RALEIGH — The North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame has any number of former football and basketball stars among its members. Stock-car drivers, swimmers, coaches, administrators, a billiards player.
But never a water skier. Not until this year, when Kristi Overton Johnson was recognized.
David Thompson did marvelous things with a basketball. Jim Catfish Hunter was a pitching craftsman in pinstripes for the New York Yankees. Its an impressive group in the hall.
But few, if any, was more dominant in their chosen sport than Overton, the Greenville native who jumped in the Pamlico River at age 4 and didnt let go of the rope, or stop competing and winning in womens slalom, until she was almost 40.
Ive talked a lot about how two little words changed my life Hit it, Overton Johnson said Wednesday. Thats what we say for the boat to take off. I often think how different my life might have been if I hadnt said those two words in 1974 and then continued to say them over and over and over again for the next 30 years.
There were a lot of falls between 1974 and being a world champion. The waters not very soft. There are a lot of life lessons. It has been an amazing journey.
Overton Johnson, 42, said she had a hip deformity that prevented her from running or playing other sports. But it wasnt a problem on the water, in the slalom.
Turning professional at 13, she would notch 80 victories and earn more No. 1 national rankings than any female skier in the history of the sport. She was a four-time U.S. Open champion, an eight-time U.S. Masters champion, Pan American Games champion. She set a world record in 1992 in the slalom that was not broken until 2010.
The difference between water skiing and the traditional sports is you get one shot, she said. Youre out there, youre by yourself, you dont get a warmup. Youve flown all the way to Australia or wherever and you get one shot.
Overton Johnson, a graduate of Rose High, said she always had the strong support of her family. And it would be her father, Parker, who gave her just the lift she needed in the 1999 World Championships in Milan, Italy.
Its the one tournament for some reason I had not won, she said. I was the last one on the dock and had skied just well enough to tie for first place. As I sunk in the water, I was so defeated mentally.
All of a sudden I heard a Southern accent on the shore line. I looked over and my father was knocking people over and screaming out, You can do it, baby! It was life-changing for me.
Overton Johnson, after 10 major surgeries to reconstruct her pelvis, retired from pro competition in 2003. She would briefly return in 2007, but with another goal in sight to help gain attention for her non-profit ministry, Champions Heart.
The ministry, based in Keystone Heights, Fla., has a water-sports outreach program, In His Wakes, that helps at-risk children. Or, as Overton Johnson said, let them know they can Do it, baby!
We teach kids that champions arent people who never fall, but people who get up and say Hit it, said Overton Johnson, married and the mother of three. Victory only comes when you get off the dock.
The induction banquet is Thursday night at the Hilton North Raleigh. As part of the ceremony, a pair of memorable sports moments the Carolina Hurricanes winning the 2006 Stanley Cup, and Jim Beatty running the first sub-four-minute mile indoors in 1962 will be recognized.
Joining Overton Johnson as inductees are basketball star Lennie Rosenbluth and M.L. Carr, football star Wray Carlton, baseball coach Sam Esposito, football coach Henry Trevathan, NCAA football referee Jerry McGee and sportswriter Wilt Browning.
And a water skier.
Im really thankful, Overton Johnson said. And Im thankful our sport has gotten the recognition.