Water skiing shows, tourneys: smooth flow in Wisconsin

© Tommy Bartlett Show photo

I’m not surprised to learn that Florida is home to the Water Ski Hall of Fame and Museum, considering the state’s temperate climate and all those beaches, but the Midwest is the sport’s birthplace and Wisconsin apparently is home to the most performers.

Ninety years ago, 19-year-old Ralph Samuelson came up with the bright idea of strapping two 8-foot-long slabs of pine onto his feet and skimming the top of Lake Pepin at Lake City, Minn., just across from Wisconsin’s Pepin County.

No one had done this before and succeeded. Three years later, the same inventor designed an on-water ramp for ski jumping. You’ll find his story and original set of skis in the Florida museum.

Today’s lake performers ski on one board or barefoot, in pyramid formations and intricately choreographed water-top dances. The swivels, jumps and ballet dips involve children to senior citizens.

Water ski shows typically are free and easy to find throughout Wisconsin, Twin Lake Aquanuts to Conover Chain Skimmers.

“There are nearly as many water ski teams and clubs in Wisconsin as there are in all other states combined,” contends the nonprofit Wisconsin Water Ski Federation, Janesville, which lists 31 such groups. Almost all involve performers who are not paid.

Coming July 19-22 is the annual state/regional water ski show tournament, and action unfolds on Lake Wazeecha in South Wood County Park, Wisconsin Rapids. The host is the Aqua Skiers, which also perform at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays until mid August.

The Aqua Skiers and Rock Aqua Jays of Janesville are among the state’s largest teams, each with 45 competitors in the 2011 state tournament. Janesville on Aug. 10-12 hosts Division I of the National Water Ski Show Tournament and on Sept. 15-16 hosts the World Water Ski Show Tournament, whose competitors so far include teams from Australia, Belgium, Canada, China and the U.S.

Both Janesville events occur on the Rock River at Traxler Park, and that’s also where the Rock Aqua Jays perform on most summer Wednesday and Sunday nights.

The 1939 Olympic Water Ski Club, Seattle, was the first in the nation and by 1950 the Min-Aqua Bat Water Ski Club in Minocqua was drawing a crowd in Wisconsin on Sunday afternoons. Today’s troupe performs three nights a week, and in 2011 these skiers came from as far away as Colorado and Florida to spend the summer.

“Many of the acts performed in the show today were developed and perfected during the early years,” a club program explains. “The doubles and trio acts, now standard parts of nearly all amateur and professional water ski shows, originated with the Bats in the 1950s.”

The Minocqua shows are free, but skiers since the 1950s have always passed a bucket for donations, to help pay for safety equipment and other production costs.

Not quite as old as the Bats but known nationwide is the Tommy Bartlett Show (608-254-2525), which began in Wisconsin Dells 60 years ago, the same year inter-collegiate water ski competitions began. Alums recently reunited in the Dells, and the Bartlett show is one of the last professional shows of its kind in the U.S.

The show has traveled to 28 countries, and when at home up to 5,000 spectators can be seated. That’s a big difference from the 1950s, when five rows of plank seating and hillside blankets could accommodate no more than 300.

Bartlett shows happen daily, regardless of the weather, and more than 1,000 skiers have performed since 1952.

For more about water ski competitions, consult USA Water Ski, the governing authority, at usawaterski.org, 863-324-4341. For tournaments close to home, consult the Wisconsin Water Ski Federation at waterski.org.

Two Wisconsin camps – B’nai B’rith Beber (262-363-6800), Mukwonago, and Camp Nicolet for Girls (715-545-2522), Eagle River – are affiliated with USA Water Ski, and that means extensive water skiing instruction is offered.

For more about the Water Ski Hall of Fame and Museum, 1251 Holy Cow Rd., Polk City, Fla. (near Orlando): waterskihalloffame.com, 863-324-2472. The museum is open on weekdays.

Until 2009, the Badger State connection was long and strong at Cypress Gardens in Winter Haven, Fla., where many water skiers were Wisconsin natives. In 2008, they included Hunter Hanson of Eau Claire, a national wakeboard skier, and Don Buffa of Beloit, water ski show director and in shows since 1988.

The “Jackson 5,” by the Cypress Gardens definition, was Brian Jackson of Stoughton and four of his relatives. Jeff Stoskopf of Eagle River and Cheryl Orloff of Burlington made history there in 1987, as part of the world’s first five-tier human pyramid on water.

Cypress Gardens opened in 1936 as Florida’s first theme park, closed in 2009 because of economic struggles and today is a LEGOLAND theme park with no water ski shows.