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TYRE, Lebanon: The wonderful coast of Tyre was the scene of Lebanon Water Festival’s latest installment. Displays of water skiing were given to thousands of spectators who gathered on the city’s corniche to watch an evening show Saturday and a daytime show Sunday. The Cypress Gardens Water Ski team came all the way from the USA to perform at the Lebanon Water Festival. Their party included world doubles champion skiers Cathy and Gerry Luiting, who are due to be inducted into the Water Ski Hall of Fame.

The team has strong connections to Lebanon Water Festival co-founder Simon Khoury, who worked as Show Director at Cypress Gardens for many years. He was impressed by their performance, in particular Sunday, which was hampered by poor weather conditions. “Their show was as professional as any American water ski show,” Khoury said.

Despite skiers often riding alone, they are all adamant that it is very much a team sport. Communication is key: between the skier, the boat driver and the rider, who acts as an intermediary between the two. The rider faces the skier who, through signals, communicates instructions to speed up or slow down.

“You definitely have to be a team player, and a positive attitude is needed too,” show skier Bailey Nadeau said. “It’s a team sport requiring factors like support and cooperation. Team members need to cheer for each other but there’s also a balance to be struck with competitiveness, so that everyone can push themselves as much as they can.”

Of course, a flair for performing to a crowd and putting on a show is also helpful.

In addition, despite a boat apparently doing most of the work, it is also a highly athletic sport. Holding onto the skis, as well as performing tricks and choreographed routines, is an all body workout, requiring strength, endurance, balance and agility.

There are also many different types of skis. Swivel skis allow a 360-degree range of movement on the water, while jumper skis are the preference for freestyle skiing and performing flips and spins. The team also brought some more unconventional equipment with them, like shoe skis that are barely bigger than the size of the riders’ feet, allowing for a further range of tricks. Perhaps the most daring is the sky ski, essentially a chair onto which the rider is strapped, with a meter-long metal fin underneath the main body of the ski. This allows it to skim above the water, and for the rider, Joe “The Animal” Sawaska, to pull some impressive 360 flips at speed.

Saturday’s show began with a rendition of the national anthem and then a flagline, reading “Live Love Lebanon.” The skiers then began a display of show skiing, single skiing, barefoot skiing and wakeboard. There were also graceful elements to the show too, as the Luitings amazed the crowd with their double act.

The show climaxed with a firework display and a kite, crewed by one of the team, which was pulled by boat from the beach into the air above the crowd.

Sawaska acknowledged that water skiing at night was challenging. “I think we had a good show, not the best conditions, but it’s always more difficult at night with the spotlights, they can dazzle you. It’s definitely a challenge but it’s always fun to hear the applause from everybody,” he said after the Saturday evening show.

Tyre residents were receptive to the show. “It was great, and better than last year’s show,” Jihad Ezzedine said. “Everyone enjoyed themselves. A lot of people from outside the area come to see the show, and it’s good that they come. I’m looking forward to it again next year.”

The day show Sunday was met with anxiety from the skiers, as water conditions were poor, with some waves reaching over a meter high. Water skiing is usually performed in calm conditions, most often on a lake.

Eric Stener, the show’s MC, explained why the conditions made it harder to ski in: “The boat moves on the swell, which in turn happens to the skiers. The speed is affected also, which is important. Skiing in these conditions needs massive concentration. They need to be going in a straight line, which is difficult with the waves as big as they are.”

“The dips in the water also mess with the ramp. If it dips between the time they target it and the time they hit it, they could break their necks,” Annette Khoury, co-founder of the Lebanon Water Festival, added.

Despite this, the show went ahead. Lebanese water ski champion Silvio Chiha opened the performance with a ski-by holding the Lebanese flag, to the sound of the national anthem. Despite the weather conditions, the show went ahead, the adverse conditions enabling the team to show the extent of their talents.

A press release by Lebanon Water Festival said that between 12,000 and 15,000 spectators have watched the Saturday show, while around 7,000 people showed up for the Sunday event.

After the Sunday show, Chiha said: “It’s been a fantastic event, the waves were difficult but the show went on. My huge thanks go to Simon Khoury, that man is a water ski legend. It’s a show for all Lebanon.” For Chiha, water skiing in Lebanon is more than just a hobby. He enjoys the fact that people are travelling to different places to see and practice sports.

His film, “Lebanon Through My Eyes,” features him water skiing at beautiful locations across the country, highlighting the richness Lebanon has to offer to those inclined to look for and preserve it.

“I want to encourage the younger generation to start to water ski and do sports, embracing a healthy lifestyle, and to change this country,” Chiha said.

“The younger generation should have a positive path to follow, so that we avoid the ways of the politicians. That’s exactly what we need for Lebanon right now.”

Will Worley| The Daily Star

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