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After tragic explosion, skier returns to water

OLDSMAR

Mike Atherton is gliding on water. With his right arm, he pulls himself forward to spin under a tightened ski rope while a woman on the boat pulling him praises God. A year and four months ago, Atherton was bound to a hospital bed, unaware what had happened to him. A family boating trip to Beer Can Island turned tragic when the boat exploded May 9, 2009, claiming his legs and his left arm and injuring several other relatives including his wife, mother-in-law and father-in-law.

After months at Tampa General Hospital, Atherton, 33, a lifelong competitive skier, lineman and father of two, wasn't sure what his future would look like.

Someone hung a poster in his room:

A picture of a man, a double amputee, water skiing.

• • •

Most Saturdays, the 100-member Tampa Bay Water Ski Show team takes to Tower Lake to demonstrate jumps, pyramids, lifts and other tricks before donation-only audiences.

Before the accident, Atherton and daughter Maddie, now 9, were regulars in the doubles act. She rode his shoulders with a dancer's grace. And he loved that she was taking to his sport.

For years, Atherton was the team's pyramid "center," a position that requires uncommon strength, stability and skill.

The group was working up to five tiers when the unthinkable occurred and their center lost his center.

There were times when those on the ski team wondered if Atherton would ever return. They brought his family food, cleaned their house, held a fundraiser to assist with Atherton's medical bills.

The truth was, Atherton was having a hard enough time learning to walk on his prosthetics. Just taking the trash to the curb sapped his energy.

But as the soft-spoken Atherton practiced his steps, worked on his balance, strengthened his arm and back and stamina, he found himself unable to imagine not getting back on the water.

His mother-in-law, Nancy Meyer, says his determination to return was almost instinctual.

"This has been a part of his life, his whole life, that it was like second nature," she said. "It's like we breathe."

• • •

Atherton's chance to get back on skis came June 12 — a year and a month after the explosion.

Ann O'Brine-Satterfield of Winter Haven, a competitive water skier who has spent 59 of her 61 years in a wheelchair due to polio, lent Atherton the adaptive equipment he needed to take to Lake Seminole.

Family, friends and ski team pals gathered at the water's edge. Professional videographers aimed their cameras as he strapped a harness around his back and shoulders, climbed into a seat on top of a ski, and clasped the ski rope with one hand.

"What if I'm not able to do this?" Atherton thought.

And then he was off.

Within minutes, Atherton was doing spins: 180 degrees, 360 degrees. He scooted himself to one side and then to the other.

The crowd whooped and hollered.

"What's better than his ability on the water is his attitude," said O'Brine-Satterfield, who teaches skiing to 200 disabled people a year. "Mostly, when people go through a catastrophic accident, they go through this depressive period. Not Mike. He said, 'I just have to get well enough to get in the water again.' "

• • •

These days, Atherton's not just skiing.

He's the show director for the Tampa Bay Water Ski Show Team, organizing acts, manning a Ziploc-covered walkie-talkie to make sure each Saturday that the 6 p.m. show goes as planned.

"Hey guys," he hollered Saturday at Tower Lake as three male jumpers prepared to take to a ramp. "Please don't fall."

He plans to get water-friendly prosthetics soon so he can stand and ski. He wants to lift his daughter again, man a pyramid.

And while he spends most of his days walking on his prosthetics rather than wheeling around in his chair, on Saturdays like these, he sits in his wheelchair just before his act.

He pulls off one leg, then the other. He peels away the fabric that protects his amputated arm from chafing under his man-made arm. Then he lowers himself to the grass, scoots himself up a boat ramp and climbs onto a seated ski.

Within seconds, he slides onto water, nothing but him, waves, rope and air.

And the standing applause of an audience in awe.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

After tragic explosion, skier returns to water 09/04/10 [Last modified: Monday, September 6, 2010 3:07pm]

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