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What once was my favorite story from my career as a professional water skier has little to do with waterskiing. It was my favorite story, in part, because it did not make any sense. The event was a complete mystery to me, those who experienced it with me and everyone to whom I told the story. What happened could well be described as a Forrest Gump-type moment; an unwitting chance-encounter with a historical figure.


In June of 2013, along with a small international group of athletes - water skiers, jet skiers, and flyboarders – I traveled to Awaza; a beach resort town on the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. It was here that we met Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. He is known by the people in his country as the "backbone of the nation," the "leader of the fair state," the "dear son of the Turkman people" or simply as "the president." But for those who do not fear him, he is known as the totalitarian dictator of Turkmenistan.

To try and make sense of this story of how I came face to face with the dictator and the bizarre set of circumstances that led up to this meeting, one must first understand where Berdymukhammedov and I come from.  Our two worlds could not be more diametrically opposed. We are from opposite sides of the planet, but somehow this does not seem far enough to account for how estranged our two worlds are. 

In the spring of 2013, Charlie Newland, Jenna and Jocelyn Pickell, and I were focused on preparing for what would be a busy summer working for Summer Water Sports. SWS is Canada largest watersports company and is based in the cottage country region of Muskoka, Ontario – about two hours north of Toronto. It runs a full-service marina and is contracted by many of the resorts on the Muskoka Lakes to operate their waterfront activities such as boat rentals, tours, and waterski lessons. However, what makes SWS unique is that it serves as one of the few bastions in Canada of the niche sport of show skiing. This branch of waterskiing combines multiple disciplines of towed watersports into one performance – including freestyle jumping, barefooting, swivel skiing, and human pyramids. Since the 1970's, SWS and its predecessor companies have travelled all over Ontario and Canada performing water stunt shows at various summer festivals. Within Muskoka, the weekly shows have become a tradition for both cottagers and locals. In 2018, SWS hosted the world show skiing tournament featuring six teams from four continents.


Despite its small stature within Canada, water skiing is a global sport. It has enthusiastic and devout participants is many small pockets scattered across the globe - from Janesville, Wisconsin; to Yarrawonga, Australia; to Ypres, Belgium. These communities and many others have their own decade-long traditions of show skiing.  Some of their skiers, if they are skilled and fortunate enough, become a member of their country's national show ski team. And many of these same athletes make careers by being recruited to perform at individual events and contracted for full-time ski shows. These shows have evolved over the years as they have embraced technology and new watersports to thrill audiences. However, they all stem from the blueprint created by the Pope family. Their ski show at Cypress Gardens in Winterhaven, Florida that started during World War II is considered by many as the Mecca of waterskiing. Many historic firsts for the sport, and over 50 world records, were set there on the waters of Lake Eloise.

Ever since 1922, when the first water skier, Ralph Samuelson, amazed his neighbours after carving a couple of wood boards into skis and fashioning a toe rope from a clothesline and iron ring, water skiing has been a show-off's sport.

Perhaps it is this tradition of wild experimentation, invention and individual style that make water skiing appealing to audiences. Or perhaps audiences are drawn to the free-spirited, lively and often unruly characters who live it. In either case, the spectacle of this novel sport was a perfect match for a natural promoter like Dick Pope Sr. and American audiences of the 1950's. During this time, the sport became a pop culture sensation and was featured on the Ed Sullivan show and in major Hollywood movies. As the tricks became increasingly elaborate and extreme, the traditional ski show reached the height of its international popularity in the 1980's and 90's - when there were dozens of full and part-time shows all over the globe. Today, although traditional shows still exist, new sports such as hydro flight along with lighting and pyrotechnic effects have overhauled the look of water-based shows for modern audiences. The Australian based company H2O Events is at the innovative forefront of this new type of water show.

                          Cypress Gardens skiers                                                                         Show Ski Canada 2016


During the heyday of the narrow world of show skiing in the 80’s and 90's, many parts of the big world were in turmoil. Central Asia was in disarray following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The region had been controlled by Moscow since before the communist revolution, dating back to Czarist Russian conquests in the 1880's. Berdymukhammedov, born in 1957, had grown up in a rare period of political stability and social, economic development. Under Nikita Khrushchev's new policies, which had replaced the oppressive ones formulated by Joseph Stalin - the Turkman people saw great improvements in education and industrialization. But within a short time after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Turkmen were adrift.  "Turkmenistan, therefore, gained independence in a difficult context. Neither the elites nor the people sought the disappearance of a Soviet Union that, despite its excesses, had financed the modernization of the region," wrote Sebastian Peyrouse, in Turkmenistan: Strategies of Power, Dilemmas of Development. "It was thus only under duress that Turkmenistan declared its independence on October 27, 1991, following the lead of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan."


Saparmurat Niyozov, the then leader of the Turkmen Communist Party, was quick to fill the power vacuum left the dissolution of Soviet control. After winning the presidential election as the only candidate, he renamed his single political party the Democratic Party of Turkmenistan and adopted the role of "president for life" and the title Turkmenbashi meaning, "head of the Turkmen."

"The official slogan ‘one people, one homeland, on Turkmenbashi' – which is hard not to equate to the Nazi slogan Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer – decreed love and loyalty to Niyazov as inherent to Turkmen identity," wrote Peyrouse. 

Niyazov used this cult of personality and a Stalinist model of political purges where potential political revels were removed or arrested on charges of "political corruption." The secret service or KNB acted as a KGB equivalent.  Arbitrary arrests became common practice as was torture to obtain confessions. "Figures show that the country has more than 20,000 prisoners, one of the highest prisoner-to-population ratios in the world," wrote Peyrouse. There were strict restrictions on entering or leaving the country. Even the personal lives of the citizens were controlled - and remain so to this day. There are bans on playing video games, listening to car radios and men growing long hair. All this happens despite a liberal constitution that protects civil freedoms. The constitution is part of the propaganda to seek a favorable international reputation.

Berdymukhammedov had risen through the political ranks and avoided several political purges that befell many who rose too quickly. This followed a Soviet model of appointing people based on loyalty rather than merit. As Niyazov’s personal dentist, he may seem like an unlikely person to be elevated. His fierce loyalty to Niyazov indicated that he was not a political threat.

When Niyazov died from a heart attack following year of a heart problems in December of 2006, Berdymukhammedov was a prominent political figure holding several official positions and was the natural successor under the Soviet power model.

“There was some hope at the very beginning that Berdymukhammedov would be better,” said Viktoria Kim, a senior coordinator at Human Right Watch. “But that quickly faded away because of the people we know that disappeared in prisons in 2002.” 


Although, in the years since, he has relaxed some of the oppressive policies, he has continued with many of the same Stalinist political tactics that his predecessor employed.

Berdymukhammedov makes very rare appearances in Western news outlets. Most often they involve some bizarre and silly scene of him singing on stage, car racing or shooting guns. It seems this dentist turned ruler is making a feeble and often comedic attempt to fill the authoritarian shoes of his predecessor. He often seems like a Hollywood characterization of a dictator.

“I hear some people in Turkmenistan believe he is the best leader in the world,” said Kim. But this is only because they have no access to alternative sources of information. It is all state controlled. All they hear is how great he is.”











                                                Turkman President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov


In the spring of 2013, Turkmenistan was anticipating Berdymukhammedov’s 57th birthday. For those in his regime, this must have been a bit of a conundrum. The wrong gift may not curry you sufficient favour to avoid the inevitable next political purge, but the perfect present might lead to an advantageous political appointment.  So, what do you buy an eccentric dictator with a passion for music and fast sports? A private waterski show and concert from pop-star Jennifer Lopez of course!

Before receiving a call from Dominique Ellison, the show director for the Australian company H2Oevents, I had never heard of Turkmenistan. One year earlier I had spent 9 months skiing in a water ski show in Hassloch Germany, and I was excited to do another international contract.

Charlie Newlands, the Pickell sisters and I were the skiers selected from Canada to participate. We flew to Istanbul, Turkey where we met up with the directors - Jack Ellison with his daughters, Dominique and Brittney - along with the rest of the team assembled by H2O Events. The team was comprised the Canadians along with skiers and jets skiers from Australia and flyboarders from France. In 2013, flyboarding was a new sport invented in France that used water-powered jets to hover in the air. Our group boasted the most advanced riders at that time.

We boarded a private Turkmen jet. It was on this plane that we first saw the image of Berdymukhammedov. A large portrait in front of the Turkmen flag hung in the front of the cabin.  















                                                                    H2O Events show team – Istanbul Turkey


We flew across the Caspian Sea and first spotted the Karakum Desert which covers 80 per cent of Turkmenistan's territory.

“It was like being on the moon,” said Charlie Newlands, a veteran show skier from Toronto. “There was nothing around just horizon after horizon.” 

We landed at an airport near Awaza on the coast of the Caspian. We were surprised at how modern the airport looked. It was brand new and spotlessly clean, as if it had been transported from somewhere else and unwrapped. The airport was a modern oasis in the middle of a desert that stretched as far as the eye could see. But what was most peculiar is that no one was in the airport except for our small team of performers and the limited number of airport workers. They all matched the setting. They sported crisp brand-new uniforms and happily greeted us. We were somewhat alarmed that they did not return our passports upon arrival, but they assured us that we would get them back when we left.

Next, we boarded a brand-new coach bus that also featured the presidential portrait. We drove several kilometres down a brand new highway cutting through the desert. The only people we saw were workers, completely covered from head to toe so that only a slit for their eyes were exposed, using brooms to sweep away the grains of sand that had blown across the road until it was spotless.

As we approach Awaza, we saw the first sight of trees. They were small evergreens that looked to be newly planted in a perfect grid-like pattern.  Awaza was much the same as the airport and the highway. It was newly constructed and perfectly clean, but also completely empty apart for our small team and several other performers. Huge multi-story hotels were complete vacant - our team could not even fill the rooms on a single floor. The lobby resembled a Persian palace from the movies with marble floors and gold trimmed walls. There was an even larger version of the presidential portrait hanging on the wall.

Although we felt like guests of honour, the strange surroundings were unnerving. And we felt a bit like prisoners. For long periods we were told to stay in our rooms with the curtains shut.

“I always felt like I was slightly in danger, but ignorance is bliss” said Jenna Pickell, a marketing and events coordinator for Master Craft boats and show skier.

If we dared opened them, there was a security guard on the ground beneath our window who would blow a whistle and yell at us to pull the curtains shut again.

We assumed that this had something to do with extreme security measures in the resort town. However, apart from the hotel workers and security personnel, we discovered that not only were we the only guests in the hotel, we were the only occupants in the entire town. As we were escorted to the waterski site, we passed saw the security personnel with earphones – some were carrying guns. In retrospect, they were probably members of the KNB.

Beach chairs dotted the shoreline – all empty. A handful of construction workers were carrying out some finishing touches in expectation of the President's arrival. 

The show site was right on the Caspian Sea, the largest land-locked sea in the world. Waterskiing is much more manageable in calm waters. But in two days of practice before the President’s birthday celebration, the wind was so strong that the break wall between the show site and the open sea was ineffective in stopping large swells from rolling through and crashing onto the beach. It was so strong that we had to abandon the dock they had erected for us, and moved to another starting location.

Jason Rishling, the sole American on the team and the most accomplished skier, had arrived a few days before the rest of the team to inspect the site and oversee the construction of Turkmenistan's first waterski jump. The jump was positioned in front of a newly contracted pier that had a viewing area fit for a Roman emperor built on top. The seating area resembled the Portico of Rome's Pantheon with large columns supporting a triangular roof. In the middle was the President's chair in front of a decorative carpet with the pattern of the national flag hung on the wall behind.













        Jump and viewing area on the Caspian Sea                                        Jason Rishling, Taylor West, Charlie Newlands


Despite the strange setting and intimidating security presence, we were happy to be finally in an element we recognized. We focused on preparation for the performance we had come to do.


As I bent over to pull on my jump skis before our first practice run-through of the show, I saw a scuba diver staring back up at me from under the dock. The President's personal boat, a large and impressive looking yacht, was parked at the same dock. We assumed that the scuba divers' purpose was not recreational but rather another aspect of the security measures; perhaps searching for explosives.

Some of the dancers that were scheduled to perform in the concert following our ski show ventured down to the dock to watch us practice. I struck up a conversation with one of the dancers. He was about my age, and we talked about how our jobs had landed us in such a strange place. He told me he enjoyed wakeboarding and so I invited him to come back after our show the next day, and we would take him out. He said he would bring along his girl friend. After he left, one of the female skiers informed me that I had been speaking to Casper Smart, whose girlfriend was Jennifer Lopez. How gullible did she think I was?

On the morning of June 29, Berdymukhammedov’s birthday, we were instructed to wake up early and arrive on site ready to go, as the sun was rising. We passed through even tighter security this day with metal detectors and pat-downs. The fact that we were the only visitors in the town and were present at the Turkmens’ invitation did not reduce their suspicion of us.

When we arrived at the dock, they had unrolled a giant green carpet, also in the colours of the flag. We were advised that only the President may walk upon it. We had to scurry down the side.

                            Entrance to Awaza                                                     Jocelyn Pickell, living dangerously by touching                                                                                                                                                          the presidential carpet


The weather had changed for the big day. The Caspian Sea was still. It was like glass as far as you could see - which was a matter of a few feet, since a thick fog had rolled in and covered the bay. We were relieved to not have to battle the waves, but the fog had made it impossible to see where we were going and too dangerous to perform. But this was not a problem, since Berdymukhammedov had planned a stylishly late entrance to his birthday celebration. Before his arrival, the ski team was herded into a small building to be used as our change room. Through a small window, we could see a black Porsche Cayenne with gold trim arrive. Out stepped the dear son of the Turkman people, Berdymukhammedov. Several other black SUV's also arrived with other prominent members of the regime.

“The most unique thing about the whole event was that it was specifically done for one person,” said Jack Ellison, the CEO of H2O Events. “In the choreography of the show it had to all be specifically focused to him” 

We skied a perfect show for our audience of one. After the show, we were instructed to line up next to the green carpet. Even though our handlers had given us strict instructions not to interact with the president in any way, to our shock he approached us. He shook each of our hands and in perfect English, with only a slight accent, asked as questions about the show and about our home countries. He seemed completely unassuming. He spoke more like a dentist than one of the most infamous authoritarians in the world.

After our meeting with Berdymukhammedov, Rishling and I were asked to do an interview for the state television station. We were told: 1. say where you are from; 2. say what role you had in the show; and 3. compliment the dictator.

Those three days in Turkmenistan were some of the strangest I have ever experienced. Later that day, Casper returned with … Jennifer Lopez. We took her for a boat ride. The highlight of the trip for some members of the team.

“That was pretty cool getting to sit next to her,” said Rishling. “She was super talkative the whole time and super nice.”   



                     Brittany Ellison, Jennifer Lopez, Jack Ellison                                  Taylor West interviewed for Turkman state TV


As exciting as the whole trip was, we were still peripherally aware of the danger. We joked that we better not ski so poorly that the President was displeased, but not so well that he did not want us to leave. Although at the time we were naive about the human situation in Turkmenistan, this was ironically somewhat insightful as to the deeper reality behind the facade.

When our plane touched back down in Istanbul, I felt a sense of relief. Although Istanbul is itself a rather exotic place, it almost seemed like the proverbial country next door compared to what we had experienced.

I often think back on this trip and muse at how my childhood love of waterskiing led to my meeting with President Berdymukhammedov and Jennifer Lopez that day. But the more I think back on it, the more I can't help but feel a bit guilty. Guilty that I got to come back to my world with a few more dollars in my pocket and a crazy story to tell.

Now that I understand the truth of the human rights situation in Turkmenistan, it’s no longer my favorite story to tell. Now when I remember the palatial hotels and boating with pop stars, my mind drifts back to those faceless people sweeping every last grain of sand off an empty highway in an empty desert. It is no longer my favorite water-skiing story, because it is just far too sad.

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