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A Ballerina In Water | By Olivia McDonald

Olivia McDonald has traveled a long way on water skis. They recently took her to France, and they have punched tickets to Peru and all across the United States.

In July, she competed in the 2006 World Junior Waterski Championships in Moissac, France, where she finished fifth in tricks and sixth overall in the 17-and-under division. Considering that 28 countries were represented and there were nearly 40 opponents in her category, that seems like an impressive performance. But not to Olivia.

“To tell you the truth, I was disappointed,” she says. “I didn’t do as well as I wanted, and I expected better. We skied on a river, and it was a horrible site. The surface was bumpy, and it was hard to perform like I normally do.”

The Terry Sanford High School sophomore is 15 years old, but she is an old pro when it comes to being a ballerina in water.

“That’s what my mother calls me,” says Olivia, who is the daughter of Greg and Lynette McDonald of Fayetteville. “It has to do with balance and poise.”

Being on the water is second nature to the young lady who followed her father’s footsteps into a pair of skis when she was very small.

“I think I was four when I skied for the first time,” Olivia says, smiling at the memory. “My dad skied competitively when he was younger, and he always loved water skiing. I don’t know that I did it for him – you know, just to please him – but he was the reason I started.

“Our family would go to Wrightsville Beach in the summer, and I would wake Dad up real early to go skiing. I’d strap on my life jacket and be ready to go. It was instant love, the way I felt about skiing. I really do it for me. I mean, I just love being out on the water. It’s a great feeling, and even though I am on skis more days than I am off of them, I never get tired of it.”

She takes time off from October until the middle of February, and by then, Olivia is itching to dip her toes and skis back into the water. During the summer, she skis almost every day, normally for four or five hours.

“I practice so much that I almost feel guilty when I’m not on the water,” she says. “It’s nice to have a little break, but before too long, I miss skiing and want to get back out there. It is a huge part of my life, and one I would not trade for anything.”

Olivia began competitive skiing when she was seven, and that, too, gave her an immediate charge.

“I went to Coble Ski School in Lillington,” she says, “and then entered a few tournaments there. I was a natural for tricks and realized I really liked the competition.”

An instant success, she qualified for the regional tournament as a seven-year-old and advanced to the Nationals in West Palm Beach, Fla., where she placed third in tricks. Since then, Olivia has practically owned her division. She has won seven national championships, frequently finishing first in both tricks and overall (consisting of tricks, slaloms and jumps.)

She holds North Carolina records and has come close to setting national records. She has been to the U.S. Open and two Junior World events. In the 2003 Nationals, she placed first in tricks and overall, second in jumps and fourth in slaloms.

2004 was a very big year for her. She competed in the U.S. Masters, her “biggest thrill” to date, and did it at the age of 13, extremely young considering the event required being in the top five 17-and-under skiers in the world. She also earned a spot in the Pan Am Championships in Lima, Peru. That same year, she won the Nautique Award, presented to the skier with the most overall points regardless of age and gender. In September of 2004, she was set to compete in the United States Junior World Championships in Groveland, Fla., but she broke her left leg during training.

Olivia was out of action for a year, spending six months on crutches and six more in rehab. She also broke her back three years ago while skiing, and she still visits a chiropractor once a week as a result. She tore a groin muscle in April of this year and had to take a couple of weeks off in order to heal.

One wonders if it is worth the pain, the time and what she misses in terms of the everyday life of a teen-ager to ski at the level she does.

“For me, it is worth it,” she says. “Most 15-year-olds don’t have any idea of what it is to be committed to something. The difference between being just good and being great is your commitment and how hard you are willing to work for it.

“Sure, there are times my friends are going to the movies or something, and I’m skiing. Summers are more stressful for me because my schedule is so busy. I live out of a suitcase. And sometimes I miss doing normal kid things. But I wouldn’t change anything.”

A straight-A student in an honors curriculum, Olivia runs cross country for Terry Sanford. She plans to ski through her college years, but not for a college team. She will not choose a school just because it has a water ski team.

“I can’t imagine not skiing,” Olivia says. “It has given me the opportunity to travel and to meet people. I have made friends, seen things and done things that wouldn’t have been possible without skiing.”