California adaptive water skier vying to break 3 world records – and struggling to pay bills

She broke a national record in 2018 while working part time at two hospitals. She made the Adaptive Water Ski USA World Team in 2019 while leading her daughter’s Girl Scouts and coaching her son’s soccer team.

Now Elisha Nelson, 37, of Woodland is on her way to breaking three world records, a feat that no other has come close to for almost two decades.

And she is yet another world-class athlete who struggles to keep up with the bills.

Adaptive water skiing is a three-event water surface sport adapted for disabled people. It’s a strenuous exercise that requires exceptional upper-body strength, technique and precision, according to Nelson’s trainer and boat driver Craig Irons.

The discipline is performed on one or two skis depending on each athlete’s physical needs, and skiers compete against opponents with similar disabilities. “Some of my teammates are in a sit ski because they’re paralyzed,” Nelson said. “Since I was born without my right arm… I just ski with one arm and the small amount of the other that I have.”

Water skiing can be a highly dangerous sport, according to Irons and the National Safety Council, which in 2017 ranked it among the top 20 sports that cause the most injuries every year on a national scale.

It’s also a very expensive sport. Adaptive ski equipment can cost up to $4,000, and sponsorship is lacking. Nelson pays several thousand dollars per year to cover the membership to her home lake and to the USA Water Ski Association. She has to pay for everything from most of her equipment, to travel, room and board, and even boat fuel.

Like many world-class athletes, Nelson has to make daily sacrifices to compete. “The money that I’m using to ski, I could be using for home repairs and bills,” Nelson said, “...but my family makes the sacrifices because they know that this is my dream.”

Making happiness a priority

When she is not training, Nelson is an X-ray technician at Dignity Health Medical Foundation in Woodland, where she has worked for 17 years. She also works with children with disabilities at Shriners Hospitals for Children in Sacramento, three to four days per month.

Nelson is a mother of two. She said her children, Zachary, 11, and Natalya, 10, are supportive of her athletic career. But it’s still not easy.

“I still try to put my family first,” Nelson said, “so when I pick them up from school, even if I’m tired from training all day … I go in ‘mom mode.’”

Nelson said she was her daughter’s Girl Scouts leader for four years. She never misses her son’s soccer games, and she coached his YMCA soccer team for a time.

Elisha Nelson fixes the hair of daughter Natalya, 10, while her son Zachary, 11, plays with new baby bunnies in their home in Woodland on June 25. Nelson, who wears a prosthetic arm at home, spoke of the sacrifices she has made in balancing training and spending time with her family. “I’m competing every weekend right now and I’m going to be missing some of my son’s baseball games and things but they know its to follow my dream, but it’s hard,” she said. Arden Barnes asbarnes@sacbee.com

Nelson has struggled through several concussions and injuries over the years, according to her friend and training partner Paula Wolfe, but she never misses a chance to ski. “She’s definitely the hardest working person I’ve ever met,” Wolfe said. “She’s out at the lake working tirelessly in the freezing cold wind and rain.”

When it gets too cold at her home lake, Bell Aqua Lake in Rio Linda, Nelson said she often chases down the warm weather abroad. “Because it’s cold here and I really need to prepare myself,” Nelson said, ‘I train in Coyuca, Mexico, during the winter… and I also train in Orlando, Florida.”

While she will be performing against other athletes in the arm amputee category at the 2019 world championships, she said she regularly challenges herself by training with and competing against able-bodied athletes. She skis without prosthetic devices.

Nelson said her ambition is to break three world records before the end of the summer, one in each water skiing event: tricks, jumps and slalom.

Possibly the most technical of the three events, tricks consists in a 20-second show-off with athletes performing flips and turns while balancing on one or more short, flat-bottomed skis.

The most dangerous, jumps, is an adrenaline-boosting slide across a 14- to 22-foot metal ramp placed up to 5 1/2 feet above the water.

The third, the slalom event, requires the most physical strength and exact technique, according to Gillette World Sport. And it’s the one Nelson mastered the fastest.

Elisha Nelson prepares to practice tricks at Bell Acqua Lake in Rio Linda in June. Nelson began water skiing at age 9. Arden Barnes asbarnes@sacbee.com

She began training competitively in 2016 and just two years later, in 2018, broke the national adaptive water skiing national record in slalom – a make-or-break competition in which athletes ski at 34 mph along an 850-feet zigzag obstacle course until they either fall into the water or hit an obstacle.

“My next goal is breaking the world record for slalom, which I’m not that far from doing right now,” Nelson said. “It’s been held by a girl from Great Britain called Debbie Cumming, and no one has come close to breaking her record for (almost) 20 years.”

In 2015, two-time water ski world champion Freddie Winter said in an interview that water ski is “a very technical sport. It’s not a sport that you can just pick it up, and then two years later be at the top.” And yet, that’s precisely what Nelson is doing.

“Normally, in regular competition, (athletes) have been skiing for 10, 15 years before they get the opportunity to represent their country in a world competition event,” her trainer said. “To do that in three years is quite an amazing effort.”

Nelson began water skiing at 9 years old with her father. Back then, she said, “it was just for fun.” After graduating from college, she worked as an orthopedic surgery researcher, got married and had children.

“Then, as my kids got older and I started having more time, I tried to reflect on the things that really made me happy growing up,” Nelson said, “and so I made water skiing more of a priority again.”

In her first year of competition, Nelson not only broke a national record, but also made the 2019 adaptive water skiing USA world team, which gave her the chance to compete this month at the 17th Adaptive Water Ski World Championships.

In just a few weeks, she will head to Skarnes, Norway – where the first international water ski tournament for disabled athletes was held in 1986 – and try to make history once again.

Elisha Nelson practices at Bell Acqua Lake in Rio Linda in June. She began training competitively in 2016. Arden Barnes asbarnes@sacbee.com

‘There’s not big money in the sport’

Nelson will be staying 10 days in Norway to compete in the July championships. This summer’s travel expenses alone amount to $5,000 which, added to the nearly $11,000 Nelson spent this year to prepare for the competition, totals about half of her annual salary.

She had to charge these expenses to her own credit card, Nelson said, because the team receives only about $500 in funding every year. The American company Radar Skis sponsors some of her equipment and Lee Wellness Center in Woodland takes care of her health, but Nelson said she has to cover all other membership and coaching costs, tournament fees and travel expenses.

“I imagine her expenses are pretty high,” said Matt Oberholtz, USA Adaptive Water Ski and Wake Sports director and the coach of the adaptive water ski USA team. “We try to do fundraising as much as we can as an organization to help offset the costs of the athletes because, just like any other U.S. Olympic athlete, unless you are at the top of the game there is no sponsorship.”

Currently, USA-AWSWS raises funds through friendly donations, corporate sponsorships, grants, raffles and auctions, Oberholz said. But the funds are not nearly enough to cover athletes expenses, he said.

Their parent company, USA Water Ski and Wake Sports, “does not provide funding for any of its teams or team members,” according to spokesperson Scott Atkinson. They fund each of their nine disciplines through their respective organizations, which decide independently how to allocate the money. Each team may also receive direct funding from individual donors.

Atkinson said the funds are allocated according to size, and USA Adaptive Water Ski & Wake Sports is one of their smallest disciplines.

“There’s not big money in the sport,” coach Irons said. “I’m guessing that the highest paid water skier makes … at most $200,000 to $250,000 a year.” In perspective, that’s less than half of the minimum salary that the least experienced NFL, NBA and MLB players received in 2019.

The average water skier receives no pay. While able-bodied athletes get up to $1,000 for big wins, Nelson said the adaptive team does not receive any monetary rewards – even at world championships.

Nelson is not the only water skier struggling to fund her training and competition expenses, according to Robbie Parks, the U.S. representative for the adaptive water ski discipline and a five-time adaptive world team member. The great majority of adaptive water skiers do not receive sponsorship, said Parks. “We do a lot of fundraising efforts, but those just only gain a small amount.”

In April, Nelson set up a Go Fund Me page to give friends and family, her second “team,” a place to contribute. “I’m doing as much as I can right now,” she said, “but if I want to break these world records, if I want to be able to be the best in the world … it’s going to take a team.”

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Caroline Ghisolfi, from Stanford University, is a local news reporter for The Sacramento Bee, focusing on breaking news and health care. She grew up in Milan, Italy.