Charleston Profile: Seth Stisher
Professional water-skier Seth Stisher gives the sport a lesson in commitment
Thirty-three-year-old sun-bronzed Stisher, a professional slalom skier and coach, has worked tirelessly to nurture H2Osmosis Sports into a viable business entity that serves the edgy sport that he so loves.
On a clear blue lake created by a construction company’s digs, a MasterCraft boat zips down the center of six red buoys, trailing a man on a single ski. At the stern, Seth Stisher watches intently as the student executes the course, slicing back and forth across the smooth surface to round each marker. At the end of the run, Stisher leans over the swim platform to offer direction on the skier’s technique before the next pass.
The 33-year-old sun-bronzed Stisher, a professional slalom skier and coach, has worked tirelessly to nurture H2Osmosis Sports into a viable business entity that serves the edgy sport that he so loves. After three years at Trophy Lakes, he and college friend and business partner Tadd Schreiber have moved and expanded the company, with headquarters now in Talking Rock, Georgia, and the new H2Osmosis Training Center tucked into the woods on John’s Island. “We call it Oz, and that’s the feeling we’re going for—it’s this Zen place to ski,” he says. “It’s that little spot in the woods where we’re able to focus on what we do.” In the near-complete shop perched beside a porch and dock that Stisher helped build, a breeze chases the thick heat as the instructor talks of growing up in Arab, Alabama.
Waterskiing and willpower flow through Stisher’s veins as surely as his familial blood. Childhood summers and weekends spent at the family’s North Alabama cabin on Lake Guntersville had him cutting through the wake of his father, a hobbyist who taught a five-year-old Stisher and his brother how to ski. “My dad gave us a great opportunity, at times probably more than we wanted,” says Stisher, who headed to the lake with increasing frequency as his passion for the sport increased. “I was mostly driven by the fact that I had an older brother who seemed like he could do everything, so I worked hard to try to be able to do everything. I didn’t have as much talent and wasn’t as fearless, but I was greatly motivated by him and my father.”
Beginning at age nine, Stisher’s tournament travels carried him around the Southeast. “At that time for me, leaving our state was like travelling out of the country,” remembers the lifelong athlete. “Wow…Georgia!” By the time he reached 14, his competitive talents had landed him in the nationals on the West Coast.
Though he travelled quite a bit as a kid, and now coaching and competitions have him jetting around the world, college kept Stisher close to home. At the University of Alabama, he earned a secondary education degree to teach language arts, theater, and speech. “In college, I decided a career path wasn’t all about money but doing something I wanted,” he says. “I knew financial opportunities would present themselves throughout my life, but I wanted the core of my work to be based in education, since that’s what makes me happy at the end of the day.”
Finding a bulletin board flyer for the Consortium for Overseas Student Teaching, he applied and was accepted to work at an inner-city performing arts school in Sydney, Australia, where he taught English and fitness and coached basketball. “The mentor I was working under took a leave of absence, so I had to actually be the teacher in front of the class while the substitute sat in the back,” he says. “I was sort of thrown to the wolves.” Perhaps it was this immersion that led Stisher to his current educator role, though in a decidedly different (and wetter) environment. “It was an opportunity to really feel what it’s like to be a teacher,” he continues. “I realized I loved teaching, and I loved skiing and the lifestyle around skiing.”
Though many college athletes leave their sports upon graduation, Stisher’s passion for waterskiing didn’t diminish during his Crimson Tide years. A member of the waterskiing club (though the sport isn’t part of the NCAA, the team’s reputation for success earned it recognition from the university), Stisher and other members competed in jumps, tricks, and slalom, finishing among the top in the country for three of his four years at the school. In 1997, going into his senior year, Stisher won the collegiate nationals, hosted by the National Collegiate Water Ski Association, in his current event of choice, slalom. “That was a real motivator,” he remembers. “In college, I skied with a lot of people who grew up going to ski schools with professional coaches. I grew up on the river, just a little more blue collar. It was a big step, because I won against guys who were national champs as kids.”
It may have been this difference that has fueled Stisher’s success as a coach, teacher, and professional athlete. “I think because my dad taught me to ski and I didn’t have much coaching when I was younger, there was a lot of self-discovery involved. I had to watch skiers, and I still do that with other pros,” Stisher says. “I had to learn how to learn, which helped me learn how to teach.”
One lesson from college that he will never forget came from waterskiing legend Kris LaPoint—a pro that Stisher dubs “the Michael Jordan of waterskiing”—who arrived at the university to coach a team clinic. Stisher was elected to pilot the boat while LaPoint skied, and his skill behind the wheel landed him a ticket to ride with the man. “He said, ‘You drive well enough. I’m going somewhere to coach tomorrow. Can you go with me?’”
That day left an awestruck Stisher in its wake, and even now—though he and LaPoint have since competed together and become friends—he recalls the story with light in his eyes and excitement in his voice. But Stisher was given more than just the thrill of a celebrity encounter; he discovered a deeper understanding of the mechanics of mentoring. “As a coach, Kris never said anything the first 10 minutes you were skiing. He just collected notes in his head, even writing them down. That’s what I try to do now,” explains Stisher, who doesn’t speak quickly, but instead watches his students intently. “I want to see what you do before I talk about what you do. I learned that from Kris LaPoint.”
After graduation, with a goal to compete professionally as well as coach, Stisher headed to Charleston’s Trophy Lakes, where he’d held a summer job during college. “I think my coaching took off before my skiing,” he notes, recalling that he had some initial difficulty getting students because he wasn’t yet competing in professional events. “So I would tell them: ‘Let me coach you. If you feel you got something out of it, pay for the instruction. If not, just pay as if you took a ski ride.” Slowly, his regular teaching roster began to grow.
When a ski club from Philadelphia approached the young coach about what he would charge to come teach at their site for a few days, he was flabbergasted. “I’d never done that, but I didn’t want to show my cards, so I said, ‘Well, normally...’ and just made up a figure,” Stisher laughs. “They didn’t blink.” His days of travelling the globe to coach ensued, and his passport has since been stamped for ski sessions in Mexico, Chile, Europe, and beyond. The H2Osmosis training facility also hosts skiers from around the world who make the trek to South Carolina to practice under Stisher’s tutelage.
As both a coach and a teacher—Stisher considers them distinctive roles—he’s encountered many types of skiers, from beginners who’ve never set a ski-booted foot behind a boat to pros that he later faces off with in cutthroat competitions. He even had his four-year-old daughter, Madalyn, up on skis at 19 months. “I waited until she asked to ski, which was when she was 18 months old,” he says. “She could say it, and she pointed to it, and she knew what she wanted.” Stisher started off pulling her by hand on training skis in the grass, then moved to the edge of the lake, where he ran through the shallow water with the blonde toddler trailing behind. Finally, she was ready to climb behind the boat. On a separate towrope, Stisher skied directly behind Madalyn to help get her up on the takeoff, then moved out to ski alongside her. “I was hanging out, going nine miles an hour, killing myself, but she loved it,” he says. With his wife of almost six years, Mary Ann, expecting a baby boy in late September, the couple may soon have their hands full with another budding skier.
And though the kids may or may not follow in their father’s professional wake, Stisher’s had plenty of opportunities to work with top talents, such as professionals Carly Clifton, Natalie Hamrick, and Tom Brantley. “Most great athletes do not make great coaches; Seth is an exception,” says Kreg Korinek, an amateur skier whom Stisher works with in Arizona.
“When I think of Seth, it’s always chin up, chest out. The result is that you turn more buoys,” says long-time local student Yancey Williams. “But if you get too big for your bindings, Seth can always speed it up or shorten the line and bring you back to slalom reality—always with a smile.”
It’s when Stisher talks about the “oh, wow” flashes that accompany sessions with beginners, though, that his love for teaching becomes apparent. “I get as much of a thrill out of a student’s accomplishments as my own. Sometimes, it’s more fun to coach the skier who doesn’t have much experience because of the moments when they just learned something and it’s a whole new world. They think, ‘I can be as good as the great guy.’”