View Full Version : West Coast Willy

09-29-2006, 12:01 PM
Unplugged: September


From Phone Books to Footin' Phenom

By Patty Bonnstetter

Most workdays, New Orleans native William Farrell is a mild-mannered advertising salesman for major phone directories in Sacramento. That is, until he ducks into a Superman-like phone booth to emerge as “West Coast Willie,” world-class barefoot water ski phenom.
Having learned the sport on the Louisiana bayous while in high school, Farrell, 51, has risen to the top of this style of water skiing known as footin’, and he is nowhere close to giving up yet. He’s the only one in the world to have qualified to compete in every one of the biennial Barefoot World Championships held in locales such as Australia, Europe, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as the United States.

Water skiing without the benefit of a ski requires the skier to start from a dock or in the water, then skim the water’s surface, forward, backward or both, while in tow from a rope affixed to a ski boat’s pylon. The sport’s devotees range from 5-year-olds to 91-year-old “Banana” George Blair of Florida. The history of barefooting is somewhat sketchy, but Farrell says it was promoted at the Cypress Gardens theme park in Florida as “the ultimate challenge” in 1955. Thereafter, adventurous teenagers and young adults began to improvise, define and refine techniques. Using foot and toe holds, for instance, allowed hands-free skiing.
Adventurous Australians started a club around 1966 and became the world’s leaders in the sport. In 1976, Australian John Hacker hosted a three-day barefoot clinic in Louisiana. “Hacker taught us to ski backwards and do tricks,” Farrell recounts. “We built a jump and competed at the first four-event barefoot competition in North America.” The American Barefoot Club was born.

Jumpin’ Bayou Boogie
Farrell won his first national awards at the inaugural Barefoot Water Ski National Championships in 1978. He earned the nickname “Bayou Boogie Barefooter” later that year when he was invited to be a jump specialist on the U.S. Elite Barefoot Water Ski Team. The team competed in the first-ever Barefoot Worlds in Canberra, Australia, and won the bronze medal.

Once out of college, Farrell took a production-line job with a boat manufacturer and taught barefooting in Florida. Offered a chance to run a barefoot school in Byron, Calif., “I jumped at it!” he recalls, although the “Bayou Boogie” handle no longer applied. Three years later, he met a girl on a boat and ended up marrying her in 1992 (Dawn’s a stockbroker and a competitive barefooter herself). They have two boys, Byron, 11, and Graeme, 6, who can barefoot, but the boys prefer Little League baseball and watching the River Cats.

“Disciplined competition,” Farrell asserts, “is not for everyone. I learned the old-school fundamentals from the true pioneers. And, though not everyone does, I developed a passion for it. But there are on and off days. You have to want to improve, and when you get knocked down, you’ve gotta get back up.” It’s a physical sport. “You have to learn to fall,” advises Farrell, who shares a private launch on the Sacramento River’s deep water channel where there’s not a lot of shipping traffic. “You’ve got to develop strong muscles so you can stretch and contract when necessary. You’ve got to get oxygen to your muscles throughout the anaerobic event.”

Believe, Practice, Perfect
There’s a huge mental component, too, he warns. “You must be comfortable in and on the water. Don’t bring an ‘I-can’t-do-it’ attitude. Believe. Practice. Perfect. But have fun.”
Just because his boys are focused on baseball doesn’t mean West Coast Willie’s given up on today’s youth as far as footin’ is concerned. The sport has provided him fun, friends, adventure, travel and so many opportunities that he’s always “been there” to encourage and mentor youngsters serious about competition and furthering the sport.

Farrell’s reputation for excellence has led parents of barefoot hopefuls from around the world to send their youngsters to him for tutelage. Most recently, a high school sophomore from Texas spent several weeks with the Farrells. The 10-year veteran of footin’ placed 7th in slalom, 4th in tricks and 6th in the jump event at the 2005 Jr. World Championships outside Pretoria, South Africa, at just 13. Wanting to do better at this month’s World Championships, she came to California to get “tournament ready.”

“With the world competition coming up, I’ve added a lot to my family and work responsibilities,” reports Farrell, “so I’ve set a Wednesday-and-weekend schedule for teaching and training.” Farrell is accustomed to finishing at or near the top in every competition he enters. At the California State Championships in 2005, he finished first in slalom and tricks. “I’m working toward goals and objectives professionally and in my barefoot life. Since I don’t control all the elements, it’s a question of how I deal with situations. It’s my intention to remain competitive as long as possible.”

09-29-2006, 12:33 PM