive water skiing and how to safely run a program for people with disabilities. We learned how to transfer skiers from their chairs into an adaptive ski and then into the water, where two side skiers assisted during each pull.
During a break in the program, I had the chance to talk with Ann and learn a bit about how she became involved in adaptive water skiing. Ann had polio when she was a toddler and she grew up using a wheelchair. She didn’t discover water skiing until she was 37 years old. It was a cold day in December, 1986–just 40 degrees outside on a lake in California–when Ann took her first ride on an adaptive ski. Her instructor, Royce Andes, designed the first adaptive water ski after becoming paralyzed from a barefoot water ski accident.
The minute she started water skiing, Ann had a taste of freedom that was like no other. On that day, a passion was born. Ann purchased an adaptive ski and skied every chance she could get. She moved from Washington to Florida so she could immerse herself in the sport.
Ann became the first female with a disability to land a jump in a sit ski. She loved the challenge of pushing herself through one personal best after another–becoming a five-time National champion and two-time World champion. In 1994, the U.S. Olympic Committee honored her as Female Athlete of the Year. Ann was inducted in the Water Ski Hall of Fame in 2005.
When she retired from competition, Ann founded U Can Ski 2, an adaptive water ski program that provided both training as well as events in various locations around the U.S. No matter what kind of disability or to what extent, Ann found a way to get people to enjoy water sports.
For Mike Atherton, getting back on the water was a real challenge. Mike was a regular performer in the Tampa Bay water ski show when a freak boating explosion during a family outing injured him and several family members. Mike lost both of his legs and one arm. Over a year later, Ann helped Mike get back on the water with an adaptive ski. Mike became a show director and went back to performing in the show.
The volunteers who worked side-by-side with Ann became family. After every clinic, they gathered at a local restaurant and reflected on what they learned that day. “Ann’s passion was getting people with disabilities involved in sports,” said John Liscomb, a U Can Ski 2 photographer. “She wanted to educate the world that people with disabilities have productive abilities. Through Ann, I found what it means to have an extended family–no matter what we look like, what we can or cannot do, we don’t see disability–and family is not just biological.”
In 2014, Ann received a request from a deaf woman who wanted to learn to water ski again. She contacted me and asked if I could volunteer to facilitate communication and help with instruction. I was heading to Florida for another event, so I flew in a day early to join Ann. We started on the dock at Ann’s home, where Ann gave instructions and explained the process of what to expect on the water. After countless tries in the lake, the student continued to struggle to stand up on skis.
“Grab a pair of skis and go out there with her,” she told me. “Put your arm under hers and grip her handle.”
I had never side-skied like that before, but it worked. We took one ride around the lake and then Ann picked me up.
“Let’s try again,” she told the student. “You will have no problem getting up now.”
The smile on the student’s face was priceless. She rose gracefully out of the water and we went around the lake.
Then around again. And again. And again. Seven times around the lake. The student did not want to let go of the handle.
Halfway through the countless rounds, I looked at Ann. She had a big, beautiful smile on her face, the smile of someone who was deep into something she passionately loved to do. I snapped a picture.
In October of this year, I stopped by Ann’s house on my way to another Florida event. Her husband, Wayne, the other half of the U Can Ski 2 partnership was getting the trailer ready for another trip. The last adaptive ski clinic of the year was coming up. They already had many clinics planned for 2016, but they were looking forward to the break and the holidays.
“I’m doing what I love to do,” she told me. “Watching someone have fun on the water, doing something they thought they couldn’t do, that’s what keeps me going every time. For many people with disabilities, the water is their freedom–the disability disappears.”
Two weeks ago, out of the blue, I received a startling message from a mutual friend. Ann was in her final days. She had been diagnosed with cancer over a year ago but in early December, it had rapidly spread. During her last boat ride with friends, she reminisced about the journey that lead her to a passionate life on the water. She had touched thousands of lives, on and off the water.
“I was blessed,” Ann told my friend, Diane Engberg. “Because I went from ‘why me, in the wheelchair’ to ‘oh, this is why, this is my mission.’”
In the middle of her favorite holiday, Ann passed away on Christmas Eve. She left an imprint on many hearts.
Ann’s legacy will live on through U Can Ski 2.