The Michigan Water Ski Association is inducting Kay Vermeulen Nichols into its Hall of Fame. Kay, who passed away in 2015, was a true champion.
Kay grew up immersed in the sport that she would later impact in a big way. By the time Kay was old enough to put on skis, Clark Lake had spawned several remarkable water skiing careers. One of them was her brother. Kay watched as Lynn added one award after another to his trophy case. It’s not surprising that their mother, Helen, played a significant role. She encouraged her children, Lynn, Kay, and Linda to learn and excel. No doubt this early guidance and support was a motivating factor as she became a strong competitor.
Kay chose trick skiing as her discipline. With lots of hard work and her innate talent, she won local tournaments and became a Michigan state champion.
1981 marked the beginning of a streak of national tournament wins that would span 33 years. During that time she placed first 19 times in Women’s Trick Skiing covering the age groups from Women III though Women VI. Kay set a national record in Women III tricks in 1995, and Women IV tricks in 1997. In 2007 she set a national record in Women V.
Kay found the competition invigorating and continued to pursue the sport. Kay took first place in the World Master Games in Montreal in 1985. Twenty-seven years later she again finished first in the +35 World Water Ski Championships in Chapala, Mexico. At the time she was 62 years old. Her trick run score was the highest of all competitors in that tournament.
Entering the 21st century, Kay did not slow down. In fact, she reached a pinnacle. She was ranked number one in the nation for thirteen consecutive years from 2001 to 2013. She held the Elite World ranking from the World Water Skiing organization in 2010 and 2011.
Marrying and starting a family did not curb Kay’s enthusiasm for the sport. She freely shared the joy of water skiing. It became a family activity. She introduced skiing to her children, Ashley and Austin. She became a dedicated driver for her husband, David, a pretty good nationally ranked slalom skier, and now a retired radiologist.
Sharing skiing extended well beyond her family. She offered help and mentored several of today’s winners like Jimmy Siemers and Forrest Fisher who are national and world champions. She also coached national champions Gordon Hall and John Penner. After her passing, those champions came together to provide clinics for young skiers and named them after her–Kay Nichols, “You Can Do It” Clinics. So far, clinics have been held in Houston, Austin and Little Rock, with more expected.
Kay’s formative years at Clark Lake and competing in Michigan were intrinsic to her water skiing career, even as life took her elsewhere. Although she had met her future husband, David, at the lake, it was at nearby Albion College that they became close. Two weeks after graduation, they married. Eventually, David’s medical career took the family to Texas. Kay brought Clark Lake’s water skiing spirit with her. Water skiing was a definite focus for David and Kay. David reflects “I was honored to be her pin man.” Why is that an honor? When a trick skier winds the tow line around him or her, there is danger. If the skier fell, and the tow rope were not released, injury could result. Unnecessarily releasing the rope would end the trick run prematurely and ruin chances of victory. Getting it right is important. David says “I almost never released the rope.” That was a testament not only to David’s skill in anticipating Kay’s moves, but Kay’s mastery as well.
Many of Kay’s wins took place while in Texas. And Kay’s experience has some interesting parallels to another nationally known sports icon. Derek Jeter grew up in Michigan and excelled in baseball at Kalamazoo Central High School. There he received an All-State Honorable Mention that distinguished him as one of the best players in Michigan. His high school inducted him into its Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003 and renamed its baseball field in his honor in 2011. While still in high school, the Michigan Wolverines came knocking. And from 1992, his Major League Baseball career took him national. But those from his home state remembered his roots. Jeter was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame. Like Derek Jeter, Kay first made her mark in Michigan and continued to excel wherever she competed.
All through the years, Kay kept connected to Clark Lake. Her daughter, Ashley, notes “we came back to the lake every summer of my childhood and each time she would meet up with her Michigan practice partners Tony Krupa and Dan Morea. She looked forward to spending time with that group every summer. Though she didn’t compete in Michigan in her later years, she did spend time training there with people she loved and respected so much.” Trips to Michigan included water ski clinics that benefited the American Cancer Society with the participation of celebrities like Warren Witherell, Steve Schnitzer, Gordon Rathbun, and others.
Roger Lyons, another Clark Lake skier and trophy winner, persevered in the quest to have this fellow Clark Laker inducted into the Michigan Water Ski Association Hall of Fame. Roger comments “Kay’s love for the sport and its challenges was infectious. She was a great coach in all three disciplines.” Although this article focuses on her champion trick skiing, she also was expert in slalom and jumping.
Kay Vermeulen Nichols’ character, competitive drive and ability to give back to the sport goes to the core of what the Michigan Water Skiing Hall of Fame exemplifies. From the early days of countless practice runs on Clark Lake, to vigorous local competition, to statewide meets, and finally to national tournaments, her hallmark was “come and join the fun.” And it was fun, but it was also accomplishment by achieving excellence.
After losing a courageous battle to regain her health, Kay passed away in September, 2015. Friends and family gathered at Clark Lake to mourn a life that was taken far too soon. Kay was dearly loved by all around her. Out of their love for her, neighbors around the lake displayed their skis at the road side showing their admiration for her one more time.
Friends and family participated in a paddle-out for Kay in the Eagle Point cove, much like the one held in California for Hobie Alter after his passing.
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