Everyday People: journalist turned champion barefoot water-skier

Posted 12:00PM on Wednesday 14th August 2019 ( 9 months ago )

Coming from a long-line of water-skiers, Betsy Gilman knew she always wanted to continue the family tradition, but what she didn’t know was she would leave a successful career to pursue her hobby turned passion. 

Barefoot Betsy is the better-suited name for barefoot skiing champion Betsy Gilman. She is 49-years-old and ranks 5th in the world among barefoot skiing women 35 years and older and 20th in the world among all women. 

“In my late 40s, it’s the best I’ve skied ever. I do harder tricks, cooler things, things I wouldn’t even think about doing,” Gilman said. 

Water-skiing has been a part of Betsy’s life since she was around four or 5-years-old. Her mother, sister and brother were all water-skiers, she said. 

As Betsy grew older, went to college and began a career in journalism as a producer for CNN, she continued to ski on the side. She put in hard and heavy hours into her career in her 20s and decided she wanted to save money for a boat; the decision that changed things, she said. 

“In 2016 I decided I wanted to try and win a gold medal at the world’s championships. I asked for a leave of absence, and they were like ‘no, really that’s like a maternity leave.’ And so, I was like ‘okay, well, then it’s time to go.’ And I left and it was the absolute best thing that I’ve done,” Gilman said.

 Betsy competed in her first nationals when she was 31-years-old, but she needed a bit more practice, she said. Fast forward five years and Betsy was asked to join the U.S. senior barefoot team—people 35-years-old or older. 

She has since competed in five world championships and has travelled across the globe to places like Australia and Germany for the sport. 

Barefooting is Betsy’s full-time job so-to-speak; She ensures year-round practice in order to improve and ski at her fullest potential. She splits her time between Lake Lanier and Big Pine Lake in Minnesota. She spends peak summers up north and the cooler seasons down south. 

The tables turned for Betsy when she decided she needed a side gig to go along with her full-time position on the water. She used her nearly 30-years of journalism experience to start her own company called Just Add Water Media. According to Betsy, “you can leave journalism, but journalism never really leaves you.” 

“I’ve done a documentary film in Africa about food insecurity in Nigeria. I do social media for small companies. I write blogs. I even produce a political segment out of DC twice a week, and all from home. So, I’m still doing my own little journalism thing, but water skiing and living my life comes first,” she said. 

Betsy’s work-based business and her skiing career merged after she hired an IT company founded by a group of women who went through the 2009 layoffs at the Atlanta Journal Constitution, called “She’s Wired.” 

“I got them to set up my home office when I left CNN and they loved it so much they sponsored me for the 2018 worlds, and so my suit says ‘She’s Wired,’ and usually I am wired,” Betsy said.  

Betsy's relationship with She’s Wired extends further than a sponsorship, especially since she is in a male-dominated sport, she said.  

“I’m all for supporting other women and so are they. We’re supporting each other,” Betsy said. “You have to reach down and lift up other women because a lot of times, I’m the only woman in the boat or one of few women in a tournament,” she said. 

Aside from her side business, Betsy took on the role of President of the American Barefoot Club, which is the largest federation of barefoot water-skiers in the world. 

“It’s not just that I ski, but I’m passionate about other people skiing and other people enjoying our sport,” she said. “I’m just trying to rebuild the sport in America and around the world.”

Betsy will compete in what she believes will be her last worlds in 2020. She would like to pursue new things, like sailing, with her husband who is also a barefoot water-skier. 

“If you want to do it, you can do it,” Betsy said. “I think the worst thing people can do is stop trying new things. You have to keep trying new things.”

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