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Jennifer Leachman-LaPoint: To The Top, And Back

By Chrös McDougall; Photography by Cary McDonald | Aug. 24, 2020, 2:27 p.m. (ET)

Floating chest deep in the water together, the warm North Carolina sun shining down on them, and their minds and bodies completely exhausted, Jennifer Leachman-LaPoint and Philippa Shedd looked at each other and both had the same thought, if only for a moment. “Maybe we should just call it a tie,” Leachman-LaPoint recalls saying, with a laugh. “But of course,” she quickly adds, “we’re too competitive for that.”

Leachman-LaPoint has never been one to turn down a challenge, and the Water Ski Hall of Famer, former pro tour champion and longtime advocate for women’s water skiing wasn’t about to give up on this one. The Queens Cup draws veteran women from around the world to Little Mountain Lake in Maiden, N.C., for a grueling head-to-head competition. At the tournament’s fourth edition, in September 2019, the 55-year-old Leachman-LaPoint had already survived the gauntlet of qualifying, a round of 16, a quarterfinal and a semifinal. Now she just had to will herself past the similarly decorated Shedd, of Great Britain, in the final.

Jennifer Leachman-LaPointIt was after both ran the course at 35 feet off that they joked, briefly, of a truce. Then focus quickly turned to the return trip at 38 off. Shedd grabbed the rope first and rounded 1-1/2 buoys. Leachman-LaPoint, wearing the pink bib as the top seed, knew what she had to beat. And when she held on to round 3 buoys, she claimed not just one of her biggest wins since a devastating ankle injury cut short the prime of her pro career 22 years earlier, but one of her biggest wins. Period. “Winning this event feels just like winning an event 25 years ago,” the Orlando native, now 56, says. The Queens Cup had lived up to its mission, and Leachman-LaPoint’s esteemed career powered forward once again.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Leachman-LaPoint was once at the very top of the sport. Yet, at least relatively speaking, she’s skiing as well as she ever has right now. “Obviously she’s 22 years older and that has an effect,” says Kris LaPoint, her husband and fellow Hall of Fame member. “But I think her actual form is better now than what it was prior to that injury.”

A native of Parkersburg, a small city on the Ohio River in West Virginia, Leachman-LaPoint was something of a late bloomer in the sport. Although she won three girls national slalom titles, she wasn’t on the water as much as some of her Southern peers, and she used that time away to excel in a host of other sports, most notably basketball, for which she competed on scholarship at Georgia Tech. When she got back on the water, though, her ability was unmistakable. “You could see the athleticism,” LaPoint recalled. “She had a body type — tall, slender, strong — that was conducive to the sport, and with an athletic background and all that.”

Leachman-LaPoint, while still in college, tied the women’s slalom world record in 1985. LaPoint, not yet her husband but already a growing figure in the sport, invited her to join his fledgling pro team. She took off from there. During her prime years of skiing in the 1990s, few women could stay with her. She set world records, won pro tour events and generally thrived as one of the top-ranked slalom skiers in the sport. That same passion led to her advocacy off the water, too. Most notably, in 1992 Leachman-LaPoint helped establish Women of Waterskiing, or WOW, which began as a catalyst to get girls and women involved in the sport and later morphed into a pro tour after the men’s tour dropped the women. “Her legacy of how she has pursued and kept women in the sport of water skiing is just beyond measure,” said Jill Knutson, a fellow skier and good friend. “We just can’t measure how much she has been involved in water skiing.”

She was still at the peak of her abilities when everything changed one day in 1998. “I went to the tournament,” she says, “and my ski broke in half.”

The crash was devastating. Her left (and for slalom skiing, front) tibia and fibula fractured, with 1-1/2 inches of her fibula smashed. Hospitalized for three weeks, she underwent two surgeries; when her ankle didn’t improve doctors began talking about amputating her foot. That proved premature, but more surgeries followed. Her will never wavered, though. “I decided I’m not going to let my career end with a tragedy,” she says.

And so, she didn’t. Leachman-LaPoint remains fully committed to the ski community. Along with her husband, she owns a ski park in Orlando. In recent years, she’s spending more and more time on her newest passion project, a mobile app called Compete that aims to “video gamify” sports. That starts with water skiing, where users can use the app on their home site to get a world ranking, receive coaching and compete against other users from around the world — all virtually. A prototype is out now, called Virtual Water Skiing, with new features expected to be ready by spring.

What’s always really driven Leachman-LaPoint, however, is competition. So even though she was frequently in pain after the crash, she was determined to strap her ski back on and control her own destiny. “Even though I wasn’t winning anymore and wasn’t ranked anymore, I still enjoyed skiing and the fight of trying to get back to the level I was at,” she said.

If that was it, she would have been happy. Leachman-LaPoint found satisfaction in her continued quest for self-improvement, and she took pride in the example she was setting in doing so. And there were successes along the way. Namely, in 2012, she won a senior world title.

Then, in 2017, things changed again. Having maxed out the functionality on her surgically repaired ankle, Leachman-LaPoint had it replaced. The result was remarkable. After all those years, the pain was gone.

Long Live the Queen

The Queens Cup was always a natural fit for Leachman-LaPoint. Modeled after the Big Dawg competitions for men, the tournament is designed to bring the women of the sport together for an empowering and competitive weekend — and prize money. Drawing 38 skiers to this past year’s event, the field featured a range of adult women. Some, like Leachman-LaPoint, were former pros who once dominated the sport. Others were competing in their first tournament. Some were in their 30s. Others were twice that. And with descending boat speeds of 34, 32 or 30 mph, depending on one’s age, the handicapped field was as competitive as any in the sport for veteran women.

Leachman-LaPoint has been involved in the Queens Cup in some capacity from the start, but 2019 was different. Feeling fit and injury free, she responded the only way she knows how: “She decided she wanted to go all out,” LaPoint says. LaPoint built his wife a custom ski that kept her high on the water while going 32 mph. He also offered strategic advice based on his experience in Big Dawg events: Beat the person you need to beat, but don’t do any more than you need to. But the work? That was all her.

By tournament time, Leachman-LaPoint was ready. While embracing the ancillary events, including bonding sessions and a keynote speaker, the longtime pro moved through the qualifying rounds into the head-to-head competition on Sunday. Then she got past the first two rounds before meeting Michaela Cooper-Bagwell in the semifinals. Despite being 25 years to Cooper-Bagwell’s senior, Leachman-LaPoint won to advance to the final, against Shedd. The matchup meant one of the icons would become the first woman from the 55+ age group to win the Queens Cup. And on that grueling 38 off run, Leachman-LaPoint made sure it was her. “She has these high standards that she won’t ever accept anything else,” says Knutson, who finished third, “and I think that’s what truly defines her legacy.”

It should be no surprise, then, that Leachman-LaPoint already has her sights set on her next goal: to become the first Queens Cup champ to defend her title. For the skier who’s been to the top, battled back from a devastating injury and never stopped loving the sport, there’s simply no other way. “In my personal book, it’s nothing short of a miracle that I’m able to ski at any sort of level,” she says. “I feel blessed.”

This article first appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of The Water Skier magazine, the official publication of USA Water Ski & Wake Sports. If you are not a member of USA Water Ski & Wake Sports and you are interested in receiving the quarterly magazine, join now.

Chrös McDougall; Photography by Cary McDonald

Chrös McDougall is a freelance writer based out of the Twin Cities, Minneapolis and St. Paul.