Winter Garden's Anna Gay and Horizon West's Neilly Ross placed first and second, respectively, at the 2015 World Waterski Championships in November. At just 15 and 14 years old, they're just getting started.
HORIZON WEST When the clock struck midnight on Dec. 31 and ushered in the new year, Winter Garden’s Anna Gay and Horizon West’s Neilly Ross said goodbye to a year that — by any standard — was pretty incredible.
The longtime best friends capped a year full of international travel and competition in November by taking home the top two spots in Women’s Tricks at the 2015 World Waterski Championships in Mexico.
Anna placed first with a score of 10,010 — a personal best that set a record for the competition and made her the youngest male or female to have ever surpassed the 10,000-point barrier. Neilly placed just behind her friend at second with a score of 9,500. Anna and Neilly finished 2015 as the second- and third-ranked water-skiers in the world under the age of 21, and the two were among a handful of skiers highlighted in an article by Waterski Magazine titled “Pro Skiing’s Future Talent.”
It was an incredible year, for sure. But then, when you consider that Anna is only 15 years old and Neilly is 14, things only figure to get better in 2016 for the two prodigies.
“I was very excited to win (at Worlds) — that is one of the biggest (events) you can win,” Anna said. “At the beginning of (2015), that was one of my goals, to do well there. But, in January or February, I wouldn’t have ever thought that I would have won.”
Anna started 2015 with a bang in January, winning the gold at the Junior Waterski World Championships in Peru. The sophomore at The First Academy followed that up with several other strong performances, but none can quite hold up to what she achieved in Mexico.
“I was shocked,” said Russell Gay, Anna’s father and coach. “I’ve been skiing since I was 8 or 9, trying to win Worlds – and being so close, so many times.”
Neilly, who competes for Canada at the international level and is a freshman at Windermere Prep, stacked up accomplishments in 2015, including winning the 2015 U.S. Junior Masters Trick Championship, winning the trick competition at the Junior United States Open and placing fourth at the United States Open.
After spending the first six years of her career focusing on slalom, Neilly was inspired by Anna to pick up tricking at age 8. In a short time, she became the youngest skier to trick more than 7,000, 8,000 and 9,000 points.
“Anna introduced Neilly to tricks, and she fell in love with it,” said Drew Ross, Neilly’s father. “We made the commitment and Neilly excelled. The results are staggering.”
That type of praise isn’t just the words of a proud father, either.
FAMILY AND FRIENDS
Both Drew and Russell ski professionally. The two men have been friends since they were roommates as freshmen on the ski team at Rollins College in Winter Park. To this day, skiing remains a big part in both of their lives. Russell, who excels in trick skiing, owns a company called MasterLine based in Oakland that produces ropes and handles for water sports. Drew, a slalom expert, hosts a ski academy near his home.
Their decisions to remain in the Central Florida region — Drew is from Canada originally and Russell is from Virginia — allowed for the two girls to become friends from around the time they could first walk.
With the two veteran skiers expertise combined, it has created a unique environment that has allowed the girls to thrive, competing against — and besting — adult skiers.
“My dad is like the slalom expert, and Russell knows tricking,” Neilly said. “It’s cool that they’re best friends, and Anna and I are also best friends — we spend a lot of time together.”
Beyond training with each other, the friendship has proven valuable for Anna and Neilly while at the events themselves. Both girls said having a familiar face nearby to joke around with helps take the edge off while preparing to ski against the best athletes in the world.
“They’re a little more relaxed, and it’s almost like they’re a little team,” Russell said.
With both girls having their fathers as their primary coaches, it makes for an interesting dynamic that both creates plenty of bonding time and also can, at times, cause frustration.
“It’s a strange relationship,” Drew said. “To excel at anything means the stakes are high at a personal level, so it could complicate things very easily.”
The two girls train daily, balancing their professional careers with rigorous course loads at two of the Orlando area’s premier private schools. Both girls have over a 4.0 grade-point average.
“(Skiing) doesn’t mean that I can slack off with school,” Neilly said. “Skiing actually helps with time management, and it definitely motivates me. I don’t want to be a kid who gets bad grades.”
THE NEW YEAR
Both girls have lofty goals for 2016. Anna has the world record of 10,460 in her sights, and Neilly is hoping to top 10,000 points. Between trips to places such as Chile and Australia, the two local teens will be at home, hard at work.
“Repetition helps a lot,” Anna said. “Patience is very important. Frustration comes into it a lot.”
Anna and Neilly each expressed an interest in following in their fathers’ footsteps in another capacity, too — both girls are hoping to ski at Rollins in college. Considering that is the place where the story began, anyway, it would be a fitting compliment to two proud dads.
“What’s amazed me with these two is how consistent they are,” Russell said of the two girls. “They’re (excelling) every time they come out.”
Contact Steven Ryzewski at [email protected].