WHEN she was four years old, Camille Duvall's parents plopped her in the water, her feet strapped to water skis. She had no trouble getting out of the water, but would drop the tow line after only 40 feet.
Camille's father finally told her, ``If you drop that line one more time, I'm leaving you in the middle of the lake.'' She ended up treading water for awhile.
Duvall has hardly let go since.
Ms. Duvall-Hero, her married name today, is the five-time World Professional Women's Slalom Water Ski Champion and the winner of 13 national water-ski titles in the United States. In the national championships held last August in Destin, Fla., Duvall-Hero placed first in jumping and second in the slalom event.
``Camille has worked extremely hard the last two years, especially during the off-season when most water-skiers hang their skis up,'' says Jack Travers, president of International Tournament Skiing, Inc., an Okahumpka, Fla., skiing camp. ``There's a commitment on her part that is hard to find in a lot of athletes,'' he adds.
For example, during the winter months the air temperature in central Florida can drop to 50 degrees F. Add the wind-chill factor from being towed at 30 miles per hour across a lake, and ``it's not fun,'' Mr. Travers says, ``but it doesn't stop Camille from working on technique. She's a real inspiration to the younger skiers.''
Part of the reason Duvall-Hero works so hard is her strong competitive drive.
``I can have the best run of my life, setting a world record,'' says Jennifer Leachman, who competes against Duvall-Hero, ``and Camille will say, `I know I can beat this,' even if she's never done it before.''
``I wouldn't rate Camille the highest in technique, but she's No. 1 in competitiveness,'' Ms. Leachman adds.
Duvall-Hero says one reason she continues to work hard is her desire to leave the sport on her own terms. ``As I near the end of my career, I don't want to look back ... and say `I wish I had trained a little harder.' ''
The hard work, combined with a model's looks, has paid off. Duvall-Hero says she is the first active female water-skier to generate a six-figure income from prize money and endorsements. And she continues to ski even though she is married to Byron Hero Jr., the chairman and chief executive officer of Danskin, Inc.
To keep fit, Duvall-Hero spends hours in the gym power lifting and stretching. ``When you see [water-skiing] on TV, it comes across as fluid and fun, but you don't realize how hard it is,'' Duvall-Hero says.
In the slalom event, for example, Duvall-Hero battles speed and distance. As a motorboat roars down the middle of a slalom course at 34 miles per hour, she tries to go around buoys set just a bit farther away from the center of the course than the rope will reach.
Crossing the boat's wake, Duvall-Hero uses the slingshot effect to accelerate to 70 mph before reaching the buoy. Then she turns the ski on its edge and slows down around the buoy. Since the rope is too short to reach the buoys, she has to stretch out, using her body to extend her reach around the buoy. Coming out of the turn, the rope whips Duvall-Hero back across the course. Slaloming is not without risk: At the end of a grueling season with the chance to win a championship, Duvall-Hero miscalculated a turn and hit a buoy, breaking her shoulder.
Duvall-Hero's second event is ski jumping. The tow boat pulls the skier through the water at 32 mph, but Duvall-Hero uses the slingshot effect to increase her speed to 70 mph right before the ramp, the top of which is five feet above the water. She springs off the top of the ramp and may soar 150 feet before gravity pulls her back into the drink.
How does it feel to go that fast across the water? Duvall-Hero giggles, then replies: ``It feels great when you're doing everything right, and you're in the proper position. And if you're not, you have a bad feeling.''
To generate such high speeds requires the proper use of leverage. Duvall-Hero compares it to playing tug of war - except that in her case the opponent is a 310-horsepower engine. She says she does not notice the speed because, ``as your ability increases, it feels slower than 70 mph.''
When she isn't on the water, Duvall-Hero is often promoting the sport. She ran a water-ski camp for eight years. She works with the Big Brother program and is trying to encourage minority children to take up the sport. She also does some modeling, mostly for the water-ski industry.
Two years ago she wrote a book, ``Camille Duvall's Instructional Guide to Water Skiing.'' Now she is manufacturing competitive skis with her brother, Sammy, who won four consecutive overall world championships and is her coach.
Duvall-Hero has also been active in trying to make water- skiing an Olympic sport. Water- skiing was a demonstration sport in 1972 and 1988. The sport is popular in the US, with 15 million recreational skiers. Of the 30,000 members of the Winterhaven, Fla.-based American Water Ski Association (AWSA), 70 percent compete in tournaments. Last year, the AWSA sanctioned 700 tournaments, up from 650 in 1992.
Now, water-skiing will be included in the Pan Am Games next year, as well as the Mediterranean Games. The sport is also popular in Russia, where skiers train in pools while being towed by pulleys. Although the method sounds unusual, it seems to work - the current female overall world champion is Russian.
When Duvall is not skiing or promoting the sport, she is raising her son, Alexander, who is nearly three. At 16 months, he was water-skiing. Now, she says, ``He doesn't want anything to do with the sport.'' But if he changes his mind, his mother says she's ready to drive the boat.