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Leachman parts the waters - on skis

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Jennifer Leachman is the tall, tan, taut thirtysomething mother of a 2-year-old wake-boarder named Taylor. She is also a world-class water skier who dunked records in the slalom division of the World Tour in 1985, 1987 and, remarkably, 10 years later in 1996. And she is the first female professional skier to own and operate a ski school cum retail store: O'Town Water Sports, on Orlando's Lake Barton.

She also is the force behind a new women's professional circuit, which debuted last fall and has sold a four-stop tour to Fox Sports that will be broadcast to 22 million households with each show.

A high-octane personality who hails from West Virginia, the current co-world record holder is a life-long athlete. Today she paces the length of the small dock behind her business. "I remember being 2, standing on my dad's skis, hanging onto his leg as he skied. That memory stuck with me; it was so cool to do something with dad. I wonder if my daughter will have that kind of memory about me and her and the wake-board."

Leachman started skiing alone when she was 5, competing at 6, and although the rivers of Ohio don't leap to mind when thinking of home waters of an ace skier, that's where she first honed her skills. Then followed a local ski club, local tournaments and eventually state and regional competitions. By age 11, she'd taken on the nationals.

"There was no professional circuit to speak of ... so, I decided to play basketball at Georgia Tech; they recruited me right out of high school," she says.

But when the professional water-ski circuit emerged in her sophomore year, she opted to skip spring training and ski the tour. "After a couple of seasons, I tied the world record and started signing professional, incentive-based contracts. To really capitalize on the money, I needed year-round training."

It was a strategic decision: give up basketball and transfer to the University of Central Florida on a ski scholarship. There, she won the national title in 1986 and 1987.

A ski instructor and professional competitor since college graduation, Leachman's remarkable 1996 championship is directly attributable, she contends, to the birth of her daughter. "After having a child, I'm skiing better than ever. Somehow, the pressure's gone. ... I'm performing closer to world records because nobody expected me to; I didn't expect me to."

Leachman says her destiny is becoming increasingly clear. In response to last year's virtual elimination of women from the pro circuit -- only three or four tournaments organized for them -- she made a plan. "I just couldn't sit home and let that happen to women skiers. So, to draw attention to the situation, my decision was to ski against the men. I thought if I pissed off enough people they'd put women skiers back on the tour."

That hasn't happened yet, although she beat five of the top 30 men in the world and stands one point away from being in the top 15. Further, Leachman herself instituted the women's pro tour, dubbed "Women of Water Skiing," that premiered on Fox in November. "I had nothing to lose. What I have to gain is getting back on tour," she says.

Leachman moves through the aisles of her shop. Here is the skiing equipment, there are the street clothes. Out front, 80,000 cars daily drive by her big pink building with its enormous O'Town Water Sports sign. Out back there's a private lake.

And Leachman's leaving a rooster-tail wake moving toward the future: the eventual opening of a cafe and wine bar on the second floor of this building she is buying; free country-wide, grass-roots ski and boat clinics for women; clinics for disabled athletes, to name a few.

"We've invented something -- a place where you can come and hang out on the beach, get a ski ride during lunch time. We're going to have league nights, a wake board tournament, a workout room ... "

Does all this business-end activity mean she'll quit the competitive-skiing end? "Well, I am the oldest, actively competing, professional woman skier on the World Tour -- 33 years old, and yet I rank No. 2 in the world. So, you tell me ... should I quit?"


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