The water is calm. Good. The sun is out. Fine. Most of the people sprawled on the Southern California beach seem to be awake. Bingo.
For a hot-dog water-skier these are ideal conditions. Tony Klarich, a very hot dog from Long Beach, Calif., is riding in a speedboat that is being towed by truck along the shoreline toward Long Beach Marine Stadium. Mike Murphy, Tony's uncle and a waterskiing legend in his own right, sits beside his nephew. As they ride by, a female fan on the beach spies the handsome Klarich and calls out a gushing greeting. In the boat, Murphy turns to Klarich and coos in falsetto, "Hiii, Tony!"
Relatives. Uncles. What can you do.
There's not much Klarich could do, or would do, about Uncle Mike, the man who is, after all, most responsible for Klarich's current top-dog standing in his sport. Murphy's method of taunting and goading—part mentor, part tormentor—has spurred Klarich to preeminence in slalom hot-dog skiing. Murphy has lectured his nephew on all the fine points of skiing, he has passed on family secrets, he has explained the mechanics of grabbing air and the secrets of grabbing attention. Murphy has a maxim for everything, even this last item: 'No use showing off for the fish," he says. "They don't appreciate it."
Nor, seemingly, does professional waterskiing. Hotdogging, which is stunt skiing performed on a standard slalom ski, has yet to gain the status—in cash competitions and otherwise—of such traditional pro-tour events as slalom, jump and conventional trick skiing. That may change soon, and if it does, Klarich, who's 26, and Murphy will certainly have had something to do with it. "Right now hotdogging is just considered fun—something to blow off steam," says Terry Temple, editorial consultant for Water Ski magazine. "But more and more it is becoming its own event. And Tony Klarich is doing his damnedest to make it happen."
"I'm the halftime show. I go on between the real skiers," says Klarich, who performs exhibitions at tour events on behalf of a sponsor who pays him about $50,000 a year. "I'm the dog act. But the thing is, I get the best crowd response."
Klarich takes his sport seriously even if the water-ski establishment doesn't; he works hard at making the wildest stuff look easy. "Tony's skills on the water are excellent," says Temple. "He's the Number One hot dog right now. But of course, his uncle Mike is considered the father of hotdogging."
Uncle Mike demurs, and that isn't something he does often when paid a compliment. "This guy was the original hotdogger," says Murphy, indicating a white-haired gentleman who is emerging from the truck that was towing the powerboat. "Back in the '50s he was skiing with the rope squeezed between his legs, with his arms out to his sides like a bird. And he'd jump," Murphy adds, jumping. "Clear both wakes too. Don't think that wasn't brave."
The older man is Nick Murphy, Mike's father. Nick taught his kid all he knew—just as Mike would teach Tony what he knew—and by the mid-1960s Mike had developed into an impressive show-off on a slalom ski. He was also impressive in speed and distance events: He won the 75-mile Lake Mead Marathon in 1967 and the 52-mile circuit from Long Beach to Catalina in 1962 and '63. The Catalina out-and-back race was a cakewalk for Mike. "To practice, my mom and I would always ski over to Catalina every Sunday instead of going to church," says Mike. "Religiously. We'd both ski over, eat breakfast, and then I would ski back."
At the Long Beach marina Mike helps his father push the beige powerboat into the water. "Tony!" Mike hollers as he fires up the 198-hp engine. "You're up!" The boat roars off, and 75 feet behind it Klarich rises out of the water against a curtain of iridescent spray. Cutting wide to the left, he pulls the rope behind him and slices back toward the wake, which he uses to launch himself into a 360-degree "helicopter" spin. He lands—smack!—and then turns around and skis backward so that he can wave to a couple watching from a nearby boat. "Never waste an audience" is another of the family maxims.