Zoellner family water skis through generations

by Lynn Colburn

The Zoellner family is part of a multi-generational family of water skiers. Troy and Kelly Zoellner met in the 1980s when they were both members of the PITS Water Ski Club in Decatur competing in water ski tournaments around Illinois.

Troy Zoellner competed in jumping events and Kelly Chappell competed in three water ski events. As recently as 2018, Kelly (Chappell) Zoellner was listed as a regional champion and in looking back at records, one of her personal skiing records still stands today. Her parents, the Chappells, had also competed in water skiing when they were younger.

Now it is the third generation’s turn! Jaret Zoellner, now 16, the son of Troy and Kelly Zoellner, started skiing early, but his mom said he was off and on in competition skiing for a while. Jaret explained that he began in skiing competitions later, about 11, because his first love is competing on dirt bikes. His parents said he has been able to find a balance between the two events with skiing taking more of the summers because of travel and practice. Jaret said, “the best part about skiing competition is the community. It is welcoming and fun and is what makes it above and beyond the skiing.”

Troy and Kelly Zoellner’s daughter, Julia Zoellner, now 14, said she started skiing around when she was three years old and won nationals in her age group when she was eight years old. Julia said honestly and simply, “It brings me joy.”

Their dad said, “It’s a pretty time-consuming sport. During the summer, we are skiing every day in Decatur. The kids have best friends during the school year, but in the summer the ski family kicks in.”

It makes for a full-time schedule during the summer, usually skiing from 4-8 p.m. after mom gets off work. From the end of June through mid-August, the seven to eight ski tournaments happen almost every weekend!

Both the teens and parents say their friends are in the skiing community. Kelly Zoellner said, “It really is neat that they only see the kids seven to eight times a year on weekends, but they talk and communicate all the time (a blessing of social media) and some of their best friends are skiers that live in other states. It was the same thing for us, without the benefit of social media, of course. Some of our friends, including my best friend, are people we met at ski tournaments and now our kids are friends, too.”

Competitions are made of up many different age groups. Julia is in the Girls-4 division, which is age 14- to 15-year-olds, and Jaret is in the Boys-5 division, which is age 16- to 17-year-olds.

Each age group has three events and a combined overall competition. Those events are slalom, jump and trick.

Slalom requires participants to be on one ski. Jaret explained, “There is a boat path that goes straight down the middle and then there are six buoys evenly distributed on each side. Skiers have to weave in and out of those buoys. The faster you go, the more challenging it gets and as you cut down on the tow rope length (skiers begin with 75-foot rope), it adds to the challenge. Each time you make a pass, you decide whether to increase the difficulty by either increasing speed or decreasing the amount of line you have. Skiers keep going until they either fall or miss and that is their score. The goal is to go around the most buoys in your division.”

With the jump event, Jaret explained, “There is a ramp and you go over the ramp trying to go as far as you can. It is a combination of speed and height to generate your distance. Skiers gain that height and distance by cutting and gaining speed and generating it from the top to the bottom of the ramp.” The farthest jump wins.

For the tricks event, Julia explained, “You have a flat ski and you get two 20-second runs. The goal is to do the most tricks in 20 seconds. There is a hand-pass, with your hands on the rope; and a toe-pass, when your foot is in tow rope; and you do tricks during each.”

Though Julia does a hand-pass and a toe-pass, whether other skiers do both types depends on their skill level. “It takes a lot of balance,” explained Julia.

“We’ve never gotten seriously injured,” said Jaret.

It takes a lot of skills and practice and a lot of hard falls, both say. Julia said, “in second or third grade, I fell and the ski fin hit my face and broke my tooth.”

Both have gotten bruises. It is a technical and dangerous sport where accidents happen said Julia pointing to her mom, “Mom’s dad (Dean Chappell) broke his neck jumping and she had lots of injuries when she was younger.”

Kelly Zoellner said, “It’s amazing and another story to tell, but he is fine and is jumping again at 69! That is the other thing that is very cool because it is a multi-generational sport.”

Her mom used to compete when she was younger also, but as with Kelly, once her children began competing, the focus turned to the next generation.

During practice sessions, the parents are either driving the boat or coaching. In tournaments, skiers don’t get to choose their driver. Each division will have the same diver in regular tournaments, but when you get to regional and national tournaments, there may be so many entrants that the tournament may run two boats in the same division to keep it running smoothly. Julia added, “but for trick, you get to pick what boat you want to go behind, but not the driver. It is more intricate and there are so many variables like wakes, so you need a boat that works with your run.”

The local competitions rotate from Jacksonville to Decatur, Wilmington and Dow. Regionals take place at the end of July and this year were in Center City, Minnesota. Nationals were in Zachary, Louisiana, this year — just two weeks after regionals.

When asked if the COVID-19 pandemic changed the season this year, Troy Zoellner said, “One tournament was canceled and one was moved. Nationals were also moved. It was originally scheduled in West Palm Beach, Florida, but they backed out in April and Zachary, Louisiana, picked it up.”

Both children said modestly that in regionals they did “pretty good.” Julia said, “I got first in jump, first in trick, third in slalom and then first overall.”

Jaret said, “I got third in slalom, seventh in trick, second in jump and fourth overall.”

That is with roughly 15-20 in each division. More than “pretty good”!

Beating many people in their age groups to qualify for nationals, both children once again excelled! Julia said, “I got fourth in jump, seventh in trick, 13th in slalom and then seventh overall.”

Jaret said, “I only jumped at nationals and I got fourth.”

Amazing accomplishments at great odds for these young people! Jaret only did one jump in his three attempts at nationals and he was able to secure a fourth-place rank with that jump! He elected to pass on his first jump (feeling it was not quite right, which skiers can do but it scores as a 0). The second jump, he ended upside-down and backward and crashed and, despite the crash, he got up and with his third jump was able to jump far and high enough on that one jump to tie another kid, and they had to turn around and do another two jumps as part of a jump-off!

“But the really cool thing,” said their dad, “there were probably 200 people watching the event. And after he climbed up onto the boat after his crash, everyone started cheering and encouraging him to go out there again and it was so amazing! And he did. He had people he didn’t know after the event come up to him and congratulate him and say how proud they were of him for both mentally and physically coming back and putting that third jump on.”

Both Zoellner children were selected for 15-member Midwest Junior Development Elite Team selected from 12- to 17-years-olds in the 13-state Midwest Division! The team is chosen based on their rankings from the year’s tournament and their performance at regionals! This Elite Team selection allows Julia and Jaret the opportunity to attend a five-day camp at a professional ski school in the spring.

To keep in shape year-round, Jaret said he does fitness P.E. at Jacksonville High School and he continues his other love of riding dirt bikes, which he explains helps a lot with muscle and balance. Julia is both a tumbler and a cheerleader, which keeps her in shape.

These two remarkably busy young people are well-rounded individuals and are very humble about their talent. Help us wish this generation of Zoellners continued success and safety in all they do!

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