Imagine having a boat as your office and getting paid to travel the world. That’s a reality for Keith St. Onge, two-time world barefoot ski champion and 10-time national champion, who made his dream job happen. Apart from holding the Slalom and Trick World Records, he founded the World Barefoot Center in Winter Haven, Florida. Men’s Fitness met up with St. Onge, 31, to ask him how a kid from the snowy northeast turned into one of the planet’s greatest footers, got his insider tricks for getting up without skis, and found out what to do if you encounter a ‘gator.
MF: If you weren’t a professional barefoot water skier, what would you be?
KS: If my skiing career didn’t take off, I’d be a prison guard. I grew up in a small town in New Hampshire called Granite State, and they’d just opened a prison around the time I’d graduated from high school. A lot of my friends got jobs there.
So how’d you get into barefooting?
My grandfather had a cottage on Umbagog Lake in New Hampshire, and both my parents skied for fun. I first tried it on two skis when I was nine years old, and my cousin, Gary Bouchard-we call him Swampy-ran a local ski club. I was hooked.
How’d you manage to make a living out of it?
I moved to Florida after graduating high school with only $1000 in my pocket and no job. My dream was to be a professional barefooter, so I worked odd jobs that paid under the table during the day. I met a guy that I knew from competitions that let me stay in his “efficiency,” which was really more of a shed, in exchange for free lessons. Pretty soon, I got a boat sponsor, began giving lessons myself, and rented a house on Lake Minneola in Clermont. It all started from there.
What advice do you have for guys wanting to try barefooting?
Learn the right way to get up from the right person the first time, and you’ll see what the rush is all about. Many times guys end up taking a hard fall when the boat is going 40 miles an hour, and they wind up never wanting to try it again. Going to a ski school is the smartest thing you can do if you’re just starting out. It’s easiest to get up when the water is like glass, and that’s why the lakes in Florida are good for learning.
What should you do if you encounter a ‘gator?
I’ve been told the best thing to do is to poke them in the eye, but if you just keep your distance you’ll be safe. All alligator encounters are usually provoked. Most boats scare alligators away in the first place, because they don’t like the noise from the engine.
How can you prepare for barefooting?
I’d say having core strength is most important. Try working your stomach and back by holding the sitting V, where you’re on your tailbone and your arms and legs are up in the air. I also do kickboxing because it prepares your body for all the twisting and turning moves you make while barefooting, and loosens up your shoulders for when you’re holding the rope. Barefooting is more about explosive energy than endurance. Try punching upper cuts for 30 seconds, and then take a breather. Sprint for 30 seconds, then rest. Stretching is also key because you want flexible hamstrings and quads.
What do you eat to fuel your ski sessions?
I try to eat every two hours because barefooting burns so many calories. Everyone’s body is different, but I stay away from white pasta and flour because it makes my muscles sticky. Sugar is my biggest enemy. It goes right to my quads so I have less endurance and feel like I want to collapse. I have the most energy when I’m eating natural, unprocessed foods like salads, fruits, and vegetables. When I’m on the go, organic energy bars save me. I really like Rawma bars from Gopal’s Healthfoods.
Have you had to give up anything else?
I gave up drinking cold turkey, and it really cleared my head and made me feel stronger. Like with any goal you’re working towards, there’s always something you can sacrifice to bring yourself closer to achieving it. If you can’t quite get there, find one or two things you can change in your attitude or your life, and quit whatever is holding you back. I gave up alcohol, soda, and milk-I even used water in my cereal!-to detox my body so I could compete better. You have to sacrifice to reach your goals.
Now that you’ve reached yours, what’s you’re the best and worst part of your job?
The best part is being outdoors instead of stuck inside all day, and meeting people from all over the world. The worst part is the exact opposite: Cold, rainy weather is no fun, and neither is spending time with negative, know-it-all people. My job depends on the weather, and who is in my boat.