The Hesters have been avid water skiers for many years, but a chance meeting with a disabled woman in 1996 changed what had been a hobby into a heartfelt business venture.
The result was LiquidAccess, a more than 20-year-old company that designs and manufactures water ski equipment for disabled individuals who otherwise would not be able to participate in the water sports that so many others enjoy and take for granted. Those involved in water sports for the disabled say the Hesters’ work has led to significantly more access across the world.
“I would estimate that the number of disabled people doing water sports has grown tenfold since LiquidAccess started,” said Ann O’Brine-Satterfield, a two-time world champion and adaptive water skier based in Winter Haven. “And a lot of that has to do with them.”
Will Speed, a disabled competitive wake boarder in Charlotte, N.C., said that LiquidAccess is at the forefront of developing water sports technology for the disabled.
“They just continue to develop better and better equipment,” said Speed, who became active in adaptive water sports after a motorcycle accident paralyzed him from below the rib cage.
“Getting the wake board equipment from LiquidAccess stepped up my game and enabled me to go to the able-bodied side of competitions,” Speed said.
In recognition of the 75th anniversary of the Water Skiers with Disabilities — a division of USA Water Ski — FLORIDA TODAY decided to take a closer look at this unique Melbourne, Florida company and talk to some of the people who have been helped by Liquid Access’ products.
An idea is born
LiquidAccess is believed to be the only athletic company in the world that provides quadriplegics, amputees, and other seriously disabled people with a one-stop-shop for all the adaptive water sports equipment necessary for them to ski.
Designing skis for the disabled is equal parts art and science, and it requires both insight into the needs of the disabled community and innovative engineering to assist the disabled in overcoming their physical limitations. That means designing wide, sit-down skis with durable materials and establishing a seating position that allows disabled athletes to maneuver in the water using their upper-bodies as opposed to their legs.
For Leon and Mike, their insight into the world of disabled athletes — and the birth of LiquidAccess — didn’t come from any personal experience, but rather from an offhand conversation with Ann O’Brine-Satterfield during a skiing tournament outside Fellsmer, Florida.
Wheelchair-bound since being stricken with polio as a two-year-old, O’Brine-Satterfield has always been determined to lead a complete life. And, for more than two decades, water skiing has been a part of that life for the 65-year-old who heads up the “UCanSki2” water sports training program for the disabled.
When she met the Hesters at a skiing competition, they had recently started working on the design of water skis for racing that could be used by the general public, and they were looking for ideas.
O’Brine-Satterfield told Leon Hester about the the lack of water ski products for disabled athletes like herself. Manufacturers were scaling back production because of high costs and low profits associated with the specialty skis.
The elder Hester, a former Air Force colonel with a background in business and industrial arts, went to work in his Melbourne shop, making modifications to the KAN-SKI, a product for disabled water skiers which had been discontinued by its manufacturer, and experimenting until he found a design that worked.
“One year later, he had a prototype,” said O’Brine-Satterfield. “I immediately knew that this was the ticket, that this was what we needed.”
Making the ski prototype and creating the manufacturing mold required a $10,000 investment, money which the Hesters regard as well-spent.
“It gets pretty emotional for us,” Leon Hester said. ” We’ve been able to see the results. I see how it opens possibilities up for people.”
Hester’s ski came around at the right time for many disabled athletes.
“That was a worldwide issue in the 1990s,” says Denise Bowness, the coach of the USA Disabled Water Ski team said of the equipment shortage.
“For four or five years, there was absolutely no option for disabled water skiers who needed to buy equipment,” Bowness said. “People had to borrow skis.”
A range of products
The Hester family started a nonprofit venture to make their products.
“The business basically pays for itself, so we don’t pay out of pocket, but we don’t make much profit. Whatever profits we make we reinvest back into the business,” said Mike Hester.
Over the past 20 years, the Hesters have developed a comprehensive package of water sports products designed for the disabled, which includes sit-ski cages, wakeboard seats, head gear and adaptive skis.
All of these products are made to order, decorated based on consumer preferences and adjusted based on the size of the individual user.
LiquidAccess sells athletic equipment for people with a range of abilities, including both beginners, who they provide with their “Fresh Start” basic sk, and elite athletes, who generally opt for either the company’s “Rocket” or “Phoenix” slalom ski or its “Air” jump ski. Intermediate skiers have the option of purchasing the AOS ski, which is designed for those who have learned elemental ski skills but still need strong physical supports.
All of the component parts for this equipment are manufactured in the United States, and many of those parts are made in Brevard County, Florida. LiquidAccess has several business partners in Brevard, including Silver Horse Racing, which does the company’s machining work and Express Signs, which prints the company’s graphic designs.
Marcello Canitano, the owner of SilverHorse Racing in Melbourne, has collaborated with LiquidAccess for five years and has enjoyed the partnership.
“They’re good people, and they seem committed to what they do,” Canitano said. “It’s clear that they don’t do this for the money.”
The Next Generation
O’Brine-Satterfield has firsthand experience with “the kind of freedom that any adaptive sport can bring a disabled person,” and LiquidAccess has helped her fulfill her dream of training the next generation of adaptive skiers.
“Children are the highest commodity, because if we can instill in the children the idea that they shouldn’t let their disability hold them back, that’s the highest priority,” said O’Brine-Satterfield.
“At first, when you get these kids out there, they’re scared to death, but they come back saying, look what I can do,” she said.
LiquidAccess provides O’Brine-Satterfield with skis for her “UCanSki 2” training clinic in Winter Haven.
“We’re basically two sides of the same coin,” she said. “They provide the equipment and I provide the training.”
Speed said that the Hester family inspired his decision to become a personal trainer for disabled athletes, because he admired their extensive involvement in adaptive water sport training clinics.
He first met the Hesters in 2011 when they attended a ski clinic for disabled people in North Carolina, his home state.
“It wasn’t until LiquidAccess came up in 2011 that I figured out what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “Seeing what they did inspired me to do what they do.”
The Hesters provide all of their customers with a lifetime service guarantee, giving them the option to swap equipment if their body atrophies and they change sizes. Every year, the family travels throughout the country, attending multiple clinics for disabled skiers and other events which raise awareness of the sport.
For Leon Hester, this work is a labor of love. It is a meaningful business venture that has enriched his life.
“The people that you meet in this business are so fantastic and they’re so appreciative of receiving something that gives them freedom,” he says. “They are just really impressive people. You have to respect that they’ve taken over their lives at a time when it would be easy to give up.”
Contact Kowarski at 321-242-3640 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @IlanaKowarski.