The most decorated U.S. women's water ski racing athlete of all time.
Debbie Nordblad learned to water ski at the age of 7, and one year later won her first water ski race. Her family was at Marine Stadium in Long Beach, Calif., for a day of water skiing in 1961 when Dick Freek, a well-established driver in the sport saw Debbie skiing. Freek immediately approached Debbie’s father, Tom, on the beach, and asked if Debbie might be interested in water ski racing. After some discussion, the families made a plan to meet at the next race at San Diego’s Mission Bay. Debbie was signed up in the 0-9 combined boys’ and girls’ race. When the green flag dropped, Debbie and eight other youngsters took off across Mission Bay. At the end of the 2-lap race the checkered flag was raised for Debbie as the winner. She went on to win races in the United States and all over the world for the next 44 years.
For recreational skiers, fast is spraying a shimmering cascade of water while leisurely gliding across a lake. For ski racers, it is a violent 90-mph encounter between burning leg muscles and a surface more akin to unyielding concrete than liquid. It requires great strength, and tremendous skill and nerve. Many racers in her class rose to the top for a year or so and then retired. For Nordblad, racing for more than 40 years successfully at the top had her competition in awe.
Nordblad, who was selected the USA Water Ski Female Athlete of the Year in 1991, is widely considered the most decorated U.S. women's water ski racing athlete of all time. She competed in 12 world championships, winning the overall gold medal two times, the silver medal three times, and the bronze medal three times. She started 44 world championships’ races and earned 28 podium placements – five gold medals, nine silver medals and 14 bronze medals – during that span. Nordblad also won 14 national titles and was a three-time winner of the famed Catalina Ski Race.
In 1993 she won Italy’s Giro Del Lario. Some 43 male and female water ski athletes started the 77-mile race. Nordblad was one of only two skiers that completed the race due to extreme weather and water conditions.
After breaking her ankle in 1995, Nordblad was anxious to get back on the water. She was in a cast for three months. When the 1996 season kicked off, she kept trying to ski on it, but her ankle just wasn’t ready. When she was invited to ski less than a month later in the famed Diamond Race in Belgium – a challenging race known for extremely rough conditions – she accepted. With former ski racer and long-time friend, Shelbey Guardalabene as her observer, Nordblad raced. And she won. It was her fourth career victory at the Diamond Race. “We had to come from behind to win the race,” Guardalabene said. “It sounds terrible to say, but you can almost abuse Debbie because she will never quit. She will never let go...You will never meet a more determined competitor.”
At the 58th running of the Catalina Race in 1996, Nordblad became the first woman skier to break the one-hour mark (59.08) at the 62-mile roundtrip race. It was a record that stood for 13 years until it was broken in 2009. Out of 44 starting line appearances she had only one DNF (did not finish) at a world championship race. But it wasn’t Nordblad who couldn’t finish that race; it was her boat.
In 2001 at the age of 48, Nordblad earned for the 11th time a spot on the U.S Elite Water Ski Racing Team, where she became half of the first mother-daughter duo ever to compete at a Worlds. Debbie placed fifth overall in the elite field, while daughter, Lacey, placed fourth in the junior field.
Nordblad announced her retirement from Worlds’ competition at the conclusion of the 2003 Water Ski Racing World Championships in Long Beach, Calif., where she placed fifth in women’s overall at the age of 50.