Four years ago, Jodi Cutler and I connected in the blogosphere as parents of deaf/hard of hearing kids and bloggers. Her blog, An American Mom in Tuscany: Jordan’s Cochlear Implant Story chronicles her life in Italy with her son, Jordan. After years of connecting via the written word, I gave her a call and we talked on the phone for the first time. The ZVRS interpreter had amazing skills and the conversation flowed smoothly. I was so excited to finally connect with Jodi via phone.
After we ended our conversation, I quickly thanked the interpreter and was about to hang up. “Wait, don’t hang up!” she signed. “Are you a barefooter?”
“Yup!” I said. I figured she must have read my story in the media in the past year. She pointed to a picture that was propped up on a desk behind me. “I recognized Keith St. Onge!” she said. “He taught me ten years ago in a clinic in Ohio!”
Deaf World. Barefooting World. Bam!
Jess and I skyped one night and she shared her story. Jess was in fourth grade when her father bought a Ski Nautique and he taught her to water ski. Her father grew up on the Ohio river and he loved hamming it up on the water. “He could ski on a paddle!” Jess said. A year later, they saw a guy barefooting and Jess was fascinated. “I want to learn that!” she told her dad. So he went over and asked the guy to teach her. Gripping the boom outfitted in a long-sleeve wetsuit with a vest on top, Jess put her feet on the water and skied away. “I thought it was the coolest thing!”
And boy, was she hooked. Her parents bought property on a private lake. Jess wanted to learn more, so she taught herself. In the mid-1990s, she pulled up video after video of Keith St. Onge on the Barefoot Central website and watched them over and over. She learned the deep water start off the five-foot line through a lot of trial and error. Jess became friends with another barefooter on the lake, Ron Kara, who trained with Keith in Florida. “Ron taught me to barefoot backwards, I think in ninth grade,” said Jess. “I struggled with backwards– I couldn’t get my chest off the water. I ended up bleeding and bruised, but I wouldn’t give up.” It took Jess a year, but when she finally got up backwards on her feet, it was a sweet achievement.
Jess joined the Sea World ski show in Ohio when she was sixteen. Barefooting in a ski show was a whole other form of barefooting– Jess had to get used to skiing in all kinds of water and weather conditions. Ron brought Keith to Ohio, and he worked with Jess to improve her skills.
One day, after Sea World practice, Jess was sitting on a bench waiting for her father to pick her up. She noticed a girl sitting next to her and began to make conversation. The girl pointed to her ear and shook her head. “I realized she was deaf, so I remembered some sign language that I learned in second grade and signed to her,” said Jess. Hi, my name is Jess, she signed and fingerspelled.
That encounter unwrapped another passion for Jess. She wanted to learn American Sign Language so she signed up for a class. After high school, she went to the University of Pittsburg and then transferred to McDaniel in Maryland. She graduated with a degree in Deaf Education, with minors in education, deaf studies and art history. “I’m an overachiever,” Jess chuckled. After teaching in a public school, Jess realized that she wanted to work in a one-on-one setting, so she decided to pursue a Masters in counseling at Gallaudet University, where classes are taught in American Sign Language. She now has her own private practice: Counseling for Children and Young Adults.
“I stopped barefooting in college, but that summer, I wanted to get back into it,” said Jess. Her father did some research and located Dave Miller, a competitive barefooter near the D.C./Virginia area. Jess got back on the water in 2005 and continued to improve her skills.
I was so thrilled to connect with Jess and invited her to ski at the World Barefoot Center Women’s Barefoot week next year. An interpreter who barefoots– wow, that’s a path connected by a higher power! After we ended our skype conversation, I was thankful for one thing: my procrastination, project-to-project jumping, and disorganization. My nickname may be Skippy because of that, but if I had nailed that picture on another wall like I intended to do weeks ago, I would have hung up on that phone call without two worlds colliding.