Winning performances against the best in water skiing are generally conceded to be the province of the young; in any list of exceptions to this concession, Chuck Stearns' name is sure to lead the rest. Stearns began competing in 1954 after witnessing his fist National Championships the year before in Long Beach, Calif., and he finally decided to end a diversified career in August of 1979. What's more, he finished on a winning note.
In between, Stearns earned such well-deserved nicknames as "Mr. Consistency" and "Steady Stearns" by capturing event and overall titles in the world's best three-event tournaments as well as by wining and sitting records in speed and marathon skiing,
Stearns scored a victory in the first Nationals he ever entered, the 1955 championships at Lakeland, Fla., where he topped a field of 18 boys Division competitors with firsts in slalom, tricks, and overall. From 1956 to 1968, he competed in the Men's Division, winning the overall crown in 1957, 1958, 1962, 1965 and 1967.
During that same time period, he won the national slalom championship five times, the tricks championships four times, and the jumping championships three times. In 1960, he got it all together at the Nationals in Minneapolis, winning all three events and overall, a feat never duplicated in the Men's Division. The same site was the scene of his Nationals overall victory in 1965.
Stearns was always candid in his appraisal of the three tournament disciplines. His favorite was slalom. He admitted that jumping was the most difficult for him. "I believe in jumping there is a barrier you don't have in slalom and tricks," he said in an interview at the height of his career. "You are afraid of the jump all the time, and you have to convince yourself that the jump isn't going to hurt you. Once you do this, even though you continue to be afraid of it, you can put your whole heart into it, and you are able to jump well."
Stearns put his heart into his skiing at the international level as well. He was selected as a member of the U.S. Team for six consecutive biennial World Championships--at Cypress Gardens in 1957; Milan, Italy, in 1959 (when he won the world slalom and overall titles); Long Beach, Calif., in 1961; Vichy, France, in 1963; Surfers Paradise, Australia, in 1965, and at Sherbrooke, Canada in 1967.
He won the Australian Moomba Masters, the sport's first cash prize tournament, in 1963 and in 1966. He scored overall victories in the prestigious Masters Tournament at Callaway Gardens in 1960, 1961, 1963 and 1965.
Chuck is the only skier in history to maintain a position at the top of both tournament skiing and ski racing at the same time. Perhaps his most remarkable achievement in ski racing was winning the Grand National Catalina Ski Race 10 times. The last time was his competition swan song in 1979 when at age 40 he finished the 52-mile open-ocean course in the record time of one hour and two seconds.
His success in marathon racing was duplicated in his quarter-mile drag racing. At the Long Beach Marine Stadium in 1966, Stearns was clocked through the traps at a record 119.52 miles an hour. Three years later, on January 11, 1969, he raised the mark to 122.11.
Although Chuck professed to enjoy tournament skiing and ski racing equally, his preference might well have been weighted slightly in the direction of the latter. The reason was that during most of his years of marathon racing his father, Bill Stearns, was his boat driver and could share as an active participant in the outcome of the competition. At tournaments, on the other hand, Chuck's coach and mentor could only sit on the sidelines and agitate whiled his son was going through the paces.
Stern's longevity in water ski competition was attributed to his superb physical conditioning. Chuck was always known for his rigorous training and self-discipline. He believed finely tuned conditioning was essential to best performance. Training became a way of life. "When I first started skiing, it was just the pleasure of skiing and the pleasure of competing." Chuck once said. "Then it became a part of my living."
Regular practice was his secret to success in the three tournament disciplines, but ski racing required more. "A racer has to be a true athlete, " he said. In his view, timing and coordination are needed in slalom, tricks and jumping, but endurance and stamina are the keys to successful ski racing.
Chuck and his father operated a ski school for years at Salton Sea in Southern California, a 2 1/2 hour trip from the home in Bellflower. One of the first ski schools in the nation it concentrate on teaching competitive skills, the Stearns school turned out many of our best tournament skiers. Countless others became better competitors merely by emulating the style, the grace and the determination of this remarkable athlete.