Humans can't walk on water, but we have found ways to remain gracefully upright in aquatic settings. For proof, take a look at a lake or river near you, and you'll find amateur water ski clubs making the most of summer and wowing crowds as they do.
Whitewater has the Minneiska Water Ski Team, and Janesville's Rock Aqua Jays are breaking world records. Elkhorn is home to the Lauderdale Lakes Aqua Skiers, and Brown's Lake is where the Aquaducks make waves. Even the tiny hamlet of Twin Lakes has a team, the multi-titled Aquanuts.
For the last 34 years, Ronald and Jane Wiemerslage have been making the most of their summers with Whitewater's Minneiska team. How does water skiing help them bridge the generation gap?
"Oh, just the family atmosphere," says Ronald. "That's the main thing. Our children enjoy it, our grandchildren enjoy it and working with the kids, seeing them improve, is a lot of fun. Water skiing seems to be new even after all this time."
What still seems new to the Wiemerslage family is a sport that celebrates its 91st year this summer. Fittingly born in the Midwest, the land of people starved for summer, it was created by Minnesotan Ralph Samuelson.
It was on June 28, 1922 that the then 18-year-old Samuelson first tested a pair of skis he made himself. The maiden voyage officially occurred in Lake City, Minnesota, on Lake Pepin, which shares a natural border with western Wisconsin off the Mississippi River. According to the Lake City Historical Society and the Water Ski Hall of Fame, Samuelson strapped two pine boards onto his feet that day and hollered "hit it!" to his brother, Ben, who was driving the motorboat. He didn't find immediate success, but a few days later, on July 2 to be exact, Samuelson rose atop the water on his homemade skis. The first water skis were pine and measured eight feet long and nine inches wide.
There's no way the Samuelson brothers could have known what they were onto that summer. But with 70 percent of the Earth covered in water, it's no wonder water skiing soon became an exhibition sport on both sides of the Atlantic. The first show skiing, as it's called, was held in 1928 at the Steel Pier Show in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Wisconsin quickly proved itself a leader in the evolution of show skiing clubs, and today we have more than any other state in the nation. Not only does show skiing provide an outlet for its talented members, who are supported by a small army on land and in boats, it also gives waterfront communities a way to attract visitors.
Set to music, show skiing features all the components of traditional water skiing. However, it ups the wow factor with music, costumes, themes and storytelling. Take in a show and you'll see ballet and swivel skiing, adagio doubles, freestyle jumping and that water-skiing staple, the human pyramid.
Amateur clubs also provide a fluid training ground for show skiers, and many have gone on to venues such as Tommy Bartlett in Wisconsin Dells and Sea World in Florida and California.
In southern Wisconsin, you don't have to travel far to see amazing talent. These local clubs offer free shows throughout the summer. So make like the Samuelson brothers and hit it!
The Rock Aqua Jays officially formed in 1960, and occasional summer shows soon followed; the team quickly made a winning name for itself at state and regional competitions. In the summer of 1971, Wednesday shows became synonymous with summer on this slice of the Rock River. Today, nearly 1,000 spectators gather on Wednesday and Sunday nights through the summer season.
Performing free public shows provides teams with valuable dress rehearsal time for competitions. The Rock Aqua Jays, says President Joel Shapiro, have 17 national championships and 13 Wisconsin championships. In 1999, they became the first amateur American water ski show team to perform and compete in China.
They returned to China last year, set on breaking a world's record. On September 23, 2012, they made their way into the Guinness Book of World Records by completing a quadruple, four-tier human pyramid. It was a sight to behold, says Shapiro: 32 Rock Aqua Jays, two Rockford Ski Broncs, two Muskego Water Bug Warriors and 12 Chinese water skiers, towering four people high on the water.
As is customary in record-breaking moments like these, the Guinness World Records folks saw it all from every angle, thanks to a towboat, a mini-helicopter, nearby boats and high-powered binoculars.
"It was the first time I've ever traveled with the team internationally," recalls Shapiro, "and perhaps the most amazing experience of my life."
The Rock Aqua Jays perform at a world-class site on the Rock River at Traxler Park in downtown Janesville most Wednesday and Sunday evenings through the summer season. RAJ Stadium is handicap accessible and has bleacher seating for approximately 4,000 spectators. All bleacher seating affords premium viewing angles of the entire show course. The shoreline can accommodate another 6,000-plus spectators. Check the group's website at rockaquajays.com for exact show days and times before heading out.
Over in Elkhorn, the Lauderdale Lakes Aqua Skiers took to the water in the 1950s, when a group of young people who loved to ski decided they wanted to perform for their friends and neighbors. Using their own boats and fuel, they performed a single, annual show as part of Lauderdale Regatta Day in front of the old Sterlingworth Motor Hotel. Their only rewards were applause and a complimentary dinner at Sterlingworth after the show.
During the 1960s, the team grew, costumes were added, and they began adding more acts, including their amazing two-high pyramid. In the 1980s, the Lauderdale Aqua Skiers bought their own boat and began competing in the State Show Ski Tournament. The Aqua Skiers continue to grow and mature as a water ski show team, always adding and refining acts to keep pace with this exciting sport.
Team President Jonny Krubet has skied around the world and performed with Tommy Bartlett, Sea World and other professional shows in the '90s. However, he isn't one of those water babies who found skis on his feet shortly after he started walking.
"I started skiing when I was 16," he recalls. "It was really late. Some of my friends in high school got me involved, and I picked it up real quickly."
Why does he think Wisconsin has more water ski teams than any other state?
"We have such a short amount of time to accomplish things," he says. "There's intensity."
The Lauderdale Lakes Aqua Skiers perform most Saturdays during the summer, weather permitting, at Don Jean Bay on Lauderdale Lakes, which is on the outskirts of Elkhorn, off Highway 12, heading toward Whitewater. Shows run 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Limited wooden bleachers are available for spectator seating; however, neither the path leading to them nor the viewing area is wheelchair accessible and can be difficult for anyone with limited mobility. Still, this is true Midwestern show skiing at its best. Small, intimate and accessible, you'll be able to talk to team members and those working behind the scenes. This is a slice of a fading America that should not be missed. Check the group's website at aquaskiers.com for exact show times and dates.
Nestled at the southern tip of the Kettle Morraine State Forest, the Minneiska Ski Team staked its claim here in 1973, with the formation of what was the Whitewater Lake Sports Club. Initially the club included canoeing, sailing, boating and water skiing. Skiing eventually became the focal point and the name changed to Minneiska, which means "white water." As the club grew, it began competing in the Wisconsin state tournament and show ski nationals.
Julie Abramson is a second-generation member here. Growing up, she skied with Minneiska on Whitewater and Cravath lakes. Her mom was the team's announcer, and her dad drove the pick-up boat. Today, she is skiing alongside the third generation: her sons, Wesley, 10, and Hunter, 12. Hers, she says, is not the only third-generation family the club has skiing here.
"It's a great family team," she says, "and when I say family, I mean family."
The Minneiska Ski Team performs at two locations in Whitewater: Scenic Ridge Campground and Cravath Lake. Scenic Ridge Campground is handicap accessible. Bring lawn chairs or blankets. At Scenic Ridge, the team will perform at 7 p.m. on June 1, 8, 15 and 29; July 6 and 13; and Aug. 10, 17, and 31. The team will be at Cravath Lake on July 4 and 6. See the team's website at whitewaterskiteam.org to confirm show days and times.
Not far over the Racine County line in Burlington, the Brown's Lake Aquaducks performs free shows every Thursday night. Its members range in age from 4 to 70, and the team holds several state and national titles.
The Aquaducks first started skiing on Brown's Lake in 1976 and have been there ever since, though last year's low lake levels meant fewer opportunities to host the shows they've become known for. Many of the club's members have gone on to ski in college and at attractions like Sea World and Marine World. Elite as that may sound, the club is open to anyone, and many of its members did not know how to water ski when they joined.
The team kicks off this year's show season on Saturday, May 25, at 6 p.m. Beginning in June, shows are held on Thursdays, with a junior show at 5 p.m. and the main show at 6:30 p.m. The season concludes the weekend of August 31 and September 1, with the junior show at 4:30 p.m. and main show at 6 p.m. All shows are held at Burlington's Fischer Park. Check the group's website at aquaducks.org to confirm show days and times.
The Aquanuts were formed in 1972 and performed their first show on Edgewater Beach in 1973. The team holds several state and national titles, including a 2010 top award for ballet at the Wisconsin State Show Ski Championship and the Division 1 Show Ski National Championships.
This group has definitely kicked it up a notch. Like big water-based amusement parks, they employ floating stages. Lisa Neal is a board member and her children are part of the Aquanuts. Twin Lakes isn't widely known, and its highly regarded team, like show skiing itself, she says, is a secret to some.
"It's been around forever, but I grew up on the East Coast and never heard of show skiing like this," says Neal. "It's been fun for us to do this together as a family. It's a great family activity, and it has a lot of history. Last year was our 40th anniversary."
At state and national competitions, she adds, many high-scoring acts come from Twin Lakes.
"It's crazy," she says, laughing, "the things you send your kids out on the water to do."
The Twin Lakes Aquanuts offer free water ski shows Wednesdays and Saturdays through the summer season at 6 p.m., weather permitting. Spectators can bring beach blankets and enjoy the show from the shore at Lance Park in Twin Lakes. Check the group's website at aquanutwatershows.com for exact show dates.
All shows listed here are weather permitting and subject to change. Also, clubs listed here do not perform public shows during state and national championships. Check each club's website for exact dates.
Want to join a show ski team?
All teams listed here are looking for new members and work with skiers of all abilities. Clubs are also looking for people to work behind the scenes with equipment, boats, sound, costumes and fundraising. Check out a club's website for more information.