Fenton — Nearly four years after a life-altering event prompted a Fenton Township woman to take a break from competing nationally in water skiing, the 32-year-old won first in state, regional and national water ski competitions through the American Water Ski Association (AWSA).
Whitney Burnash, daughter of Jeff and Patti Smith who own Silver Spray Sports in Fenton, won first place in the 25 to 35 age group at the state competition, Michigan State 3 Event Championships, in slalom water skiing in July. She then competed at the MasterCraft Midwest Regional Championships and won first in slalom.
And on Saturday, Aug. 10, Burnash competed at the 77th GOODE Water Ski National Championships in West Palm Beach, Florida, when she came in first again for her age group.
“It was definitely really surprising that I did that well. Obviously you always hope for the best, but there are a lot of really great water skiers in the country,” she said.
Jeff Smith also competed this year, winning first at the state competition, tying for first at regionals and taking home the silver medal after the tie break. He then won seventh at nationals in the 60 to 65 age group.
Burnash, who does multiple types of water skiing, has done the sport since she was a kid, most often with her father. Smith is a national barefoot water ski champion as well as a national slalom champion. Burnash first water skied at age 2.
She prefers slalom, which involves weaving around buoys placed in the water. With every round, the tow rope becomes shorter, making it harder to get around each buoy.
Burnash competed in the AWSA for years when she was younger, but stopped in 2015 and focused on local and state tournaments after an incident in Florida. While on vacation just after Thanksgiving, she was driving the boat and her father was water skiing when he went into full cardiac arrest.
“Essentially, his heart just stopped. It was not a heart attack, it’s a little bit different than a heart attack … Because I was by myself and he was in the water, I had to get him back into the boat and start CPR,” she said. They had a special certificate that didn’t require them to have an extra person on the boat, and he was wearing a life jacket.
Other people on the lake saw what happened and came to help. Medical personnel took Smith to a hospital. Ambulance reports said he was defibrillated a total of four times, two of which were done on the engine box on the boat.
“It was not necessarily the best experience,” she said.
After a few days in a Florida hospital, he was airlifted to the University of Michigan. He now has a defibrillator.
“It’s just something we have to monitor,” she said. For six months, he couldn’t do much physical activity. They focused on other family activities they wouldn’t normally have time for. In those few years she competed less, Burnash earned her pilot’s license.
As Smith slowly became stronger, he was cleared to exercise more. This eventually included water skiing.
They trained together this year, even though it was a tough season with the rain in April and May, which is when they would usually start training.
It’s important to stay in shape and not get injured, she said. When she isn’t able to water ski, she’ll go snowboarding in the winter, do yoga and other exercises.
“The more you’re out on the water, the more comfortable you feel in different water conditions. We typically ski just about every night. If I’m not able to get out on the water for slalom skiing just because of the conditions … we try to do other things,” she said, such as wake surfing or trick skiing.
Skiing with her dad again was “very cool,” especially because she sometimes had concerns he wouldn’t be able to.
“Everybody was very excited to see him back skiing again,” she said. “The ski community is a pretty little group, but they’re an amazing group of people.”
Burnash said “most likely” they’re going to compete again next year.