When Laura Szwed was 2 years old, she often went out on her family’s motorboat on the lake near their White Lake, Mich. home. She would dangle her feet over the edge into the water while watching her father practice barefoot waterskiing. Because she seemed curious, her father made a safety harness from a rock climbing harness and put her behind their boat with him to see if she could stand.
She could. And did. And the act of walking on water has been a staple in Laura’s life ever since.
Szwed, AKA ‘Sweeds,’ a senior at Castleton State College, has been to the World Barefoot Competition three times and this past August was ranked third overall in the world at the Competition held in Germany.
“It’s like regular water skiing just faster,” said Szwed with a shrug of her shoulders.
The petite athletically built blonde nonchalantly describes a sport that requires being pulled behind a motor boat at speeds up to 45 mph with nothing between her and the water than the souls of her feet.
Known as ‘barefooting‘ to those in the sport, it is similar to regular waterskiing minus the skis.
“All I can feel is the waterline right here,” Szwed said pointing to the balls of her bare feet. “You have to know where the waterline is and keep your toes up. Unless your going backwards, then keep your heels up.”
Not only does Szwed turn backwards, she flips, she turns, she stands on one foot, and flies over jumps.
It’s a little scary to watch admits Chris Szwed, Laura’s father, who first set her feet on the water all those years ago.
“I throw up in my mouth when I watch her!” he said with gusto in a phone interview from his Michigan home. “I’m a nervous wreck.”
Her dad may be nervous from the shore, but on the water his daughter is far from it.
“I find it relaxing,” Szwed said. “I thrive under pressure.”
And any fear of falling she brushes off, after all “it only stings for a minute.”
She’s had some nasty falls; two resulted in concussions and a trip to the doctors, others may have resulted in concussions but no trip to the doctor so they don’t count. The worst though, was in 2003 at the National Championship.
“I fell on the first trick,” Szwed recalls. “I had jinxed myself. I’d fallen at the same place doing the same trick earlier and I psyched myself out.”
Her mental block taught her something about the sport: relax.
“I always remind myself to have fun and smile, because I am having fun.”
Chris Szwed knows to watch for the smile.
“When she was in Germany I would wake up at 1 a.m. to watch the broadcasts. I was so nervous for her,” he said. “But the only thing that would make me feel better was if I saw her on the boat and she smiled. If she smiled I knew she’d be all right.”
Some of the ease Szwed feels when competing she attributes to her time spent on the ice.
In addition to being a barefooter, Szwed also plays ice hockey. And she’s good at that, too. In high school she was Michigan Miss Hockey and MVP three out of her four years.
At Castleton she’s continued to shine. She was ranked number one on team in goals with 10 and first in points with 15. She was voted MVP for the last two seasons and was the team’s captain.
“She’s been a huge part of the team since I’ve been here,” said Jen Hitchcock, the Women’s Hockey Graduate Assistant Coach. “We’ve been moving forward and with her leadership and steady, consistent level of play, she sets a great precedent for what we want to achieve at Castleton.”
As a two-sport athlete, Szwed has been asked many times, which she likes best.
“It depends on the season,” she said. “If its hockey season I’ll say hockey. If it’s ski season I’d say skiing.”
Comparing them is tough, she says, because one is a team sport and the other falls completely on her shoulders.
“There’s more pressure in skiing; it’s worse because I can’t blame anyone else if I mess up. In hockey it’s a team effort to fail. In skiing it’s all me.”
The two sports also require completely different training programs and use different muscles. During the three months of the year in the summer when she usually trains she spends about 42 hours a week on the water.
During the off seasons, she keeps in shape by spending hours at the gym, according to Ashely Filmore, one of Szwed’s friends.
“For people who don’t know [that she’s in training] they probably think; why is the skinny girl always at the gym: get out of there,” said Filmore, a senior business marketing major.
Away from her sports, Szwed is totally normal, Filmore said. She’s just a normal barefooter who doesn’t like to brag about her accomplishments.
“She doesn’t like people to talk about it,” Fillmore said. “She’d rather have someone else in the spotlight; she’s more interested in what other people are doing. It’s not all about her.”
“That’s just the kind of person she is. She’s very proud but she doesn’t want to brag,” she said.
Szwed admits she doesn’t like to boast.
“I don’t really go around saying ‘Hi, I’m Laura and I barefoot ski and I went to Worlds last year,'” she said. “I don’t want to be that person.”
It’s not part of her standard self-introduction but it has brought many opportunities. Competing has taken her to South Africa, England, Germany, New Zealand, and Australia.
Over Spring Break she was invited to train at a ski school in Florida run by the number one and number two men’s skiing champions. She has been offered a full time position at the school in Florida to train for free. She’s excited about the prospect, but it’s only one option she has after graduation.
“I want to mainly work with kids who are affected by autism,” said Szwed a Developmental Psychology major. “A friend of my family has a son with autism; that was how I really got interested in the subject.”
As far as skiing, that will always be a part of her life.
“I’ll probably be the person skiing when I’m 90 years old.