The hot summer sun beats down on Big Lake, scorching the tall, reedy grass around the perimeter a golden yellow. Out in the middle, far from the dock, the water is dark and still, with only the occasional bubble drifting to the top from the brim and bass swimming deep below.
As Dr. Tommy Hamrick surveys the 25-acre lake on the family farm in silence, he can’t help but hear sounds from the past: boat engines revving, skis slapping against the wake, and his children’s playful jabs as they bested each other across buoys and jumps. “I was close to 40 when they started skiing,” recalls the retired Greenville periodontist.
“I taught myself to ski and do tricks, but my mom and dad never helped me with it. I skied in tournaments, but there was no pro tour when I skied. I wanted to give my kids the opportunity I never had.”
Hamrick’s dream became reality when his two tall, athletic children converged with a recreational sport exploding into worldwide, professional competitions. In this union of skill and circumstance, that humble farm pond in the middle of southern Greenville County birthed a water skiing dynasty, one which continues to win championships today. The Hamrick family tree casts a shade across the sport as broad as the Kennedys in politics, or the Fondas in film.
Family Sport // Rusty Hamrick and Natalie Hamrick Halt took up water skiing as children under the tutelage of their father Dr. Tommy Hamrick and their mom Jan.
“He always had aspirations to compete, but didn’t start early enough,” says Tommy’s son, Rusty Hamrick. “He really wanted my sister and I to be able to do it on a professional level.” Rusty’s older sister Natalie adds, “He never pushed, either. He was the perfect mix of what you need to have a child be successful: patience, commitment, and diligence. The way he would light up when we would perform well—I remember that making me feel like a million.”
Natalie gave her old man plenty of times to light up. Over the years, the self-proclaimed family exhibitionist racked up no. 1 rankings in college and the world, as well as 15 professional and three World Cup titles. She was such a phenom as a teen, she left Christ Church High School a year before graduating to take early admission at a Florida college where she could train year round. She still remembers her point of no return at the Junior World Championships: “I won on a random lake in Mexico. The conditions were unpredictable. It was a stroke of luck. But once you get that kind of a buzz from a win, from that moment on, there was no turning back,” she says.
The irony is that although Natalie was older, baby brother Rusty was the first to ski. “I was not the most adventurous girl. I didn’t like getting my hair wet, I was terrified of snakes in the lake. But I kept thinking, if Rusty can do it, I can do it,” she chuckles. “I think my dad had me on skis when I was as young as five,” Rusty elaborates. “I did my first tournament when I was 10, maybe in Gray Court on Lake Martin.
I didn’t do terrible, but I don’t remember bringing home any trophies either.”
The baby of the family would earn trophies soon enough. He won nationals in slalom in 1997, and was ranked no. 1 in the world as a junior, as well. The Hamrick siblings spent summers training under the tutelage of the legendary Jack Travers in Florida, or competing across the Southeast, with mom Jan organizing the traveling squad from out of an RV. Natalie reflects upon both of her parents’ sacrifices. “Mom doesn’t ski, but she was the force behind it all. Dad never complained. There were days when it was raining and cold and he would still get behind the wheel of that boat to pull us.”
Rusty ended up attending the College of Charleston, which allowed him to train at Trophy Lakes on Johns Island, while Natalie studied and skied further south. She concentrated solely on slalom, while Rusty nailed the skiing trifecta: slalom, jumps, and tricks. His highest ranking as a professional was #27. “Jumping was really a thrill. It was an adrenaline rush,” he recalls. “You pull out as far as you could, make your turn, cross the wake and basically haul ass as fast as you could to jump going 60–70 miles per hour. It feels like you’re soaring through the air.”
Air Time // Natalie and Rusty competed both as amateurs and on the professional circuit, achieving #1 rankings at various points in their careers.
As high as the highs, the lows hurt. Between brother and sister, injuries included cracked ribs, broken wrists, torn biceps, dislocated shoulders, and tendonitis in the elbows. Rusty was the first to put his pro skis in storage, and a car accident not too long ago makes even recreational skiing nowadays difficult. “I probably haven’t skied in eight years,” shares the 35-year-old NAI Earle Furman broker. “I have some nostalgia looking back on it. It was a lot of fun traveling and fun hanging out with people you skied with since you were a junior.”
Once she became a mom, Natalie, too, felt it was time to retire even though she was still winning. “I thrived on competitiveness. I had to shift my focus and get out of that mindset. Yoga is the antithesis of that. It’s helped me cope with early retirement.” Now a yoga-based business owner in Charleston, Natalie still watches the circuit like a hawk. Frederic Halt, her Swiss husband, is just now peaking in the sport, recently winning the Senior World Championships.
Back in the Upstate, Tommy gazes out across Big Lake and thinks about his grandsons, Natalie and Frederic’s boys, the offspring of two world champions. Six-year-old Nash is sampling a variety of sports including karate and wakeboarding. Three-year-old Ford? Well, it’s still too early for him . . . or is it? Tommy quietly ponders the situation, talking more to himself than anyone else. “We have a pontoon boat, and I pull ’em on tubes, but if they show an interest in skiing, I can put the buoys back up, I can get a boat . . . a Malibu, that’s what Natalie likes.” His mind is speeding ahead, envisioning the dynasty’s next generation, as it pops up out of water smooth as glass, racing toward the future, one buoy at a time.