No One Beats Slalom Champ Camille Duvall at Making Waves Where the Buoys Are
Duvall's domain is professional waterskiing. At 27, she has won three consecutive world professional slalom championships and holds more titles (18) in slalom than all other women water-skiers combined. As effortless as it all looks, she has arrived at this eminence only after years of training and hard work. In her single-minded pursuit of excellence, she is Pete Rose in a swimsuit; in her physical prowess and power (at 5'11" and 140 pounds, she is six inches taller and 20 pounds heavier than her typical opponents), she is a curvaceous Joe Louis, cutting off the ring on a generation of pretenders.
Camille also has a brother, Sammy, 24, who has carved out his own place in the world of waterskiing. He is a three-time world overall champion and holds the U.S. record in the distance jump, with a mark of 199 feet. Between them, the Duvalls have won 25 U.S. national titles and hundreds of prizes. In a relatively anonymous sport, Camille is the first woman to earn $100,000 a year including prize money and endorsements ("The guys make twice that," she says, "Sammy, for one!"). She and her brother also operate a waterskiing school in Windermere, Fla.
Their passion for the sport is no chance enthusiasm; it was drilled into them by their father, Sam, a former amateur skier who never made it big. Sam ran a successful construction business but wanted his children to achieve what he had only dreamed of. Camille was four when she first stood up on trainer skis in a lake in Greenville, S.C., where she was born and raised. "I really wasn't hot on the idea of skiing then," she admits. "Every time I'd get up, I'd throw the rope down and my father would tell me to get up and stay up. When I didn't, he left me alone in my life jacket in the middle of the lake for 15 minutes. When he returned, you bet I skied around and around that lake."
Sammy and Camille's childhood was governed by their father's vision of trophies. There were no summer vacations that were not part of the kids' training regimen. Their mother, Diane, a recreational skier, contributed by driving the boat. "Many times," says Camille, "it was hard for me to get up. It was cold or I didn't feel like it, but my father pushed and pushed me so I had to do it. All the toil paid off."
Despite summers devoted to water-skiing, Camille says she led a normal life the rest of the year. When she was 15 the family moved to Dallas, and Camille spent her high school years showing horses and riding dirt bikes, as well as modeling and doing gymnastics. "I was in a high school sorority and went to the prom like everyone else," she says. She was even first runner-up in the Miss Dallas Teen-Age America contest.
Waterskiing isn't a major sport in landlocked Dallas, however, so as soon as she finished high school Camille moved to central Florida. "I wanted to ski full-time," she says. "I felt college would be a waste of time." Sam couldn't have agreed more.
In 1979 came the time of Camille Duvall's testing. After injuring her knee in a fall, she began to question her life. "I had just had it up to here," she says. "So I dropped out of skiing for 2½ years, and my father was furious." Next she moved to Tampa and married a man who built racing motorcycles. "I waited on him hand and foot and spoiled him," she says. Then, on a visit with her brother and parents in 1981, she was cajoled into strapping on skis again. She was surprised how much she missed it. "Her self-respect is better now that she's come back," says her former coach Jack Travers. "I think there were times when Camille felt she couldn't live up to what her father wanted. But now she skis for Camille."
For a while her marriage stood the strain of her renewed devotion. Then, in 1982, she started going on the road more often—alone. Her husband didn't enjoy the travel, she says. "We grew apart because he loved me enough to encourage me to ski anyway."
As Camille's career skimmed along unimpeded, the marriage sank with barely a trace. Then, last September, Sam died of a heart ailment at 49. "He needed a heart transplant that he didn't get in time, and he was giving me ski advice from his sickbed in the hospital," she says. "It was hard as hell on me to see a big strong man I had always looked up to deteriorate like he had."
Since Sam died, Camille hasn't wavered in what brother Sammy calls her desire to "win and win and win." She has a live-in lover now, named Turner Cox, who seems not to share her work ethic. "He likes to drink beer in a boat," she says. Camille, though, stays busy even on land, campaigning to have waterskiing added to the 1992 Olympics and working to create a Sam Duvall Memorial Fund for young skiers. "A few weeks ago one of the girls at a tournament was complaining that she might have to ski and miss her high school prom," she says. "I told her she would forget what a prom is in a few weeks. Skiing is more important." Sam couldn't have said it better.
—Written by Mike Neill, reported by Linda Marx