Just off a Hancock County road is Champion Lake. It's really just a big neighborhood pond. But a series of buoys in the water makes for a backyard water obstacle course and is home to the world's best slalom water skier.
"This is where I grew up," said Nate Smith, standing on the dock in his backyard. "It's where I learned to ski. After traveling places, skiing different lakes and training other places I would come back here and say this is a very hard place to ski. It's a shallower lake. That makes the water harder and faster."
Smith's family moved to a house on Champion Lake when he was five years old. Smith grew up walking out the back door and onto the water, even in the winter.
"We don't let the cold stop us," said Smith. "If the lake freezes, as soon as it gets thin enough that we can break it, we go out there and bust the ice up and ski. I know last year there was a day we skied where the water was 36 degrees and the air was 27. There was ice forming on the sides of the boat and the windshield and it was snowing. We were out there skiing."
Two years ago, Smith reluctantly entered his first pro tournament and finished second. This year, he won both of the major world slalom water skiing events, in Georgia and Australia. At age 21, Smith is making a big splash in the sport.
"It's pretty amazing to me," admitted Smith. "A lot of people don't expect somebody from Indiana to come out and ski on the pro scene. They're really all from Florida."
The pull boat in slalom water skiing moves in a straight line at a constant 36 miles an hour, assisted by an onboard GPS system. The competitor skis back and forth across the wake, making turns around six buoys, 3 on each side of the boat. A pass takes about 16 seconds. But with each pass, the rope is shortened until the skier fails to get around a buoy.
Nate is the youngest skier and one of only six ever to complete a run at 41 off. That terminology means 41 feet tied off the 75 foot full length rope.
So at that point the rope is just 34 feet out to the handle and doesn't even reach the buoy. Nate has to stretch his body to get around the turns.
"My goal is to try to be as early and as wide to the next buoy as possible," said Smith. "So you've got to create as much angle to try to get across the wake as fast as you can as early as you can into that next buoy."
The Mount Vernon High School graduate now makes money skiing around the world.
"They want to pay me to do what I thought was just something fun in the backyard," said Smith. "I now get paid by several sponsors. They pay for my trips, a salary for me and all my equipment."
He enjoys a career that began right at home on the water.