Putting Their Best Feet Forward: World Barefoot Center
By Meredith Jean Morris
For many, going to work involves putting on a certain style of clothes and shoes, to spend the day sitting at a desk or standing behind a counter in an office setting.
This would be considered typical for many people employed in Polk County.
However, there is one group of Polk County workers who prepare for work in quite a different way.
While they do wear a certain style of clothing, their work preparation includes taking their shoes off, and their office is among the wind and water of Winter Haven’s many lakes.
Their job is anything but typical.
This group of exceptional people includes Keith St. Onge, Gary “Swampy” Bouchard, David Small, Ben Groen and Ashleigh Stebbeings. They are the instructors at the World Barefoot Center, also known as the WBC.
While many locals know that Winter Haven is the “Waterski Capital of the World,” they don’t realize that the world’s top barefoot water-skiers actually come to Polk County to train in the 863 area code year-round.
Furthermore, the WBC world champions are available to teach and coach others of all skill levels — from beginners to professionals.
Located off of Lucerne Park Road, in a residential neighborhood, the World Barefoot Center is situated on the shore of Lake Conine.
Physically, the center is easy to miss. However, its impact is felt both locally and internationally, in the way that it brings barefoot skiers from around the world to Polk County and prepares them to compete in — and often win — world championships.
“Keith started a ski school in Winter Haven back in 2005,” says Swampy Bouchard, a world champion coach with 30 years of experience. “Then, on May 15, four years ago, we got two world champions together and formed the World Barefoot Center.”
St. Onge, 35, is the trick and slalom ski world champion, a 13-time U.S. national champion and a two-time world champion barefoot skier.
In addition to St. Onge, the other world champion barefoot skier instrumental in the school’s start was 29-year-old David Small, a native of England, who holds five world championships and is a six-time world jump champion.
“These are two of the greatest barefoot skiers who have ever set foot on the water,” Bouchard says. “And, if you come out here to train or take a class, you’ll get to work with them.”
The purpose of the World Barefoot Center is two-fold. It is a place for beginners to come and learn how to barefoot waterski during a half or full day of training.
“If you come out, we’ll have you out on the water skiing during that day of lesson,” Bouchard says. “We’d start out with some exercises on the shore, then move out into the water in some ski shoes. After that, we’d go barefoot if you were ready.”
The second purpose of the World Barefoot Center is to provide a training facility for professional skiers to work with world champions.
Current instructors Ben Groen and Ashleigh Stebbeings first came to the center to train, and stayed on as staff.
“I learnt about (the World Barefoot Center) at the 2010 World Championships in Germany when I was talking to David Small,” says Stebbeings, a 20-year-old native of Australia and two-time world champion. “He was telling me that I should come out the following year to ski there. I started skiing there in January 2011, and became a member of the team shortly after.”
Groen, 22, had a similar experience.
“I came here to train for six weeks, and then I came back for two months to train for the world championships,” says the New Zealand native. “After that, I never left.”
It’s not unusual for barefoot skiers from around the globe to visit the World Barefoot Center for training.
“At any given time, we have people training here from other countries,” St. Onge says. “I think that’s what I’d like locals to know about us. We’ve trained teams from France, New Zealand, Germany, Finland and Great Britain. People from all over the world come here to train and come here to stay. We bring a lot of visitors into the area to stay, eat in the restaurants and shop.”
The skiers stress the unique aspect of the World Barefoot Center that regardless of skill level, anyone training will have the opportunity to learn from the top skiers in the sport.
“I would encourage (anyone interested) to come and check WBC out,” Stebbeings says, “because not only are the two world champion co-owners going to be instructing you, but we all put our heart and soul into each and every individual that comes through the school so that they are able to get the absolute most out of their skiing and time down at the school. Whether you’re a beginner or advanced, there is something for everybody at the school.”
Groen puts it well.
“Where else can you go and train with the best in the sport?” he asks. “It’d be like learning to play basketball from Michael Jordan. You’re learning how to ski from the world’s best — here in Winter Haven.”
For details about the World Barefoot Center, visit www.WorldBarefootCenter.com or call 863-877-0039.