Not many kids stand at a crossroads and make a life-changing decision when they are 12.
Some kids may think they want to be world-class athletes, but very few have the determination or skill to get there.
Michelle Simpson Tuegel did, deciding at age 12 after she was eliminated from her first national championship tournament that she wanted to become the best water skier in the world in the women’s slalom event.
“I missed on my first pass,” Tuegel said. “I really stunk it up. So my dad told me that we were at a turning point. He said I could decide then to be a champion or I could quit now. It was one of those decisions you face in a lot of things in life. I decided then that I wanted to be a champion.”
After that day, Tuegel, 27, who was raised on Lake Bridgeport in North Texas, trained harder, practiced more and even skied through the winter. She turned pro at age 15 and went around the globe competing in some of the most beautiful countries in the world.
By the time she decided to trade in her skis for law school, Tuegel, now a criminal defense attorney in Waco, had become the best female water skier Texas has produced. She won the collegiate national championship in 2002, the World Cup championship in 2005 and was rated No. 1 in the United States and No. 3 in the world in women’s slalom in 2007.
With the financial backing of sponsors and a training stipend from the U.S. Olympic Committee, Tuegel competed in professional World Cup water skiing events in Australia, Austria, Canada, China, Chile, Denmark, France, Greece, Ireland, Russia and Switzerland.
In her first pro event in New York when she was a high school sophomore, Tuegel and her fellow contestants skied around the Statue of Liberty to gain publicity and support for their sport.
While Tuegel was too young to remember it, Tuegel’s father, Mike Simpson, a prominent plaintiffs’ attorney in North Texas, said his talented daughter was a natural on the water not long after she skied for the first time at age 4 on the Brazos River, just north of Lake Whitney.
Simpson, who grew up in Valley Mills, vividly remembers the day when his 12-year-old daughter weighed her options and decided to be a champion.
“She was devastated. She said, ‘Dad, I don’t think this is my sport. I choked. I want to do something else.’ I said, ‘That is fine. You can either quit or be the very best.’ I made that statement to her and then just left it for her to think over.”
The next morning, Tuegel woke up her father at 5 a.m. and told him they were going skiing. They practiced all day, Simpson said.
“You could just see the look in her eyes and see that she was going to be the best,” Simpson said. “We never said another word about it, and the next year she qualified for Junior Olympics. From then on, she just took off.”
Growing up a stone’s throw from Lake Bridgeport certainly made training easier. Simpson said local residents grew accustomed to seeing him and his daughter out on the water at all hours and at all times of the year.
At 5 feet 11 inches, the willowy Tuegel is not only built for the length and extension required for slalom skiing, she also was a talented basketball player at Bridgeport High School.
She and her family were in Greece for the 2000 Junior World Championships when they were walking to dinner. Tuegel missed a step, slipped off the sidewalk and broke a bone in her foot.
While she continued to ski in the tournament and barely missed making the finals, she was forced to miss the rest of her basketball games that year.
Water skiing is the national sport of Greece, and the Greeks were pushing that year for water skiing to be added as an Olympic sport. If it had, Tuegel would have been a member of the U.S. Olympic team, she said.
Ultimately, the International Olympic Committee rejected the sport because it uses a boat and a motor, nonhuman variables the committee was unwilling to factor into the competition.
In slalom skiing, the boat is set on cruise control at 34 mph and goes down the middle of two sets of buoys. Competitors alternate from side to side skiing around the buoys and continue until someone falls or misses a buoy.
After each pass, the rope is shortened, making the skiers cut sharper around the buoys at speeds that can reach up to 80 mph.
As one of the top athletes in her sport, Tuegel got funding from the U.S. Olympic Committee to pay for training. Though water skiing is not an Olympic sport, there is still hope that it will become one. So the committee pays athletes to train just in case.
After high school, Tuegel chose Rollins College, a small liberal arts school in Winter Park, Fla. The school has a good academic reputation, Tuegel said, but it also was located at one of the more popular water-skiing hubs.
After skiing around the world with much success, Tuegel said she decided it was time for a change. But she admits now that she looks back and wonders how good she could have become because most women skiers hit their peak in their late 20s.
“I still had a lot left in me, but you can’t be an athlete forever, and it was just time to move on and do something different,” she said.
Tuegel enrolled in Baylor Law School, where she met her husband, Andrew. She now works with attorneys Rod Goble, Vik Deivanayagam and David Bass.
“She did an internship in our office and she showed us that she had the energy, the intellect and the focus to also become a world-class attorney,” Goble said. “I was very impressed with the fact that at the time she was traveling around the world winning the world cup, she also managed to graduate from college magna cum laude. I think that speaks volumes about her. We really are lucky to have her.”
Tuegel and her husband were married in September 2010 after squaring off a few times on opposite sides in law school exercises.
He said her competitiveness in sports is now carrying over to her legal career.
“If she is doing something, it is 100 percent,” Andrew Tuegel said. “There is no intermediate. If she is doing something, she is in it to win it. She wants to be the best in whatever she does.”