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World Champion Elaine Heller
Check out the article and photography by USA Ski’s Natalie Angley
It is not unusual for Elaine Heller to wake up around 5 o’clock in the morning. Like her parents, sister
and two brothers, she does it almost every day. If she’s not gearing up to hit the water on her bare feet
as the sun is rising, she’s waking up to lift weights three times per week or play basketball with her
siblings before school starts. When she’s not doing that, you can sometimes find her feeding calves
on the family’s 3000 acre farm, Heller Farms Inc., in Alma Center, Wis.
Growing up on the farm instilled a strong work ethic in all four siblings.
“When these kids get up, nobody wakes them up. They’ve been self-motivated from day one. Before[Shannon and Elaine] started training, we’d hear foot steps coming down the hall. It never occurred to
them not to work,” says their dad Blake Heller.
For them, farm-life is the norm. “It is a unique experience, but from their perspective, it’s pretty normal,”
he ads, “Out in the sticks, most people grew up on the farm.
The discipline and self-motivation Elaine learned early on has helped to propel her strengths as a
barefooter. Nobody sees this more than world champion barefooter Lane Bowers, who has coached
Elaine and her younger sister, Shannon, for the past five or six years. “Their skiing has improved a lot.
It’s no secret that they’ve climbed the ladder pretty fast,” he says. “The girls have gotten exactly what
they’ve put into it, and they’ve worked hard. They’ve done well.”
2006 proved to be a big year for Elaine. At the Barefoot Water Ski National Championships, she skied
for the first time in the Open Women division and finished third in slalom, second in jumping and
second overall behind barefooting great Rachel George-Normand. “I didn’t think I was going to do that
good in Open,” Elaine says, “I was really excited.” Bowers, who also coaches George-Normand, was
pleased with the results. “Rachel has dominated for a while,” Bowers says. “For Elaine to come in
second was a pretty big deal.”
After training hard all summer, from 5:30 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon when Bowers was in
town. Elaine and Shannon got the chance to ski as members of the U.S Junior Barefoot Water Ski
Team at the Barefoot Water Ski World Championships last September. Elaine, who was 15 at the time,
won her first gold medal in Girls’ slalom with 14 points. She earned silver medals in Girls’ jumping and
overall and placed fourth in Girls’ tricks. She also scored her personal best in both slalom and tricks.
“It felt awesome,” she recalls. “It was a big challenge. It felt good to be there, and my hard work paid
off. But I still have a lot more work to do.”
This season, Elaine’s biggest goal is to break at least one world record in the junior division. She’ll
also be working on jumping inverted, which she started doing last season until an injury set her back.
“This next year is going to be a very big breakthrough year in jumping because she was jumping
inverted and would have been the first girl in the U.S to jump inverted last year,” Bowers says. “That
was the program last year, we were right on target and then she got injured. This year, the goal is to
keep safe, keep skiing and keep confidence high.” If all goes well, she could be jumping inverted at
this year’s Nationals, which will be held for the first time on the Blue Moo, the lake her family built about
a mile from the farm.
Elaine got her start in the sport eight years ago – almost by accident. “I was slalom skiing behind the
boat. It was really rough out. It was a big weekend. I was just picking at my nails looking like I was
bored. So my dad thought I needed something else to do,” she says. “So he found barefooting on the
internet and we started doing it.”
Over the years, they’ve kept it all in the family. Along with Elaine and Shannon, Elaine’s twin brother,
Shane, also knows how to barefoot, and their older brother, Cody, placed first in jumping and second
overall in Men’s 1 at last year’s Nationals. In addition to barefooting, Elaine has played basketball since
she was in first grade. She started suiting up for the varsity as a guard toward the end of this season
where she plays at her high school, Alma Center Lincoln.
“They’re just a hard-working family. If it’s skiing, then they’re really working hard at skiing. It it’s working
on the farm or in basketball, they work really hard at that,” Bowers says.
“Elaine’s just a very dedicated athlete.”
If you want to talk to Rachel, personally, you can call her at 863 229-8190
(She is on Easter Standard Time so be sensitive to her time zone).
Email Rachel by clicking here