Recently, Bob has had the upper hand. "But Kris is by no means over the hill," says Krupa. "He could easily finish ahead of Bob this year or be the one to break their world record."
Since 1976 the brothers have shared slalom skiing's alltime mark of "four at 38 off." That is, they have cleared four of the six buoys on a slalom course with a 37-foot line behind a boat traveling 36 mph. For that to mean anything, you need to know that a course is 835 feet long, 76 feet wide and bordered by three evenly spaced buoys on each side. As the tow boat passes down the middle of the course, the slalomer must ski around each buoy by zigzagging across the course. Competition begins with a 75-foot-long tow rope and the boat usually traveling at 26 mph. After each run the speed is increased until the maximum of 36 mph is reached. Skiers who have made perfect passes up until this point now enter a new phase of competition wherein the rope is progressively shortened until all the competitors have missed a buoy or fallen. Whoever clears the most buoys with the shortest rope wins.
Now back to the LaPoints' record. When they are skiing at "38 off" (of the original 75-foot line), the rope is a mere 37 feet long. That is a foot shorter than the distance from the middle of the boat out to the buoys. For 16 seconds, the time it takes for the boat to traverse the course at 36 mph, the skier, even when he has 75 feet of line to play with, is continually accelerating or decelerating, leaning or pulling, and making hairy hairpin turns. As the rope is shortened, he must swing wider and wider of the boat to complete the turns. Thus the skier has to travel ever faster and make each turn that much sharper. Like about 120 degrees, with one arm hanging on to the rope, his body extended over the buoy, nearly parallel to the water to make up for the insufficient length of line, and the ski edging to the utmost, throwing up a 30-foot wall of spray. When the rope gets down to 35 off or shorter, there seems to be no way for a skier to come out of such a turn—and many don't. But frequently the body control, timing and strength of the LaPoints bring them around the buoy erect and in good position to explode toward the next one at some 70 mph.
By being bigger, stronger and better athletes than slalomers of the past, the LaPoints have pushed the sport to limits never thought possible. At 6'2", 195 and 6'3", 205, respectively, Bob and Kris have ideal slalom physiques—long and strong. Their height gives them the added reach that's critical in short-line slaloming, and their massive shoulders and forearms enable them to pull out of turns on balance while sustaining 1,000 pounds of pressure on the rope.
"Four or five buoys at 35 off will win most tournaments," says Harvey McLeod, the editor of Spray magazine, "and Bob and Kris are good for that in any conditions. When the weather is right, they're the only ones who routinely make perfect passes at 35 off." Both LaPoints have cleared all six buoys at 38 off, but only in practice runs.
Considering that they have been battling each other at the highest level of their sport for the better part of a decade, the LaPoints remain remarkably close. "We've always helped each other and gotten along well, even at tournaments," says Kris. "It's almost like a team thing. Someone might beat one of us but not both. A win by either of us carries on the LaPoint name. If I have to lose, I'd rather it be to Bob than anyone else. That's almost like a half victory for me."
Just such a half victory is the best Kris has been able to do in the world championships. Bob has won the last two worlds, and before that, Kris couldn't compete because he's a one-event skier and the world championships are a team tournament. Before 1975 only skiers with a chance of picking up points in at least two of the three events were selected for the U.S. squad. Now world-record holders can compete in their specialties—although their scores don't count toward their nation's totals.
Water skiing's other two events are jumping and tricks. Neither of the LaPoints trick-skis competitively, but both have jumped. Though a series of nasty falls ended Kris' jumping career in 1968—he wears a protective girdle and bandage when he slaloms—Bob is still at it, despite some frightening mishaps of his own. In 1977 an unintentional belly flop from an altitude of about 30 feet put him in the hospital with a concussion and a bruised heart. The next year he tore the cartilage in his right knee.
Currently, Bob is one of the two or three top jumpers in the world. He's won both the Masters and national jumping titles but is still seeking a world championship. "One of the reasons I like to jump is that I haven't won everything," Bob says. "The slalom is tough because we are always expected to win. Others can just take shots at us without anything to lose."
Water-ski jumpers don't work the air currents the way snow-ski jumpers do. Nor do they soar as far (190 feet vs. 300). But they fly about three times as high as snow-ski jumpers, and their approach is more difficult. A snow-ski jumper's principal worry is timing his spring at the end of the run-in. In water-ski jumping, the tow boat passes 52 feet to the right of the ramp and the skier is continually cutting back and forth across the boat's wake in order to build up speed. Timing is all-important. At the last possible moment, the skier shoots across the waves and heads for the ramp, centrifugal force transforming 35 mph of boat speed into a 65-mph run-in for the jump.