Reinvent Yourself After Misfortune

These women never knew their own inner strength—until adversity bent and almost broke them. Here's how they got onto the comeback road and started living their dreams.

by Andrea Atkins
reinvent yourself after misfortune
After a devastating accident, Karen Putz gave up barefoot water skiing. Twenty-five years later, she's competing in the sport she loves.
Photograph: Ben Hoffmann

A passion rediscovered

As a teenager, Karen Putz spent every minute of every summer barefoot water skiing at Christie Lake in Lawrence, Michigan. One sunny day, as she crossed the boat’s wake, she caught her toe and slammed into the water. When she climbed back into the boat, she could see her friends’ lips moving but couldn’t hear any sound. “In an instant, I had gone deaf,” she says. Putz was 19.

In college, she at first resisted learning American Sign Language and floundered in class. “I cried night after night,” she says. Eventually, she graduated with a master’s in counseling, married a fellow student and had two sons and a daughter. The family settled in Bolingbrook, Illinois, and Putz went to work for a company that sells communication products for deaf individuals. Her weight ballooned to more than 200 pounds (she’s five foot four). “I was tired all the time and filled myself up with emotional eating,” she says. “I didn’t exercise.” Her life felt flat and joyless.

In the summer of 2009, while her family was visiting her parents’ lake house in Michigan, Putz’s older son asked her about barefoot skiing, and she decided to demonstrate. But as the boat started, Putz found she wasn’t in good enough shape to rise to her feet and ski. She tried again, several times, but all she got was water up her nose. “I was out of breath, and my heart was hammering,” she says. “I figured I’d never be able to ski again.

That fall Putz’s husband came across a Today video on the Web and forwarded the link to her. “The clip showed this heavyset 66-year-old woman, Judy Myers, doing what I once loved doing,” says Putz. Tears ran down her face as she watched. She felt her heart beating hard, this time from excitement. “I played the video over and over and asked myself, What’s my excuse?

Putz learned that Myers had started skiing at age 53. “But I was scared to try again,” she says. “What if I made a fool of myself? How would I communicate with the hearing people on the boat? Did I really want to show my fat self on the water?” Then she asked herself one more question: If you don’t try to ski again, will you regret it for the rest of your life? The answer was yes.

She connected with Myers through Facebook, and the two started chatting. Putz decided to join a health club, and by March 2010 she’d lost 20 pounds by running on a treadmill and skipping dessert. Myers urged Putz to join her at the World Barefoot Center in Winter Haven, Florida, so they could take lessons together. Realizing she could learn the sport’s latest techniques and best practices, Putz agreed and that month attended her first barefoot-skiing class, with instructor Keith St. Onge, a 33-year-old world-champion barefooter. On the first day, he gave his students a lesson on the dock. Putz, who can read lips, watched him intently. Then everyone piled into the boat. Her fellow students, all in better shape than Putz, skied backward, executed one-footed turns and crossed back and forth over the wake. Putz kept debating whether to back out. But in the end, she stunned herself—and impressed the entire group—by successfully “rising up.” She did several runs that day, each a little longer and a little more controlled.

Putz returned to Florida a few more times for instruction, and her skiing improved. She even learned to ski backward. “I didn’t know I had it in me to learn this at age 45,” she says.

As so often happens with people who make one change in their lives, a series of changes followed. Putz, who had always wanted to be a writer, began tweeting about her barefoot experiences, and the Chicago Tribune invited her to be a paid columnist. She scaled back her hours at the communications company and became a part-time mentor for families with deaf babies.

First Published November 9, 2011

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