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Show Ski at age 8, Barefooting at age 10
During a competitive barefooting career that lasted more than 15 years, Jennifer Calleri gained national and international recognition, and eventually became the most decorated U.S. Women’s barefoot water ski athlete of all time.
Jennifer learned to water ski when she was 4 years old on Lake Camelot in Nekoosa, Wis. Her parents, Joseph and Susan, towed her behind a Thompson ski boat with a pair of Sears & Roebuck water skis tied together. The family enjoyed skiing together so much that it eventually joined the Shermalot Show Ski Club, and Jennifer and her brother, Pete, began to become more and more involved in water skiing.
In 1977 at the age of 8, Jennifer joined the Shermalot Ski Show Team and learned slalom, flags and ballet. A year later – having learned to climb a pyramid and perform doubles - she skied in her first Show Ski National Championships.
In 1979 at age 10, Jennifer learned to barefoot from Shermalot club member Tom Cavanaugh on Lake Arrowhead in Nekoosa. Tom would place Jennifer between his two skis until she got the hang of it. It took less than a handful of falls before Jennifer was barefooting on her own. In August of that year she barefooted in the Show Nationals – stepping off a slalom ski long line – and subsequently made her first appearance in The Water Skier magazine.
Jennifer’s barefooting aspirations took a significant step forward the following year when Mike Seipel introduced himself to her parents at the Show Ski Nationals. Mike, a Water Ski Hall of Fame inductee in 2000, suggested his ski school would be the perfect place for Jennifer to expand on her potential. Within a year she was training with Seipel and by the end of the following summer she already had notched her first Regional and National titles. Despite her tiny frame, Jennifer’s intensity was unmatched. A familiar order to her towboat drivers became, “Nail it to 28 and don’t baby me!”
Over the next three years Jennifer continued show skiing – adding swivel to her versatile repertoire – with Shermalot, but started to concentrate more and more on polishing her barefoot skills. She learned wake crossings, tumble turns, toe holds, one foots and back to fronts. Needless to say, she also started racking up the national titles.
In 1984 she moved into the Open Women’s division at Nationals and finished third. She also was named an alternate to the U.S. Elite Barefoot Water Ski Team that was scheduled to compete the following January at the Barefoot Water Ski World Championships in Canberra, Australia. When team member Punky Forgiana was injured, Jennifer was called on to ski for the U.S. Team. She didn’t disappoint. Despite suffering from the flu, Jennifer earned an individual silver medal in starts, finished fourth overall and helped the U.S. Team win the silver medal.
Jennifer was again named an alternate to the U.S. Team for the 1986 Worlds, but this time she didn’t compete. That didn’t sit too well with the rising star. “I didn’t like being an alternate,” Jennifer said years later. “I learned I didn’t want to sit on the bank again and watch.” So she decided to learn more skills – such as jumping, backward wake slalom and back toe holds. She also received the coveted Willa Cook Award at the Show Ski National Championships in Janesville, Wis., which is annually given to the most outstanding female performer at Nationals.
After graduating from high school in 1987, she moved to Florida to begin college and fulfill a lifelong dream of skiing at Cypress Gardens. In the fall of that year she began training with Ron Scarpa and experienced near-instant success.
In 1988 she won her first Open Women’s national overall title and first world gold medal in slalom. She also started traveling throughout the world with the Cypress Gardens road show, and was filmed for television commercials in the United States and abroad.
Jennifer’s success and dominance on the water culminated over the next eight years. Between 1988 and 1996 she set 50 pending Women’s world barefoot records and went undefeated as an overall competitor. She won her first two world overall titles in 1990 and 1992, but her most clutch performance arguably came at the 1994 Worlds in Sydney, Australia. Needing to score personal bests in the finals in slalom and jumping to win the overall title, Jennifer delivered a personal best 47 feet in jumping and a pending world record of 17.1 wake crossings in slalom. She left Australia with individual gold medals in slalom, tricks and overall, a silver medal in jumping, and a second consecutive world team gold medal.
By 1996 Jennifer’s dominance as a barefooter was unprecedented. Virtually every time she would hit the water, she would set a personal best, and those personal bests would be world records. She first set Open Women’s national barefoot records in 1988. At the time of her induction, she still held Open Women’s national records in slalom and tricks.
Only a select few athletes across all sports have had the fortune of retiring while they were still at the very top of their game. Jennifer was in that company. Jennifer announced her retirement from competitive barefooting following the 1996 Barefoot Water Ski World Championships in Fergus Falls, Minn., where she helped lead the U.S. Elite Barefoot Water Ski Team to its fifth consecutive world team gold medal after setting two pending world records in slalom and two in tricks. By the end of the tournament, Jennifer had set personal records in all three events, including a jumping score that was good enough to set a new Open Women’s national jumping record.
During her illustrious career, Jennifer earned four consecutive (1990, 1992, 1994 and 1996) overall gold medals at the Barefoot Water Ski World Championships, and served as a member of five U.S. Elite Barefoot Water Ski Teams. Jennifer won seven Open Women national overall titles, including six-consecutive titles from 1990 to 1995.
Jennifer earned her degree in Finance from Florida Southern College in 1992, but in the past few years she has turned her focus to a future career as an airline pilot. In December 2000 she received her Private Pilot’s License. In July 2001 she earned her Instrument Rating and last August she began Commercial Flight School, in which at the time of her induction she was near completion of the program.
Jennifer continues to ski part time at the Gardens, and continues to reap the rewards of her skiing career. She was named Cypress Gardens’ Skier of the Year in 1990, and in November 2001 she was inducted into the Polk County Sports Hall of Fame in Lakeland. It was while skiing at Cypress Gardens in 1993 that Jennifer met fellow skier Zane Schwenk. The couple was married in 2000 and resides in Winter Haven.