Every sport has them—young athletes who rise to the top with such power and grace that it boggles the mind. In the sport of water skiing, Anna Gay (18) and Neilly Ross (16) are two such athletes. Already, these teens have each been crowned World Champions and have won every major water-skiing title in the trick event, an on-water version of gymnastics.
In 2015, the water-ski community was put on notice that there were some new kids on the block when Anna, at the age of 15, won the 2015 World Championships in Mexico, while Neilly, then 14, captured the silver. At the most recent 2017 World Championships in France, Neilly came home with the gold. The two have traded the number one world ranking position back and forth, each pushing the other and their competitors to new heights.
But more impressive than their accomplishments on the water is their character. These two aren’t just beautiful faces with amazing talents to water ski; they are beautiful to the core. From the top of the podium, they exemplify their faith by reflecting a spirit of humility, perseverance, kindness, joy, peace, and purity. They are strong in faith, wise beyond their years, and willing to take a stand when the rest of the world settles for conformity. They have courageously chosen the road less traveled, though very few share the same faith as them.
When asked if they’d like to share their faith in Victorious Living, they immediately responded, “Yes!” Even after I explained to them the possibility of judgment and criticism from others who don’t share their faith, they were still committed and excited to share their faith stories. In a moment you’ll see why. These two champions have discovered the one thing in life that can truly bring joy, worth, peace, and purpose. And it isn’t world titles, world records, money, or fame.
Kristi: For years, you two have been each other’s greatest competition, yet you remain close friends. Tell me about your friendship.
A: I’ve known Neilly my whole life. Our dads went to college together and competed in water skiing at a world level. Through the years, our families have grown close—we’re like family. Neilly’s like a sister to me. She understands all that I go through as an athlete, student, and Christian. And she even understands what it’s like to have your father as your coach. (Laughs.) It’s so nice to have someone you love standing with you, someone who honestly wishes you well and isn’t hoping you fall.
N: Sure, there’s a rivalry between Anna and me, but it’s a good one. We push each other to be better, on the water and off. I’m a better skier because of her, and I also have a stronger relationship with Jesus Christ because of her. We want the same things in life, so we keep each other grounded, accountable, and focused.
Kristi: When did you two first learn to water ski? Was having a water ski career always on your radar?
N: I started water skiing when I was two. My dad was a slalom skier, so my early years on the water were focused on that discipline. But then I learned to trick ski. Anna and her family taught me, and that changed everything. Tricking was my true passion, although I continued to compete in the slalom jump event. You know something is your passion when no one can pull you away from it. I always wanted to be out on the water, logging more sets. I loved it; I still do.
A: I learned to ski at age two also. I did it because it was what my parents did. My mother and father are both world-class skiers, so it was natural that I would ski too. But when I was six, I caught the ski bug for myself. I developed a love for the sport, the people, and just being out on the water in general.
Kristi: Not only do you two train and compete at a world level, you are also involved heavily with school and volunteer activities. How do you balance it all?
N: Water skiing in general has made me aware of the need for time management skills in every area of my life. I try to be very conscious of where I spend my time; and that I spend it on something worthwhile and important to me. To do this, I have to know my priorities and keep them in check. I have learned that, with good focus and time management, I can do way more than I think I can. I believe a lot of people underestimate what they could accomplish if they’d just put forth the effort and manage their time well.
A: I agree. Life in general is a balancing act. I can’t do everything at one time, so I have to make choices. For me, I evaluate my priorities every day and determine what I need to focus on for that day. Some days I find I need to focus more on my studies, so I put them first. Other days, I need more on-water time to prepare for an upcoming event. I try to be flexible and give myself the grace and space to do what needs to be done. Like Neilly said, if you put your mind to something, you can achieve more than you know. You just have to schedule it out, manage your time, and make choices that will lead you to your goals.
Kristi: You two have accomplished so much. You’ve reached every goal you’ve ever set for yourself. You’ve won every title possible on the water, and you’re so young. What have you learned about accomplishments, achievements, fame, and trophies? Are they everything you thought they would be?
N: Anna and I never imagined we’d get this good, this young. Already, we’ve each accumulated US Masters titles, World Championship titles, and set world records. When I was little, I hoped I’d be the best trick skier in the world…someday. I never imagined that someday would come before I’d completed college—but it’s already happened.
It’s all been very strange. You think being a world champion will totally change your life, but it doesn’t. It might bring you happiness and excitement for five minutes, and then it’s like, what now? I’ve already learned that if your whole life is wrapped up in accomplishing some title or goal, you’ll never be happy. You’ll always be chasing something, but you won’t know what you’re chasing. You’ll think, “If I can just win this tournament (or accomplish this or that), I’ll be happy.” But you won’t. Accomplishments can’t make you happy, they only put you in a cycle of ups and downs, and there is no end to the cycle.
A: Yeah. I remember when I won the World Championships in Mexico. I was 15, and suddenly I was standing on top of the podium with Neilly by my side in second place. Someone came up to me and said, “Do you realize that you are the World Champion?” Evidently I didn’t look excited enough. It wasn’t that I wasn’t happy; it was just that it wasn’t what I had expected. As I took it all in, I suddenly realized that water skiing isn’t everything. It’s so fleeting. It can’t bring me lasting joy. There’s no joy in life if all I am working for is a medal and the title of being number one.
Kristi: So what have you found that brings you lasting joy? What is life truly about?
A: It’s simple: it’s Jesus. He’s the source of my joy. He’s my strength. He’s what this life is all about. After my gold medal in Mexico, I realized that, although I enjoy water skiing, I didn’t want to do it for me or for trophies. I wanted to do it for God. I wanted to glorify Him with my talents. I wanted to share His love with my peers and hopefully impact lives through the platform I have in this sport. God gave me this life and all these resources, abilities, and opportunities. It’s the least I can do.
N: Same with me. After I won my World Championship title in France this past September, I knew there had to be more to life than accumulating water ski medals. I have a greater purpose. My mindset has changed in the last few years. My focus isn’t about being the greatest skier anymore; it’s about making what I do, on the water and off the water, count for God. Like Colossians 3:23 says, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters” (NIV).
Skiing isn’t everything; it’s a tool to touch lives. I’m so thankful that at end of the day, skiing isn’t what fulfills me. God is. He is always with me, and He loves me. Unlike a medal or title, He will never disappoint or fade away.
Kristi: I have walked the same journey you two are walking right now—like you, I experienced early success in water skiing. I was ranked number one in the world when I was still a teen. I too had a parent as my coach, and my family was heavily involved in water skiing. I also share your faith, and I know it isn’t easy to stand strong as a Christian.
I so admire you both for standing for your faith and moral convictions so early in life. I wish I could say that I did the same, but I didn’t. I was so eager to have people like me that I often gave in to pressure. I didn’t want people to think I was “different,” so I joined in the crowd and went against my own convictions for the sake of people. How do you stand strong? I know the pressure that comes at you.
A: It’s not easy for either of us. There are temptations and pressures around every corner, and we don’t always stand perfectly. We are human and make mistakes. But with God’s help, we try our best. And when we do fail, God helps us get back on track.
People don’t always understand our belief in God or the choices we make. Sometimes they pressure us to join in, or they make fun of us. Last year at a ski event in Poland, some people said I thought I was better than them because I’m a Christian. I don’t even know how to respond to a statement like that. I don’t, by any means, think I’m better than anyone else. I just want to live a life that is in line with my beliefs and moral upbringing. It’s how my family raised me. It’s important to me.
N: I don’t think I’m better than anyone, either. Nor do I judge the decisions of others. It’s just…the things of the world aren’t important to me. They aren’t going to move me forward, so I don’t want them in my life. Honoring God with my life choices is what is important to me, and I do the best I can. And no, I don’t always get it right.
When people do poke fun, I wouldn’t say their remarks don’t hurt. They do. But I guess that’s just part of living a Christian life. Thankfully I don’t have to face it alone. God is with me and gives me strength. My parents are also there to help. My mom is such a source of comfort to me. She shares scriptures with me all the time, reminding me who God is and who I am in Him. She helps me keep everything in perspective.
Kristi: How does your faith help you in life? Why is it so important to you that you would choose being made fun of over giving into pressure?
A: My faith is everything to me. It helps me every day. It brings purpose and peace. Studying the Bible and applying it to my life helps me know how to handle situations on and off the water. It helps me know how to relate to people in a godly manner. It also helps me know God in a personal way through His Son, Jesus. God is always with me. He loves me. This comforts me. Unlike people who push me away and hurt me with their actions and words, God never hurts me. He never abandons me. Life isn’t always good. It’s not always easy. But God helps me through every situation.
N: My faith keeps me strong in heart. God is so present in my life; I sense His presence everywhere I go. I can be standing on a water-ski dock, ready to take to the water, and I pray to God. Overwhelming peace comes over me. It’s amazing. I know that He is standing on that dock with me. As Isaiah 43:2 says, He is with me as I pass through the water. I am never alone. He is my source of strength. He alone gives me the peace and ability to ski in confidence.
Because of my relationship with God and the way He encourages my heart, I have stopped looking at life as a series of coincidences. God is always at work in my life. Nothing is by chance. He sends me daily encouragement, reminding me that He sees me, loves me, and cares about what I am going through. I can be having a problem, and the Lord will send someone or a scripture, sometimes even by way of Pinterest, to lift me up. That particular scripture will speak exactly to what I am going through. I know all these things are God sent.
Kristi: Have either of you fallen into the trap of letting your performance on the water dictate your sense of self-worth?
A: Oh yes. Social media creates a big temptation to get caught up in being “Anna the skier.” I noticed this a couple of years ago. I was getting a lot of attention on social media and in magazines. It felt good to hear people say, “Awesome job, Anna,” and comment on my skiing abilities. I enjoyed seeing myself on social media posts and reading all the comments. But then I noticed I began to look for those comments. I was waiting with my phone in hand, ready to read what people said about me. I was even posting pictures so people would applaud me more and more. It was addicting. Finally, I came to my senses and did some soul searching. I asked myself why the comments of people were so important to me. I discovered it was pride. I was far from the humble person I wanted to be.
N: I am often tempted to find my worth in my performance. I don’t like not performing well; I feel like I am disappointing my parents, even though I know I’m not. They’ve sacrificed so much for me to be a great skier. Water skiing isn’t cheap! So I put a lot of unnecessary pressure on myself to do good, just so I can please other people. I’m very hard on myself at times. But I’m trying to realize that my worth, in God’s eyes and in my parent’s eyes, isn’t based on my performance.
Kristi: You two will always be listed in the record books long after you retire. How do you want to be remembered in this sport?
N: I want to be remembered for the small acts of kindness I try to do for the people I encounter each day. I’ve been very fortunate. God has blessed me with achievements that have placed me at a level of real recognition, even though I’m young. I hope my life will serve as a testimony that honors God; that I can serve as an example to others as I continue the path and keep the faith.
A: I want to be known as someone who not only dedicated herself to her sport but who was “different.” I want to be a reflection of Jesus Christ. Of course I want to be thought of as a good skier, but I believe that God gave me this gift as a way for me to spread the gospel. I want others to know that there is a God who loves them and who will help them; I want them to have faith in Him. Having a strong relationship with God is more rewarding than any title anyone can ever win.
Does this story strike a chord for you? Read the entire May 2018 issue here.
Written by Kristi Overton Johnson
Photo by Russell Gay