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Barefoot in the park: Local teen excels on the water, advances to world competition

By Shelly Birkelo
September 1, 2015

JANESVILLE—Just the sight of the Rock River and knowing she's going to be skiing on it makes Sammi Eaton “feel insane.”

“I just love the thrill of it,” said the 13-year-old Franklin Middle School student, who water skis an average of 28 hours a week.

Sammi skis four nights a week with the Rock Aqua Jays amateur water ski team, of which she has been a member for six years. She also started half-day lessons up to three days a week this summer with barefoot skiing coach Ken Kaestner of Jefferson.

Sammi has been barefootin' for only four months. Yet the Janesville teen finished second in slalom and trick skiing during state, Midwest regional and national barefoot events this year. That qualified her to compete against the world's best water skiers at the August 2016 World Barefoot Competition in  Alma Center.

Sammi is proud of her performances.

“I spent all summer doing this, but it was so worth it. I'm so happy. It's all about how much you put into it,” she said.

Sammi's quick rise to the top comes as no surprise to her mother, Caron Eaton of Janesville.

“Sammi gives up all of the usual kid summer fun in exchange for her training. She has amazing determination and commitment,” she said.

Sammi attributes that drive and dedication to her single working mom, who takes long lunches to drive her back and forth to Johnson Creek for lessons and starts work early and stays late to make up time off.

Sammi performs in barefoot, ballet, conventional doubles and ending pyramid acts. She said she has learned about commitment from members of the world's most-winning show ski team, who encourage her to try new things and get into new acts.

“If you want to be part of a team or do something great, you have to commit,” Caron said.

Sammi does.

Coach Kaestner, she said, teaches her stuff while motivating her to get better.

Kaestner, a competitive barefoot skier who was named Volunteer Coach of the Year by USA Water Ski magazine and the U.S. Olympic Committee, said Sammi has an innate ability to excel under pressure.

“She is awesome at tournaments. There's so many people who struggle with the mental aspect of competing, but she thrives,” he said.

Sammi explained the appeal of barefootin', a sport that involves being pulled behind a boat at speeds of 39 to 41 mph while holding on to a handle at the end of a 70-foot rope.

“If the water is smooth as glass, it's safe. But if it's the least bit choppy, it feels like my feet are burning and about to catch on fire,” Sammi said.

Her ultimate goal is to be one of the top 10 barefoot skiers in the world.

“I want to be known as one of the tough girls,” she said.

She is confident she will succeed.

“It's hard to get, but because I want it, I will not let anything get in the way,” she said.

Kaestner agreed.

“I've been coaching competitively for nine years and haven't seen anyone do some of the things she's done. She just goes at it like she's been doing it her whole life. I think the sky is the limit for her and that she has the ability to go far,” he said.

Sammi stays conditioned year-round by playing club volleyball and participating in school sports—soccer, volleyball and swimming—off-season.

She knows next year's barefoot training will be more intense, but she doesn't mind.

“I need to get to the next level and like to be good at what I love,” she said.

“Friends are important, but barefootin' always comes first.”