Record-setting skier Natallia Berdnikava has found her natural habitat in Lake County.
Story: Chris Gerbasi // Photos provided by Natallia Berdnikava
In the 1950s, vacationers often sent home technicolor postcards of waterskiers with the greeting, “Hello from Florida.”
While growing up in the 1990s in Belarus, Natallia Berdnikava had similar images of waterskiing.
“I didn’t even know that waterskiing was a sport. I just thought you go on the vacation and you cruise around,” she says.
So, after taking up waterskiing in a swimming pool at age 12, Natallia may have needed a big leap to imagine that one day she would become a world champion and live 5,400 miles away in the sport’s capital, Florida. But maybe the move was inevitable.
“If you want to be a professional waterskier, you have to come here, especially Orlando, because of lakes, water, coaching—everything,” says Natallia, 35, who has set nine world records and collected numerous medals in U.S., European, and world competitions.
“Everything” also happened to include meeting a husband, Jon Travers. He’s a champion skier and son of Jack and Lelani Travers, who operate Jack Travers Waterski School at Sunset Lakes, 20225 County Road 33, Groveland. Jon, his brother Chris, and Jack all have coached Natallia, who also is an instructor at the school.
Natallia is petite with sharp Eastern European features and the remainder of a native accent that says she’s not from Groveland. Dressed in a bulky sweatshirt and black stretchy pants as she talked one spring day in the pro shop, she probably wouldn’t have been recognized as a world-class athlete—unless the knee brace and crutches gave her away. She tore the medial collateral ligament (MCL) in her left knee during a jump in a tournament in Australia.
When she’s healthy, Natallia competes all over the world in the “triathlon” of the sport: slalom, trick, and jump. The slalom requires a skier to navigate around as many buoys as possible with the shortest line of rope possible; in trick, skiers have 20 seconds to do a series of technical tricks that are scored by judges for points; and the jump is for distance.
Natallia holds the world record for most total points earned in the three events combined. She also was the first woman to trick more than 9,000 points in a competition, and the first woman to fly more than 190 feet on a jump. The speed, power, and exhilaration of that jump are worth a “Wow” at youtube.com/watch?v=5F8sVeXpxDs.
“You have to be real flexible and supple for tricks, you’ve got to be strong for slalom, and you’ve got to be strong and technically correct for jumping,” says Jack, who has operated his school for 40 years.
Jack may be a little biased as Natallia’s father-in-law, but he knows what makes her a world-class competitor.
“She’s talented but she works hard at it,” he says. “She does off-water training, stretching, uses a personal trainer, a lot of the things that aren’t such fun. A lot of the athletes prefer to ski and not do all the extras.”
Natallia also has the mental edge on competitors, Jack says.
“She’s prepared, she’s focused, she knows what she’s going to do, and she goes out and does it,” he says.
Natallia says she was trained well. Belarus, with an average temperature of 42, is not exactly a waterskiing hotbed, and, in fact, Natallia started as a gymnast. The coaches in the former Soviet republic were harsh and demanding, and she was in the gym for eight hours a day. “It was just the Russian way,” she says.
A coach suggested she try waterskiing—in a 50-meter pool. A winch was set up and kids were pulled around on skis to learn tricks when the lakes of Belarus were frozen. Natallia met one of the world’s best coaches, Arkadiy Genov, and took off from there.
“Waterskiing attracted me because, first of all, it was more fun. Everyone was smiling, it wasn’t like a boot camp all day long,” Natallia says. “Also, when you’re in gymnastics, you have a couple girls who you’re (training) with but that’s it. In waterskiing, it’s boys and girls together and we would bowl together and do different activities. The whole lifestyle of our club, that’s what attracted me more than gymnastics. It was just more fun.”
At 20, Natallia hopped the pond and moved on her own to the United States to pursue higher education at, of all places, the University of Louisiana at Monroe—a major cultural shift from Russians to Cajuns. But Natallia had done her homework. ULM has a dominant waterskiing program: 29 national titles since 1980. Fulfilling her parents’ wish, she earned degrees in marketing and management.
After graduation, she accepted two friends’ offer to live at their home in Florida. Around 2008, she crashed in competition and suffered a major knee injury that required nine months of recuperation. The upside was that she met Jon during that time, and Florida became her permanent home.
“It’s just sports,” she says of her latest knee injury, one of five she’s suffered during her career. She believes doctors didn’t properly repair her knee after that first big crash, and now her knee is “loose,” and she has needed several arthroscopic surgeries. Still, she hopes to compete for several more years.
“It all depends on your motivation and, obviously, injuries and how well you take care of your body,” Natallia says. “It’s still my main focus to take care of my joints, eat right, and do everything for this sport for now.”
She’s come a long way, literally and figuratively, from skiing in a pool. As a member of the Waterski Federation of Belarus, Natallia returns to her homeland each year. But if she ever can’t make the trip, she can just send a waterskiing postcard: “Hello from Florida.”
Natallia Berdnikava’s victories in major tournaments include:
Water Ski World Championships:
- Women’s trick, jump, and overall, 2011
- Jump, 2007
- Trick, 2008
- Trick and jump, 2012
- Trick, jump, and overall, 2008, 2013, and 2016
- Trick, 2009
- Overall, 2010
- Jump and overall, 2011
- Trick and overall, 2014-15