Stephen Robertson had two loves in his life - his family and waterskiing.
The former world waterski racing champion was out on the Hawkesbury River training for a competition with current world champion Christopher Stout and skiing at speeds of about 130km/h yesterday when he collapsed into the water and could not be revived by fellow skiers and paramedics.
Robertson's family do not yet know why the father of two died but today they paid tribute to the 37-year-old, with nephew Brad describing him as the "glue that held the family together".
"He was the best kind of uncle you can ask for. And he was more than an uncle - he was a mentor, an inspiration and a hero. All his nephews looked up to him," Brad Robertson said.
Jan Thurgar, the president of the NSW Water Ski Federation, said Robertson was a "great mentor of skiers" and had a "wonderful personality".
"He comes from a very close family with a great commitment to developing young children in all sorts of sports and he always had time to talk to all the younger ones," said Ms Thurgar, who has known Robertson since he was a young boy.
"Recently, a comment was made from one person that he hardly knew Stephen, but he was writing to him on Facebook and he was giving him all sorts of ideas. [Robertson] took time each day to write encouraging comments to that person."
Former world champion
Robertson won the 1999 and 2001 World Waterski Race championships in Spain and the United States - supported by his brothers John and Barry in the family boat Firebird, after being inspired by his brother Paul's win in 1991.
He came in second in the same event in 2003, but after a serious injury to Paul, focused on the family's trucking business for the next few years, Brad Robertson said.
But two years ago, he re-entered the competitive arena "on a mission to get back to the top", Brad Robertson said.
"He trained up with a new crew from Brisbane - Noel Griffin the driver and Bernie Simpson the observer in the boat Blazen," Brad Robertson said.
"He was preparing for the 50th anniversary of the Bridge to Bridge Ski Race [yesterday]."
Brad Robertson said nine members of his close-knit family were still planning to take part in the competition, a 112-kilometre-long endurance race through the Hawkesbury River, as a tribute to his uncle.
"I think the biggest tribute that we can give is by still competing," he said.
Waterski racing runs in the family
The Robertson family members have waterski racing in their blood and have been taking part in the sport for about 35 years.
"The two main things in our family is our business, a transport company, and waterski racing. ... Once you're born, we pretty much strap some skis onto you and away you go," Brad Robertson said.
"We would ski at least four times a week. We would race most weekends. Every weekday we didn't race we were on Sydney Harbour training, and we would also training three times a week on Sydney Harbour."
Ms Thurgar, who knew Stephen Robertson since he was a boy, said his family "last night sent out a message that no way did they blame the sport of water skiing for his death and the whole family will be at the [Bridge to Bridge] event this weekend", she said.
She said Robertson was not just a "gifted skier" but was also dedicated to improving his sport.
"When he was world champion, he felt there should be a review of the selection policies and so he and the other world champion at the time, Leanne Brown Pickering, they ... actually formed a new selection policy, which they felt would be fairer to all competitors.
"Not only was he active in the sport from an athlete's perspective but he was also willing to give back to the sport in an administrative way."
'A great guy'
One of Robertson's friends, Robbie Llewellyn, paid tribute to the champion skier on skirace.net.
"For me the news is just sinking in of the loss of such a tremendous sportsman, a great guy and a wonderful family man," Mr Llewellyn wrote.
"Stephen achieved a great deal more than those world titles and gave back a lot to the sport. He is from one of the most well respected and talented waterski racing families in the world – the Robertsons.
"Thank you for your friendship, Stephen. I am honoured to have known you as a friend before, during and after your years at the very top of our sport."
Inspector Phillip Battin of the Hawkesbury Local Area Command said Robertson did not collide with anyone or anything.
Investigators were waiting for the results of an autopsy, he added.
"These sorts of incidents are not frequent," Inspector Battin said.
Brad Robertson said speed did not cause his uncle's death and he had previously fallen into the water at higher speeds without getting hurt.
Police said they were investigating and a report would be prepared for the coroner.
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