On a Ski and a Prayer : Ocean Expanse Between Long Beach and Catalina Is No Barrier to Blind Water-Skier

Times Staff Writer

Sleep had become impossible so Harry Cordellos lay awake on a boat last Friday morning and tried not to go nuts thinking about what the ocean, which once punished him, had in store for him this time.

In a couple of hours Cordellos would lock his size-12 feet on a varnished wood plank and try to water-ski 31 1/2 miles from Catalina Island to Long Beach in less than an hour and a half.

He had done it almost two years ago in 3 hours and 21 minutes, which he considered embarrassing although he had no illusions of matching the pace of the top skiers--less than an hour to Catalina and back.

Still, everybody told him how great his time was, considering that he is blind.

But Cordellos thought it was hardly worthy of praise.

He had fallen 30 times.

"I swallowed about half the Catalina channel," he said.

That was more than enough salt water to make him sick.

He also had to get in the boat four times to rest because his arms gave out.

And he was chased by a shark.

"A miserable day," he said.

Now his day of redemption had arrived. There was never any doubt it would.

In a book titled "Breaking Through," the autobiography of "the world's greatest blind athlete," Cordellos wrote:

"Over the years I have been able to develop the faith and strength to face disappointment and frustration with determination that I will somehow win in the end."

At 6:30 a.m. the only sound in sleeping Avalon harbor is the engine of the 38-foot cabin cruiser that will pull Cordellos.

The driver is Bob Nordskog, 72, a boat racing champion. Also aboard are Nordskog's grandson, Eric Nordskog, 23, an accomplished water skier, and Elmore Nelson, who will time the crossing.

"I guess we're getting down to that moment when there's only one thing left to do, that's do it," Cordellos says as he puts on a yellow life jacket.

He is 47 years old with a tanned and firm 6-foot, 165-pound body.

The boat reaches the start point, the motor is cut and Cordellos, anxious to get rid of the lump in his stomach he awoke with, says, "OK, I'm going overboard."

He feels around for his ski and climbs down the ladder into the gray water.

"It's cool, but it's pleasant," he says.

The boat's motor revs up.

"We're getting ready to pull, are you ready?" Eric Nordskog says through a bullhorn.

Cordellos, more than 100 feet back of the boat, grabs the two handles of the blue and white tow rope and yells, "Hit it."

"He's up, Bob," Nelson hollers.

Shafts of light from a hidden sun brighten the horizon as Cordellos, in the center of the boat's wake of white foam, heads 25 miles per hour toward a sea that, thankfully, is smooth.

"This is my first love," Cordellos said over dinner last Thursday night. "I would rather water ski than eat three meals a day."

The sport changed his life.

On Aug. 17, 1958, at Pedro Lake in the Sierras, Cordellos, a young man headed for blindness, water-skied for the first time.

By that day, glaucoma had almost permanently fogged his eyes despite more than a dozen operations. But when his skis leveled off on the surface, that ceased to matter.

He described the feeling in his book:

"We were headed directly toward the sun and all that I could see, except for my hands on the ski rope handle, was a golden pathway of light leading in the direction of the boat. I couldn't have been happier; the golden pathway of sunlight was leading me to a new way of life. Thank God I stuck with it and did not give up.

"Waterskiing had seemed so threatening and daring . . . now I was doing the same thing blind. Blind . I thought how insignificant thatword was now. There was no such thing as a limit anymore."

And there wasn't. In the ensuing years, Cordellos, who was shy and fumbling as a boy and whose poor vision ruled out participation in sports, became a remarkable athlete. Today, his body--only 7% of which is fat--would be the envy of much younger men, blind or sighted.

He has excelled in distance running (a 2-hour, 57-minute marathon), snow skiing and diving.

Those successes have inspired him to inspire others through writing and lecturing, which is how he makes his living.

Catalina is a ghost in the distance as Cordellos speeds along. ( "The impression I get is that of flying, I have to convince myself I'm not going faster than I am." )

Bob Nordskog turns from the wheel to look at the skier.

"I don't know how he does it," he says. "He has to have a tremendous sense of balance."

Eric Nordskog directs the bullhorn toward Cordellos.

"Move to your left a touch," he says.

Cordellos obeys. ("There is not blackness. You never lose the mental images of color. I picture the ocean as green, blue out farther, and the white foam coming at me.")

Bob Nordskog spots a Navy cruiser ahead and to the right.

From the bridge, Nelson confirms, "There is a wake."

"Don't tell him about the wake yet, wait till we get there," the captain says.

Eric Nordskog tells Cordellos: "We're going to be crossing the wake of a large vessel in about a minute. Little bumps will be coming up. This is where the roughest part will be."

Cordellos sails smoothly over the bumps and passes a school of frolicking dolphins.

"The thing I worry about is that they might start chasing him," says Bob Nordskog. "They love to play."

Cordellos isn't informed about the dolphins.

At least there isn't a shark in sight, although Nelson is prepared--"If he goes down, I grab my rifle."

The sun breaks through and the gleaming dome of the Spruce Goose is in sight.

"Victory is within our grasp," says Nelson. It is only 7:30.

Cordellos is told, "We can see the breakwater, we're almost there. We have four miles to go."

But Cordellos is struggling. He is squeezing the handles but they keep slipping.

"He's getting tired, his hands are getting tired," Eric Nordskog tells his grandfather.

"He let go! He let go!" the men on the boat shout as they watch Cordellos sink into the sea.

Cordellos lives in San Francisco with his sister and mother and frequently travels around the country to compete in athletic events and lecture on his keep-trying philosophy.

"A lot of people say I'm inspirational," he said.

Especially when he's teaching blind people how to swim or dive and does a double backward somersault off the high board.

"When I do that, sightless people refuse to say 'I can't' anymore," he said.

Cordellos said he doesn't perform his athletic feats for publicity.

"I just love doing these things," he said. "But if the recognition I get can help someone else--if a sightless person can get as much satisfaction water-skiing for the first time as I did, I'm satisfied."

"We see you, we see you."

The boat turns around and heads back to Cordellos, who is treading water.

"I just couldn't hold it anymore," he says.

The rope is thrown out to him and after a delay of only a few minutes, Cordellos commands, "Hit it," and he rises on the ski again.

"You are inside the breakwater, you have about two more minutes," Nelson says in the bullhorn. "You are now passing the Spruce Goose. Hang in there, Harry."

The clock would stop at the Queen Mary's stern.

"Now you're right alongside the Queen Mary, Harry, you're doing fine."

Not really. ("I don't think I can hold on. My fingers feel like grease. But it's like someone is telling me, 'Don't be afraid of what could happen, you're going to reach that goal."')

At two minutes till 8, he is past the bow. He has made it in 1 hour and 28 minutes. He lets go of the rope and salutes.

"Whoooo," he says, waiting to be reeled into the boat. "I feel good but I didn't a few minutes ago."

On the dock a TV crew waits so Cordellos prepares to put in his artificial right eye. But he is shivering and shaking from his exertion so much that he drops it on the boat's deck.

"Want to play marbles," he jokes.

At a news conference on the dock, Cordellos says to men listening in awe, "I was hoping to make it without a spill but I can't complain. I went down, but I really didn't fall, the boat pulled the handles from me. I don't consider that a blemish."

And just as it had on that day 27 years ago when he skied along a "golden pathway" toward a life that has led to this glorious moment, the word "blind" indeed seemed insignificant.

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