Carl Peterson, an FMCA member from Rosharon, Texas, is a triple threat water skier.
At age 76.
In mid-August 2008 Carl competed at the 66th Water Ski National Championships at Okeeheelee Park in West Palm Beach, Fla. It’s billed as the world’s largest three-event water ski tournament.
Carl won national titles in slalom and ski jump, and placed third in tricks, against the best skiers in the nation in his age group (75 to 79). He also won overall best skier in his division.
“They took my slalom score, my jump score and my trick score and the weighted average ended up being first overall," he said. "So being a poor boy from Minnesota to becoming the number one skier in the country is quite an accomplishment.”
Yes, but why is this retired NASA engineer out on there landing ski jumps, doing three-sixties and cutting around target buoys? This Naval Academy graduate and former Air Force pilot’s thrill-seeking days are over. And the sport certainly isn’t kind to the body.
“I enjoy the competition,” Carl explained. “But it’s a family thing.”
His son, Mark, and grandkids, Dustin, 13, and Emilee, 8, also ski competitively.
Carl competed at the National Championships in 2003 when the event was held in Lago Santa Fe, Texas. He placed second overall but won no first-place medals. The event moved out to California for the next two years, and Carl didn’t want to travel that far.
But when West Palm Beach, a mere 1,100 miles away, was named host for 2008, family prodding won out.
“My son, who is very active in water skiing, and two grandkids, who are active in water skiing, said, ‘You gotta go.’ ”
So, Carl and his wife, Trudi, traveled from Texas to West Palm Beach in their 2006 Safari Simba motorhome. Mark, 48, and his wife, Melissa, and their kids traveled in another RV.
A motorhome is a necessity when you’re a three-event water skier, Carl said.
“You have a lot of gear to take with you. The jump skis are about 90 inches long, and they’re wide and they’re heavy. And then you have your jumpsuit, a helmet, a ski vest, a slalom ski, one trick ski ….”
Fortunately, their gas-powered Simba is 33 feet long and has two slideouts.
“It would be difficult to fly somewhere to go to a tournament, although many people do it. They build a special box for their ski eqiupment, which they ship with baggage. I imagine that can get pretty costly.”
The RVs made the trip to Florida very easy and enjoyable, he said.
Carl qualified for the National Championships with a top-five finish at the South Central Regionals held in late July at Elkins Lake in northwest Arkansas.
At Nationals, Carl “ended up kicking everyone's butt,” Mark said. “It was a great experience for all of us.”
Said Carl, humbly: “I was lucky and skied well down there.”
During the five-day event more than 800 water skiers — age 6 to 83 — competed. “Everybody is divided into their age groups,” Carl said, “so it’s really done in a fair manner. Somebody my age certainly can’t compete against a 40-year-old guy in water skiing.”
Carl’s favorite event is slalom, in which the skier, on one ski, maneuvers around buoys. In the ski jump, he said he had been in a slump prior to the National Championships. “For some reason, people my age have trouble landing the jump.”
The skier must land and be in skiing position for the jump to count, he said. “It works the knees over pretty well. If you land with your skies sort of crosswise you can really twist a knee or an ankle. And sometimes when you fall you can pull a groin muscle or something like that.”
Trudi can't bear to watch the jumping. "I have a really hard time with that," she said. "Our grandson [Dustin] jumped 105 feet last summer and that scared me."
At Nationals, Carl was pleased with his winning jump of 50 feet, his personal best of the year. But he was more excited about his grandkids’ accomplishments. Dustin placed third overall and Emilee placed fifth in their respective age groups.
Mark, an engineer for Exxon Mobil, couldn’t compete because of a shoulder injury. In fact, he’s so banged up from ski jumping that he can hardly ski anymore. “I just don't see how my dad can keep doing it. He's like Superman or something. I think the sport keeps him young.”
To ward off injuries and stay in shape, Carl works out three times a week. He has a multi-purpose fitness apparatus in one of the rooms of his house.
“I’ve been lucky,” he said. “I’ve had a couple of injuries. I had a bad fall in slalom three or four years ago where I actually fractured an ankle, but that healed okay.”
He’s also undergone rotator cuff surgery. “I had a good surgeon and it healed up. I didn’t do that water skiing, but of course it really affected my skiing.”
Carl studied electrical engineering at the U.S. Naval Academy. After graduating in 1955 he entered pilot training and served in the U.S. Air Force for 10 years. The Air Force sent him back to MIT, where he earned a master’s degree in aerospace engineering.
“Then I went to NASA and I’ve been down here in the Houston area ever since.”
He and Trudi, 72, will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary on Feb. 14, 2009. They met while his Air Force unit was stationed at Ellington Field, south of Houston. She was a stewardess for Delta.
Carl first started skiing in the early 1960s when he was working at NASA. “He used to ski with some of the first NASA astronauts,” Mark said. “The astronauts liked to show off skiing back then because they considered it a crazy and dangerous activity.”
When Mark was old enough to ski, Carl taught him how on Clear Lake near Glen, Minn. When Carl started working at NASA, they did most of their skiing on the same lake, but south of Houston, near NASA.
Mark, 48, worked in ski shows in Orlando, Fla., during his college years and starting skiing competitively in the early 1980s. “Mark did well in tournaments and finally convinced me to start skiing on the competitive side,” Carl said.
Carl took to it quite well, Mark said, but was never confident enough to take it to the national level.
Carl entered his first tournament at age 55. “Then, anybody over 55 was in a category called Veteran’s Men,” he said. So 55-and-over was all one big group. But as more and more skiers started getting older, they started dividing the age groups. “Now we have men’s 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. And 9, which I am, is age the group of 75 to 79.”
At first, Carl competed only in slalom. “And then I thought, well, I’ll just try all three.”
Carl worked for NASA for 15 years. He's most proud of his work on the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft — two modified Boeing 747 airliners used to transport space shuttle orbiters from landing sites back to the launch complex. "My office bought the 747s, did the studies and oversaw modifications to them," he said.
Carl took early retirement from NASA and then worked for TRW, an aerospace contractor, until age 65.
At first he missed the working life, but retirement’s been good, he said. “Our health is good and with the motorhome and other activities, I stay pretty busy.”
Flying remains a passion for this former Air Force pilot. He lives on a small airport and flies a Cessna 172, which he keeps in a hanger along with his motorhome.
“I still fly and I have my flight instructor’s rating, which I keep up on. I don’t do instruction now, because I don’t need those extra thrills anymore.”
He and Trudi have flown to Minnesota and to Trudi’s hometown of Mississippi — “that’s a nice two-and-a-half-hour trip over there.”
Living on the lake
Mark and the grandkids live adjacent to a manmade ski lake called Ski Texas, in Rosharon, which is about 20 miles south of Houston. The lake was built in 1983 on rice field land, and the Petersons have been skiing there ever since. Carl owns a lot on the lake; he and Trudy live about two miles to the southeast.
Dustin and Emilee’s ski coach lives in a guesthouse on the lake. “I take a few lessons from him too,” Carl said, “but at my age it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.”
That’s not to say that Carl, who owns a Malibu boat with a Chevy 351 engine, doesn’t put in a lot of practice time. The National Championships were the pinnacle of a year’s hard work. “In summer, there weren’t many days where I didn’t ski. Because when you compete in three different events, you know they’re all different. If you want to win, you gotta pay the price.”
He and a friend, who’s 78, often practice together. “He’s also a competitor, but we’re friendly competitors.”
Carl competed in four or five tournaments in 2008, in addition to the regional qualifying event and Nationals.
The Safari Simba is the Petersons’ second motorhome. Six years ago they purchased a Fleetwood Flair.
“When I bought the Flair, I didn’t know anything about motorhomes,” Carl said.
He recalled their initial voyage … “We took it to a state park in Galveston, which is only about 50 miles away. That’s about as far as we dared to venture on our first trip. We were walking about the RV park and there were four of five motorhomes that were sort of parked together. It looked like the owners were just sitting around, so I came up to them and said, ‘Hey, I just bought a motorhome. What are the 10 most important things that I should know about owning a motorhome?’ And man, about two hours later, I had a crash 101 course in RVing. It was very, very useful.”
They enjoyed their first motorhome and had a lot of fun with it. “But it didn’t have any slideouts,” Carl said.
In February 2008 they bought the Simba, a pre-owned vehicle. “It had 3,000 miles on it but was like brand-new,” Carl said. “It came with a lot of little extras that, had I bought it scratch from new, it wouldn’t have had.”
Carl appreciates creature comforts such as surround-sound audio, a combination washer-dryer, an automatic satellite dish and a large refrigerator with ice maker. “Little goodies like that really make it nice. And then when you extend the slideouts, it’s just about like being in your living room at home.”
Now they are comfortably settled in to their motorhoming/water skiing lifestyle. They joined FMCA in April 2008 and joined FMCA’s Texans on Safari chapter shortly thereafter. “A friend of mine, Art and Ruth Carpenter from Canyon Lake, Texas, found out I bought a motorhome and said I had to join Texans on Safari.”
They also belong to the Naval Academy Alumni Association RV chapter.
In addition to chapter rallies, the Petersons have traveled to Williamsburg, Va., to the U.S. Naval Academy and to Minnesota several times. “We’ve never been out West in the motorhome,” Carl said, “and before we get too old we think we’d like to make a trip up to Alaska.”
In Florida, West Palm Beach is as far as they’ve ventured. “We would like to go to the Keys sometime. And we might do that this February because our Naval chapter is having a get-together there.”
Another try for PaPete?
When Carl speaks about motorhoming or his water skiing, his voice is relaxed, unassuming. When the conversation turns to his grandkids, the cadence is upbeat, imbued with pride.
He mentions that Emilee, at the National Championships, competed as an 8-year old. “Her age group was 7, 8, and 9. She was 8 at the time, so she’s really competing with kids one year older than she is, which is a big difference at that age.”
And he points out that Dustin participated in the 2008 Pan American Water Ski Championships in Medellin, Columbia, in July 2008. “He was on the four-member Under 13 team, and they won the gold medal competing against other countries in South America.”
Dustin and Emilee are strong supporters of their grandfather’s skiing, so they’ll surely have a say in whether Carl competes in the 2009 Water Ski National Championships.
“My grandson says I have to, so I guess I will. He says, ‘You gotta defend your title, PaPete.’ ”
(When Carl was younger everybody called him Pete. When he became a grandpa, he didn’t want to be called Grandpa, so Trudi suggested PaPete.)
Carl has skied only a few times since Nationals. “It’s just a good time to take a little rest from it, let my body catch up.”
We’ll have to wait and see whether PaPete can repeat.
On Carl Peterson's first motorhome trip, he asked a group of motorhome owners, "What are the nine most important things that I should know about owning a motorhome?"
Following is his original list, in the order that he wrote them down. "I still find them very useful," he said.
1. Keep tires inflated to the recommended cold pressure values.
2. Check tire pressure before every trip or every morning after a long drive.
3. Don't worry about tire rotation if you keep your alignment okay. Tires age out before they wear out.
4. Always walk around your motorhome before starting out anywhere. Check connections, jacks , antennas, for gear not stowed, unusual leaks, etc.
5. Add electric heat to your hot-water heater if it is gas only. Carry an electric heater in your rig. This saves on butane.
6. Don't leave awnings extended when you leave the RV park in case a storm with high winds comes in.
7. Towing your car four wheels down is simpler, and you don't have to park a trailer in addition to your car at the RV park.
8. Join an RV association and club. They are good sources for technical info and good friendship. (Note: I have really enjoyed FMCA and the Texans on Safari chapter since joining FMCA.
9. Buy a directory of RV sites to plan your trips. Also, Next Exit interstate travel exit guide is useful when traveling on interstates.