Steve Miller probably has a lot of reasons to give up water skiing.
There are, for example, the many broken bones. Also, the badly battered knees that already have been through three surgeries with Nos. 4 and 5 planned for the coming months. Likewise, the concussions from the occasional head-jarring falls. And the numerous other injuries, some with lasting effects that make each day a new experience in pain.
“There’s not a morning that I get up that I don’t hurt,” said the 56-year-old Miller, who lives in Lake Stevens. “I have ibuprofen bottles everywhere.”
There are longtime NFL players with better health histories than Miller, who has overcome the occasional fractured bone, wrenched knee and torn tendon to become one of the top amateur water skiers in the United States. Competing in the 53-60 age group, he is the defending three-time national champion in overall, which combines scores for jumping, slalom and trick skiing.
Of course, excellence has a cost, and for Miller that fee is paid not only in the many hours of practice, but also in the periodic injuries and resulting medical expenses.
“I’m sure I’ve put a couple of doctors’ kids through college,” he said, managing a smile.
OK, but it begs the question. Is it really worth it?
“You know, I’m not one to sit at home and twiddle my thumbs,” said Miller, a 1975 graduate of Everett High School. “I’m still looking to jump further and I know I can (score) more points (in trick skiing), so why stop? I look at it as a challenge.”
Besides, he added with another smile, “I have a very high tolerance of pain.”
Miller first tried water skiing as a young boy visiting his uncle in Mississippi (that uncle, a diehard water skier, still skis barefoot in his 80s). As a teen-ager living in Everett, Miller began to ski more regularly, usually near the mouth of the Snohomish River. But in his mid-20s, his skiing — not to mention his entire life — changed dramatically on a two-week vacation to the Caribbean island of Martinique.
While staying at a Club Med resort, Miller spent most of his time on the water ski dock. He eventually talked himself into a job, and his two-week vacation ended up lasting nine years as he later worked at other Club Med facilities in Mexico, the Bahamas, Greece, Haiti, Florida, the Dominican Republic, and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
By his early 30s Miller had a wife and child, so he returned to Snohomish County and continued to ski. He lives today in a waterfront home on Lake Stevens, where he sometimes practices, though most of his training is done on two private lakes — Hilltop Lake in Marysville (slalom and trick skiing) and Bow Lake in Bow (jumping).
Miller won his third overall national championship last month in West Palm Beach, Fla., by tying for 40th in slalom, and finishing fourth in trick skiing and second in jumping. Though some national competitors do only one or two of the three events, “overall is the coveted (title),” he said. “That’s the big prize.”
One of his rivals was another Snohomish County resident, 55-year-old Brian Holm of Lynnwood, who placed first in jumping and fourth in overall.
To win at nationals takes a lot of talent, plus a willingness to swallow one’s fear. Jumping, in particular, is a perilous event. The boat is traveling at 31.7 mph, and the competitors generate additional speed by cutting across the wake and going off a 5-foot ramp at speeds upwards of 50 mph.
“Anybody who says they’re not nervous or a little bit afraid, they’re either nuts or they’re not telling the truth,” Miller said. “Because when you cut at that ramp, you just know there’s always that potential (for catastrophe), even when things seem to be going well.”
But the payoff, he said, “is when you get a good jump, and you’re in the air and out over the skis. You just feel yourself floating and it’s an awesome feeling.”
Miller will be on the eight-member U.S. team for the 2012 World Over-35 Waterski Championships next month in Chapala, Mexico — “I’ll be skiing for the gold medal for the USA,” he said — and he is looking forward to more national and international competitions in the years ahead.
“People sometimes say to me, ‘Why don’t you stop when you’re on top?’” he said. “But being the defending champ, I think it’s only respectful to go back and defend your title. And when it’s time to pass it on, you shake the guy’s hand and say, ‘Good job, you knocked me off.’”
But in the meantime, he said, “I’m a competitor, so I’m not just going to hand it over. I’m still looking to improve.”