George Athans Jr. whips out his phone to show off a photo of the front page of the Sept. 18, 1971, issue of The Daily Courier.
“I’d just won my first water-ski world championship at the age of 19 (in Barcelona), and there I was on the front page of my hometown newspaper,” said Athans, a Kelowna native. “Your first world championship, of course, is special. But they say to defend it and win is even more special.”
That’s why Athans returned to the every-other-year Water Ski World Championships in 1973 in Bogota, Colombia, to win both the slalom and overall titles.
In between, in 1972, he won the U.S. Masters Tournament in Georgia, which Athans said was actually more competitive than the world championships because of the depth of American water-skiers in attendance.
On Friday, Athans, who has lived and worked in Montreal since going to McGill University there, was in Kelowna reminiscing at the Hotel Eldorado.
The occasion was a book signing for The Spirit of the El, a commemorative glossy hardcover that features the Athans family’s athletic prowess.
It was an event three years in the making.
The book was originally released in 2016 to mark the waterfront hotel’s 90th anniversary.
Hotel Eldorado owner Ted Callahan wanted Athans to sign his book, and vice versa.
But the timing never worked out, until now.
With Athans in town for a family holiday, the hotel threw a party Friday and invited the media and public to buy a book and have it signed by Athans, Callahan and author and photographer Tarynn Parker.
“Spirit of the El is not a story about the bricks and mortar of the Hotel Eldorado,” said Callahan. “It’s a celebration of Okanagan life. It’s about the spirit of our history, Kelowna’s people and Okanagan food and wine.
“It’s the same spirit we’re keeping alive today at the El.”
In the book’s opening collage of old photos, both Athans, and his late father, George Sr., are featured.
Athans is shown sending up a wicked rooster tail of spray while water skiing in California a year before his first world championship victory and his dad diving.
George Sr. won a diving gold medal at the British Empire Games.
Page 27 contains a family biography outlining the accomplishments of Geroge Sr., wife Irene Athans and their three sons.
Irene was a Manitoba swimming and synchronized swimming champion.
Gary was a Canadian water-ski champion and competed at the 1984 Olympics in alpine skiing. The late Greg won seven world championships in alpine skiing and was also a Canadian water-skiing champ.
“We grew up in a little cottage just two doors down from where the Hotel Eldorado is now,” said Athans.
“I learned to water-ski on an old ironing board of my mother’s when I was four. I remember playing hockey on the frozen pond that is now the hotel’s parking lot.”
In the mid-1960s as a teenager, Athans won a weekend at the Hotel Eldorado by jumping the wide wake of then owner John Hindle’s big speedboat called The Shepherd.
He didn’t redeem it at the time.
He jokingly presented the certificate to Jim Nixon, who owned the hotel in the 1980s and 1990s, but never got a room then, either. Callahan said he’d be happy to honour the five-decade-old certificate.
But Athans is staying with family while in town and on Friday morning before the book signing, they did something poignant.
They went water-skiing on Okanagan Lake and sprinkled Irene’s ashes on the water in front of where the family used to live.
It’s the same place where George Sr.’s and Greg’s ashes were spread.
“I really only water-ski when I’m in Kelowna. It’s calm and warm and no one is watching,” Athans said with a laugh.
After taking film studies and communications at university in Montreal, Athans worked as a sports commentator on CBC-TV for 16 years before starting a Montreal-based TV production company that he still operates today called Athans Communications.
He has produced hundreds of TV shows, commercials and corporate videos.
The longest-running was a TV exercise show called Caribbean Workout that ran on TSN and in syndication for 16 years.