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Extra: New London stuntman brings it home

When walking into the wooded landscape of Neer Park in New London, visitors know they will be getting a plethora of entertainment from the Little Crow Water Ski Team. But something is a little different in this year's show compared to the previou...

When walking into the wooded landscape of Neer Park in New London, visitors know they will be getting a plethora of entertainment from the Little Crow Water Ski Team. But something is a little different in this year's show compared to the previous 27 years -- something a little crazier.

Sitting down in the center bleachers, visitors get a glimpse of a skier on the far end of the bay who is wearing an unusual black waterskiing suit, a ski mask and goggles. As the speedboat pulls him out from beside a pontoon and toward the ramp, the skier passes by another boat midway. En route to the incline, a person from the other boat taps the skier on the back with a wand like he is giving encouragement or using a branding candle.

But there is one issue with this tap -- the skier was just lit on fire ... and is about to do a back flip off the ramp!

Now, why would anyone try something so bold, and dare we say, insane? Just ask daredevil and former Universal Studios stuntman Chad Thompson. And prepare to receive an interesting reply loaded with waterskiing history.

"No one has ever done it to the best of my knowledge and my stunt coordinator in Australia," Thompson said about his reasons for attempting the stunt. "There's been people that have been on fire while skiing and people that do the

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back flip, but no one has done both."

Skiing stuntman

Just another kid who grew up in New London, Thompson, 34, has always been about improving, he said, since he started skiing with the Little Crow Ski Team in 1986. Following his careers as a professional skier for Sea World and as a stuntman for Universal Studios in Japan, Thompson said this stunt just seemed like the logical next step up -- and not necessarily an audacious one.

"I don't really see it as courage, I think it is more boredom," Thompson said about his inspiration for the stunt. "You've got to keep improving and taking things to the next step. I always want to improve and if there are ways to improve it we'll try to find a way until we find a limit. Then we've got to step back a bit. But I haven't found that yet."

Whatever the inspiration, executing the stunt hasn't been easy, he said, even though he completed it on his first try. Thompson said the main concern has always been with the equipment he needs to pull off the stunt. Although Thompson has been able to do back flips off the Little Crow ramp since he was 14, he said the fire equipment throws in another element that needs careful consideration.

"I made my first try, but I've had to make some equipment improvements to get it where it is now," Thompson said. "A lot of testing, deciding how much fuel to use, etc."

As for all the equipment used, Thompson wished to disclose only so much because he fears children trying to perform some of his professional stunts. Besides wearing goggles (which Thompson has melted two sets of this summer), he also wears a suit made of Nomex brand fiber. The garment is similar to the suits that NASCAR drivers wear, Thompson said.

But an original stunt of this caliber isn't all about the flashing cameras and a major adrenaline rush. Thompson said the "Flame of Fire Gainer" has plenty of negatives to all the "shock and awe" -- including being burned by fire.

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"You get like a little lick, it's like a sunburn," Thompson said, explaining one of the stunt's drawbacks. "The second time I did it I got burnt above my eye so then I started wearing goggles ... I usually notice (a burn) the next morning in the shower when I'm like 'Ooh. That one got me a little bit there.' But for the most part, for how much flame I go through, it's pretty safe."

In addition to the danger of getting burnt during the maximum 12-second burning time, Thompson said, the special ski suit is far from comfortable. Although the unprecedented stunt was a way to contribute to the Little Crow Ski Team, Thompson said he did it more for the club than his own satisfaction because it's not very enjoyable.

"It's really not that much fun," Thompson said, laughing about the stunt's actual pleasure. "The equipment I have on is so heavy ... It takes two guys to help me put my skis on because I can't bend over far enough to get the skis on. I have a little pit crew that helps me get all the stuff on me and get my skis on."

Pushing the limit

Enjoyable or not, the passion to "push the limit" flows through Thompson's arteries and veins like the waters of the Crow River. And it started at a young age.

Joining the ski team at 13 years old, Thompson was attracted to waterskiing with the Little Crow team by his soon-to-be mentor Brian Nelson (one of the club's founders in 1979).

"We came down here just to watch some people practice and there was a guy (Nelson) who did a back flip off the ramp," Thompson said. "And I was just like 'Oh my God, I have to do that.' Nelson and I became really good friends ... and that's kind of the reason why I got into all of this."

From then on, Thompson skied at Neer Park with buddy Judd Hanson of Spicer until 1998. During that long period, Thompson and Hanson pushed each other to their best and into skiing jobs in Florida and overseas.

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"We kind of pushed each other, you know, like who could top the next best trick," Nelson said. "It worked out good because we kept pushing each other up to the next level basically. It was good we had that competitiveness. It kind of helped us gain a better skiing style, a better skiing edge."

Hanson, who is studying physical therapy at Ridgewater Community College after knee injuries from those competitive years, started skiing with the Little Crow team in 1981 and retired in 1998 after skiing in Orlando and Germany. He said he has missed the competition between him and Thompson every day since retirement.

After Nelson taught Thompson how to complete a back flip, Nelson went to San Antonio, Texas, to ski professionally. Later he reunited with Thompson while working at Universal Studios in Japan for a of couple years, Thompson said. Unfortunately, Nelson passed away last year in a car accident in Germany. Thompson said he still thinks about his "mentor and really good friend" all the time and remembers all the work they did together.

His early (and later) years

Although Thompson credits Nelson with his beginning and Hanson with his competitive nature, his adventurous and persistent spirit shined much earlier. Growing up in a home on Norway Lake, Thompson learned how to ski when he was 5 years old because the family boat "didn't sit still very much in the summers."

"We had horses, too," Thompson said, remembering his younger years. "My mom and dad always had to yell at me to slow down. I don't know why, but I just liked going fast on stuff I guess."

Almost 30 years and six different jobs (located in Orlando, Texas, Australia, Japan and Malaysia) later, Thompson is back at home, co-directing the Little Crow Ski Team and not sure of his next move. He mentioned his previous employer in Malaysia wanted him to come back to work, but he said it will be hard leaving his home after being back for the summer.

"The last time I skied here was in 1998 and I thought that was the last time," Thompson said, remembering when he moved out of the country. "I lived overseas for so long. Every year I came home for just a week ... It's hard to leave after being overseas and missing all your friends and family. I like it here."

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If not leaving the country again, Thompson said one idea could include going back to college to get his degree in marketing. In 1995, Thompson had one semester left to complete at Mankato State University when he received a phone call from Sea World of Orlando about a summer job. Needless to say, the summer job turned into a career and Thompson never made it back to Mankato to finish.

"I've been really lucky," Thompson said chuckling. "But I've got to get back there -- someday. I hear it from my aunt all the time, 'Get that degree.'"

National focus

Pushing personal plans aside, Thompson's focus is set on the ski team's trip to Rockford, Ill., this weekend for the 2007 Division I National Show Ski Championship Tournament, which runs through Sunday. After winning the club's 14th Midwest Regional Tournament July 29, Thompson hopes the team can impress the national judges with the flow, execution, spectator appeal and difficulty of its 13-act, one-hour program.

"It's a really talented group this year," Thompson said. "I've been away for a while and came back, and I couldn't believe how the younger kids are whooping up on us older guys ... I couldn't be happier with how everything has gone so far this summer and hopefully we'll be saying that Sunday night."

The last time the Little Crow Ski Team won the national event was in 1998. The team also won nationals in 1994.

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