The National Figure Eight Barefoot Championships started in the early 1970’s as a small local endurance barefoot event on Lake Metonga in Crandon, Wisconsin and featured 30 skiers from a half dozen local ski clubs. Originally dubbed the U.S. Open Barefoot Challenge, it built a cult following that grew until the tournament was moved to Lake Lucerne in the mid 80’s. Little know barefooters like Steve Tucker, John Peterson and Kirby Schultz were well-know within the tiny world of Figure Eight barefooting, which called “Crandon” it’s home.
In 1991, Ted Ison, Gary Mueller and Kurt Landgraf incorporated the tournament and moved it to tiny Clear Lake in Crandon. Backed by new sponsors, a national advertising campaign and $3,000 in prize money, the once tiny local competition quickly grew in size and stature. By 1992, the event, re-named the National Figure Eight Barefoot Championships cemented it’s reputation as the “granddaddy” of endurance barefoot competitions, featuring over 150 skiers from around the world and a record purse of over $6,000. As a result, the tournament continued to grow through the late 1990’s in size (to over 220 competitors at it’s peak) and stature (attracting U.S. national team barefooters like Pete Fleck, Keith St Onge, Billy Nichols, Paul Stokes and everyone’s favorite 77 year-old Banana Man George Blair).
At its peak, ”Footstock” as it was nicknamed in 1995, even expanded to three days to accommodate the massive field. Infamous Footstock announcer Dave Mueller was discovered. Smaller Figure Eight events popped up all over the U.S. And Water Ski Magazine labeled the championship the “Ultimate Barefoot Competition,” providing national coverage year after year.
After a change in management in 1999, and after suffering through three years of shrinkage (what can we say, it’s Wisconsin – the water was cold) Footstock saw a major resurgence in entries in 2003. Under the leadership of a new tournament staff, led by Jay Schaefer, Michael Frank, Bucky and Candy Dailey, and a large network of dedicated volunteers, entries grew 30% to almost 100 skiers. In 2004, Footstock co-founder, Gary Mueller returned, and so did the national attention. With the help of BarefootCentral.com, and a new national advertising campaign, entries swelled to 127. Hall of Famer Mike Seipel came out of retirement to compete in his first ever figure eight event. Top Florida and Texas barefooters like three-time national champ, Pete Fleck returned to compete for the endurance barefooting’s most coveted crown. And endurance specialist Aaron Schoelzel continued his dominance of figure eight barefooting by winning his 3rd national title.
Footstock expanded again in 2005. With its largest purse in National Figure 8 Barefoot Championship history, at over $9,000 and an even bigger field, 145 skiers, Footstock attracted the country’s top 3-event barefooters to compete in Crandon. The #1 ranked footer in the country, Keith St. Onge of Florida and U.S. Elite Barefoot Team Member, Bill “Beast of the East” Brzoza of Rhode Island and a host of other top-ranked footers from Connecticut to Florida and Texas to Louisiana made Footstock 2006 one of the most competitive ever. It was also the coming out event for 14-year old endurance phenom, Elaine Heller, the first female footer in history to finish in the Top 16 of the Open Championship. Of course, that’s the serious stuff. Pink shirts for men that were beaten by women, shooting footers with paintballs and leach eating contests were added to make the event crazier than ever.
In 2006, the National Championship truly exploded. Water ski chat rooms, like showskier.com and BarefootCentral.com were dominated by discussion about Footstock. National articles in the New York Times and Water Ski Magazine as well as the anticipated matchup between Australia’s top world team barefooters, Brett New, and Peter O’Neill and world US World Team members, Keith St. Onge, Chris Morrison, Elaine Heller and Ryan Boyd fueled a massive surge in attendance. 182 barefooters from 12 states and 3 countries took part in one of the most amazing Footstock’s ever, that saw two-time national endurance champ Chris Van Zeeland take home the title. It also saw a record 10 pink shirts handed out to Open division men by the Heller sisters, the best Saturday night Duck’s Bar Party yet, more paintball and the longest run in Footstock history completed. 3-1/4 loops by Paul Stokes and Chris Van Zeeland.
In 2007, industry buzz for Footstock continued to grow in water ski forums on-line, as Water Ski Magazine did a six-page spread on the event in their June issue, labeling it on the cover as “America’s craziest tournament – growing the legend of Footstock even more. The resulting publicity fueled a surge of new entries from skiers in places like South Carolina, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Canada. 2007 also saw long-awaited showdown between the world’s #1 ranked three-event barefooter, Keith St Onge and the world’s #1 ranked figure eight endurance barefooter, Chris Van Zeeland. The result was a victory for Van Zeeland in front of the largest Sunday afternoon crowd in years. Adding to the drama of the championship run was a record first prize purse ($4500), along with the introduction of real-time in-boat video coverage of the final rounds. A record $11,500 in cash prizes and incentives was given out in 2007.
2008 featured one of the most star-studded barefoot fields Footstock has ever seen. South African World Team members, Andre and Shane DeVilliers, along with 4-time Footstock champs Pete Fleck, Aaron Schoelzel and Chris Van Zeeland, and World Champ Keith St Onge made last year’s event one of the most exciting as well. St Onge came back to beat Fleck twice in the championship round to capture his first Figure Eight National Title. And he did it in grand style, beating Fleck in the longest run in tournament history, completing four figure eights.
2009 saw the biggest upset in Footstock history, as virtual unknown Ron Blouw of Grand Rapids, Michigan outlasted defending Footstock and World Champ, Keith St Onge twice to win the Open Championship. The weekend saw 138 barefooters from the United States and South Africa compete for the coveted Footstock Figure Eight crown.
2010 saw a number of records fall. In one of the most grueling championships in the history of Footstock, surprise champion, Mark Donahue of Indiana outlasted 4-time champion Pete Fleck of Florida. Their 5-1/2 lap semi-final was the longest in tournament history. Over 140 skiers took to the water in 2010.