Water Skiing — Mama Does It Barefoot

Circa 2011

Karen Putz’s goal was fairly simple: learn to barefoot waterski—backwards.

As a teenager, she loved to ski barefoot, but then she gave it up after an accident left her deaf at 19. Recently she decided to dip back into the sport, get some lessons, and push her skills to a whole new level.

After a few trips to the World Barefoot Center in Winter Haven, FL, Putz took lessons from two-time world champion Keith St. Onge. It was while attending an allfemale skiing camp in November that Putz decided to learn to barefoot ski backwards. But how would she manage it? After all, reading her instructor’s lips from a speeding boat, while bumping along with her back to him seemed impossible.

St. Onge had the answer. He moved Putz’s feet into position as he taught the maneuvers, while another woman from the camp stood in front of Putz and repeated everything St. Onge said. Putz could lip read her fellow camper, while her instructor showed her what to do with her feet.

By the third day of training, the student had acquired the new skill. St. Onge believes Putz’s previous experience in barefoot skiing—although from two decades ago— gives her an advantage.

“She is a very strong and confident woman,” St. Onge said, “so she had no problem jumping back on the ‘horse,’ and learning quite quickly. She came from an era where they did a lot of ‘stabbing and steering.’ Today we do things with a progression in mind, and we do not skip steps.”

St. Onge found he needed to alter his meticulous training to encompass Putz’s need to lip read instructions. It was an adjustment he was more than willing to make, given his client’s formidable work ethic. “I have had a few students with disabilities in the past,” St. Onge said, “but Karen has been the easiest to work with. I know she cannot hear me until she looks at me, and that took a little time for me to get used to. There were plenty of times I yelled instructions to Karen as she was skiing and totally forgot she could not hear me. It only took a few days for me not to make that mistake again.”

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For Putz, adjusting to the demands of lip reading while skiing was difficult, but not insurmountable. “There was a real communication challenge, lip reading 15 different people, and not having an interpreter with me,” Putz said. “Two women volunteered to be my lip reading interpreters for the week. We figured out ways to make the accommodations happen, and that was really cool. It was an amazing thing for me to accomplish.”

Putz, who grew up hard of hearing, began waterskiing at age nine, the same year she got her hearing aid. When she was 15, she took an interest in barefoot skiing because her brother was a barefooter, as were a number of boys at local lake.

Initially Putz struggled to get up on the water without skis, so she convinced her mom to get her a kneeboard. Three days later, just after her 16th birthday, Putz finally got up on the water and went barefooting. She was hooked. “I absolutely loved it,” she said. “I barefooted every chance I could. Of course, I was the only girl on the lake who could barefoot, so I had to barefoot with the guys.”

At 19, while barefoot skiing one summer, Putz decided to attempt to cross her boat’s wake. She told the boat’s driver to speed up so the wake would be smaller. Putz turned toward the wake, but couldn’t stay upright. Instead, she hit the water, hard.

Everything went silent.

“I couldn’t hear anything,” Putz said. “The lips were moving, but the sound wasn’t there. So I just figured, okay, I probably have some water in my ear or something and my hearing will come back. Days and days went by, and it just never came back.”

Her sudden deafness marked the biggest transition period in her life. Her entire family is deaf or hard of hearing, and has been identified as the first family in the United States with what experts call the “deaf gene.”

For five generations, Putz’s family was born with the ability to hear, but all family members have lost that capability in different ways. Putz’s mother lost her hearing during a conversation at a family barbecue at age 27. Putz’s eldest sister fell and hit her head at age three and lost her hearing. A roof caved in on Putz’s brother, causing him to lose half of his hearing a few days later. Another of Putz’s sisters lost her hearing at age 46, after slipping and falling on a rug. A brother lost his hearing in a barefooting accident eerily similar to that of Putz.

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Despite having spent her entire life around people who are deaf or hard of hearing, Putz felt a little out of place when she was transferred to Northern Illinois University, and found herself living among 45 other people who were deaf or hard of hearing. The transition marked the first time Putz had ever been around others, outside of her family, with hearing impairments. (She says she grew up a few blocks from another girl who was deaf, but the two never communicated.)

Putz admits that, while in college, she was often too proud to ask for help. “College was both a good and bad time in my life,” she recalled. “It was good because I was on a whole new journey, being a person who was deaf. And it was bad because it was painful. I’d never been around other deaf and hard of hearing people, other than those in my family. I didn’t know any sign language at that time. When I went to my classes, I couldn’t lip read the professors, especially if they walked back and forth in a big auditorium.”

After a couple of months, Putz says, she finally got tired of struggling with the mental and physical barriers inherent in her situation. “I stopped crying and I got up in the morning and thought, ‘This is how my life is going to be,’” she said. “‘I might as well make the best of it.’ So I walked into the disability office, and I told them I wanted interpreters for every single class. I didn’t care if I had to lip read them. For the next couple of months, I started lip reading the interpreters, and in the process of doing that, I started picking up sign language. The next thing I knew, sign language was just a part of me.”

Putz distinctly remembers the day she stood tall and accepted her disability as a part of her identity: it was the day she, while preparing to board a bus at her college campus, pulled her hair back into a ponytail and publicly displayed her hearing aid for the first time since she’d received it at age nine.

“That’s a long time to take to learn how to accept yourself,” Putz said. “It’s all an attitude. I didn’t have any acceptance of hearing loss when I was growing up. I hated my hearing aid. As a kid, I almost never wore it. I was supposed to wear it in school, so I wore my hair down to hide it.”

Today, however, Putz is proud of that which makes her different. She operates a blog, “A Deaf Mom Shares Her World,” in which she discusses such experiences as raising a family of three children, going through a drivethrough restaurant line as a deaf person, and her everyday battles with weight loss.

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Last year, on her 44th birthday, Putz weighed more than 200 pounds and says she was depressed for a multitude of reasons. She began to reflect on her best moments in life, many of which included barefoot skiing as a teenager. It was then that her husband helped arrange a trip to the World Barefoot Center, and ultimately connected her with St. Onge.

“I put my feet on the water and was like, wow,” Putz said. “My old passion for barefooting came flowing back. Three weeks later I had to go back to Florida for work, so I called Keith, drove back out there, and we barefooted again. I thought, I don’t want this to stop, and I’ve been barefooting ever since.”

St. Onge immediately picked up on Putz’s excitement to be back on the water, and says her enthusiasm for skiing was infectious. “Karen’s return was far overdue,” St. Onge said. “I could tell she was scared, but I had to actually slow her down, as well. She wanted to move onto the next step before she was ready. She had a great attitude and motivation, but I had to harness that.”

Putz’s enthusiasm for barefoot skiing has seeped into other areas of her life. She emerged from her depression, lost 32 pounds, and met other barefoot skiers from around the world. She’s traveled back to Florida several times, and has driven to Wisconsin and Indiana to meet Facebook friends who barefoot ski. She’s also busy writing a book with St. Onge.

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Though Putz admits that, at one point in her life, her deafness may have defined who she was, today she’s confident in the knowledge that she’s taken full ownership of her life.

“Going deaf was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Putz said. “It didn’t seem that way at the time, but when I look back on my life, that accident was the best thing. I learned to embrace being deaf. I learned to embrace being myself. When I grew up hard of hearing, I tried to hide it. I kept trying to be as ‘normal’ as possible—whatever ‘normal’ is. I’m a barefooter. I’m a writer. There are things that I do that are not defined by being deaf.”

by Josh Pate

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