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  • Tara Crutchfield

One Hundred Feet or Bust

Champion Skier Barbara Cooper Clack Heddon

“Don’t be too hard on yourself. You practice hard, you work hard, you give it all you’ve got.” That is what champion competitive water skier Barbara Cooper Clack Heddon learned during her thirty-year career. It was a lesson she first had to learn on Christmas Eve, 1956.

Heddon was 13 when she learned to ski at the Sump on Lake Hollingsworth. “My uncle got a boat and invited us all down to ski,” she remembered. “I told my dad, ‘I want to be good at this one day.’” Her dad, Charles “Charlie” L. Cooper, told her he’d give her every opportunity to succeed at it.

“My parents were extremely supportive of whatever I did,” Heddon said. They became so involved in tournaments that her mother would keep scores and post them from judges after the skiers performed. “My mother also skied in the Lakeland ski shows for a little bit, and my daddy would drive the boats for the shows,” she said.

When her father took her to the lake on December 24, 1956, to learn to jump, Barbara’s initial attempts were a bit choppy. Try after try – 25 tries actually – she would approach the jump and let go of the rope. The twenty-sixth try was the charm as Barbara held onto the rope and landed her first jump. That was the watershed event to what would be a legendary skiing career.

It was at 13 years old that Heddon set two goals: to be the first woman in the world to jump 100 feet and to represent the United States in the World Water Ski Championships. On her life jacket and skis, Heddon would write a reminder of her goal, “100 feet or bust.”

Two years after that tenacious twenty-sixth jump, Heddon would go on to set a new Girl’s record for jumping 84 feet. She excelled at slalom and trick skiing, but jumping was her true passion. “Jumping I just loved because I loved soaring through the air,” she said.

In 1957, Heddon won her first All American Junior Dixie competition at Cypress Gardens. Owner Dick Pope Sr. told her dad that he’d like Barbara to work at the Gardens. Mr. Cooper agreed, contingent that she be chaperoned at all times. Mr. Pope said he’d take good care of Barbara. “And he did,” Heddon said.

The 16-year-old skier started working at Cypress Gardens in 1959 and skied there until 1966. “Mr. Pope Sr. was the ultimate of entertainment. He wanted to always have the best shows and was a fabulous promoter of Cypress Gardens,” Heddon said. The entertainment aspect was her favorite part of working at Cypress Gardens. “To be able to go out and perform and do your best and be applauded for it,” she said. Heddon said her experience at Florida’s first theme park was great and credited it for launching her onto television programs like “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “To Tell the Truth,” “Who Do You Trust?,” and “What’s My Line?”

During her senior year in high school, Barbara entered the Miss Lakeland pageant. Mr. Pope was her sponsor for the contest and even helped produce a video of her waterskiing skills for the talent portion. Following in her mother Evelyn’s footsteps, who won the same pageant in 1936, Barbara was crowned Miss Lakeland. “It was a blast,” she said. She went on to compete in the Miss Florida pageant. Heddon said, “You would think it would be kind of cutthroat, but it wasn’t. The girls were so cordial and so sweet. I was basically the youngest one in the pageant. We would talk about the future and what’s going on, where are you going, what do you want to do in life?”

Where was Barbara Heddon going in life? The better question would have been, ‘how high?’ She met her first goal and became the first woman to soar 100 feet at the 1964 Florida State Open. “The next week, Dicksie Ann Hoyt jumped 100 feet, so I thought, ‘Whoa, I didn’t make that by much,” she said.

In 1963, only a few months postpartum with her son Scotty, Heddon claimed the women’s national overall title. “It was exciting because I hadn’t been able to train for that year and then got back into skiing for a month or so and went to the Nationals,” she said. She traveled to Long Beach, California, for the competition. “I thought, ‘Okay, I’m back.’”

Two years later was perhaps the most triumphant moment of Heddon’s waterskiing career when she led all three events, winning the Masters Cup. “Winning all three events at the Masters Water Ski Tournament and being the first woman to do that – I was ecstatic about it,” she said.

The second goal that 13-year-old Barbara Heddon had made would be met in 1965 when she earned a place on the United States Water Ski Team. She traveled with them to compete in the World Water Ski Championships in Australia, where she won the women’s slalom title. “It was very exciting. Australia is a beautiful country, and they so welcomed everybody,” she said of her time in the land Down Under.

Their time in Australia wasn’t all waterskiing for the team. Barbara remembers her teammate, Liz Allen, “We bought her first bikini bathing suit because bikinis over here weren’t quite in yet, but they were in Australia.” Asked if she also bought a bikini there, she hesitated, laughed, and said, “I did. […] It covered up a lot more than they do now.”

In 1969, Heddon reached new heights as a flight attendant for United Airlines. Her time on the water wasn’t over yet, though. She set another women’s record by jumping 111 feet in the 1971 Masters and won the slalom and jumping in the National Championships the same year. Barbara Cooper Clack Heddon was inducted into the USA Water Ski and Wake Sports Hall of Fame in 1986.

Heddon obtained her Florida Real Estate License in 1982 and was a broker with her own company, Southern Investment Realty, by 2004. “I fell in love with it the minute I started it,” she said. “I just love seeing people fulfill their dreams and buy their dream homes.” The celebrated water skier is now semiretired from real estate after selling her business three years ago. Though no longer a broker, Heddon continues to help folks fulfill their dreams as an agent for Century 21 Myers Realty.

Of all the records set, competitions won, and homes sold, Heddon notes her proudest moment was the 2007 induction of her son, Scotty Clack, into the USA Water Ski and Wake Sports Hall of Fame.

Photograph by Amy Sexson

Scotty Clack is credited with developing freestyle jumping into a competitive event. He competed in the freestyle jumping event on the professional tour for 16 years and boasted a 10-0 record in 1985. Like his mother, he began his show skiing career at Cypress Gardens, where he performed for 18 years, serving as show director from 1995-1998. During his career, Clack performed for the president of Beirut, the Queen of England, and King Hussein of Jordan five times. His waterskiing talents took him to Hollywood, where he did stunts on the movies “Meatballs” and “Smokey and the Bandit Part 3.” Clack went on to serve as the director of operations for World Sports & Marketing from 2001-2004.

Heddon and Clack were the first mother and son to both be inducted into the USA Water Ski and Wake Sports Hall of Fame.

The champion water skier remains close with her fellow skiers. “It’s a family – waterskiing is just a big family,” she said. “The Cypress Gardens Ski Team has done a wonderful job of keeping the integrity of the sport and skiing like the Gardens used to have.”

Asked if she’d be attending the IWWF World Water Ski Show Tournament, Heddon replied she’d be there. She even signed up as a volunteer for the event. “I wouldn’t miss that for the world – no pun intended,” she smiled.


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