CSUN alumnus makes ‘Sports Illustrated,’ becomes professor

Morgan Marx

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Coach Van Arsdale stands next to a copy of the Sports Illustrated (SI) magazine cover that is framed on his office wall. Coach Van Arsdale was the first waterskiier to grace the covers of SI. Photo Credit: Paul Kingsley/ Photo Editor

It is an impressive shot. A man, at full stretch, skims the dark surface.  His ski, angled sharply, sends jets of water in every direction. He is captured in the magazine appearing young and vibrant and smiling.

“My advisor brought me a copy and said, ‘John, look, you’re on the cover,’” said John Van Arsdale, CSUN professor and director of the Lake Castaic Aquatic Center. “I said, ‘Oh, that’s neat.’”

For Van Arsdale, appearing on the cover of the May 21, 1962 edition of “Sports Illustrated” is just one accomplishment in a complex career. Since enrolling as a student at CSUN, then known as San Fernando Valley State College, Van Arsdale has been a coach, teacher and administrator. He has helped create an award-winning program and taught thousands of students during his time as a member of the community.

Van Arsdale was born in New Jersey but moved to California at a young age. His early memories involve the water. When he was 6 years old, his father purchased a small fishing boat. Soon, he was trailing behind on his first set of water skis.

“I got up the first time and have been skiing ever since,” Van Arsdale said.

After attending local schools in the Valley, Van Arsdale entered SF Valley State. His love of sports, particularly ski sports, had not abated. He helped found the Ski Club, a snow and water skiing recreation club. Together with schools like UCLA and Los Angeles Valley College, the Ski Club hosted the first intercollegiate water ski conference. The club still exists on campus as the Water Ski and Wakeboard Club.

Van Arsdale was practicing for an upcoming water skiing tournament when the photo immortalized in “Sports Illustrated” was taken. A photographer standing on a pier above the water waved to the skiers down below.  Van Arsdale had no idea his picture would soon grace covers nationwide.

“At the time, ‘Sports Illustrated’ was not a major magazine,” Van Arsdale said. “The photographer didn’t need my permission and he didn’t have to pay me.”

Van Arsdale was more focused on his academic career and his involvement on campus than his magazine appearance. Van Arsdale had entered college as a business major, but found his interests changing after an internship at Prudential Financial.

“Have you ever seen (the television show) ‘Mad Men?’” Van Arsdale said.  “Prudential was like that. I was so frustrated with the atmosphere, I decided to switch.”

His love of athletics led Van Arsdale to the physical education department. He served as the student director of the intramural sports program. After graduating in 1968, Van Arsdale did not have to leave campus to pursue his goals of teaching and coaching.

He served as a tennis coach, first for the freshmen and junior varsity teams. When the varsity coach left, Van Arsdale ran all three programs.  He also taught physical education classes.

In 1970, the departments of health and physical education reorganized, Van Arsdale said. The department chair for the new Recreation and Tourism Management program asked Van Arsdale to teach full time. By that point, he had already taken or taught each of the recreation courses.

Van Arsdale was able to combine his love for water sports with his passion for teaching. One of his projects was to take advantage of Lake Castaic, opened by the Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation in 1972.  CSUN ran boating and water safety programs at the lake, according to a history of the Aquatic Center.

In 1976, Van Arsdale helped secure a grant from the Department of Boating and Waterways to expand the program.

“At the time, you could buy a nice car for $3,000,” Van Arsdale said. “For $50,000, I bought the whole fleet.”

The money was used for new equipment and new classes for both CSUN students and members of the community. Departments such as kinesiology, engineering and education run classes through Lake Castaic.  CSUN students also help run water safety programs for children who may not have regular access to lakes. Of the 10,000 people who participate in programs at the lake, 2,500 are CSUN students, both credit and non-credit, while the remainder are members of the community, according to the CSUN Aquatic Center.

In 2002, construction began on a new Aquatic Center.  The facility opened in 2006, and Recreation and Tourism Management Department Chair Al Wright credits Van Arsdale’s efforts to help fund and build support for the facility.

“He is one of the people that the Aquatic Center wouldn’t exist without,” Wright said.  “His commitment is outstanding.”

When told that his Aquatic Center director appeared on the cover of one of the world’s most famous magazines the same year as sports legends like Frank Gifford, Mickey Mantle and Sonny Liston, Wright chuckles.

“I didn’t know that, but it doesn’t surprise me,” Wright said.

Van Arsdale, who spends much of his time today with his family, takes a down-to-earth view of the cover picture.

“It’s nice, but that’s all,” Van Arsdale said. “There are more important things in life.”

He pauses.

“I did put it up on the wall.”