By Clay Riness  

Summer is here. That means the river and the beach for many of us, and for some among the ranks, that means water skiing. La Crosse’s River City Water Ski Team is a nonprofit organization that’s been entertaining folks for decades. And Tommy Bartlett had better watch out.

“It was started in 1972 by a bunch of guys that liked water skiing,” says John Aschenbrenner, a former president of the organization. Among them were Dave and Steve Tucker from Powerhouse Marine, Keith Carson, Dave Hammers and others. “They wanted to promote the sport of water skiing as a safe type of family recreation. They moved their site several different times. It was at Black River Beach at one time, and then they went to Moxie’s for a while, but now we’re at Airport Beach. We’ve been there for 15 years, probably.” 

“All of our home shows are at Airport Beach,” adds Mike Greiner, current president. “However, we do offer some shows at Riverfest, and we also do one show a year at the state water ski show tournament in Wisconsin Rapids.”

Aschenbrenner says that times were a bit lean in the early 2000s, but things have been building back up since then. The team includes around 35 to 40 skiing members (depending on the year), as well as a good many ground crew and technical people. It is funded through dues, donations and fundraising. Various businesses also purchase sponsor ads on the team’s trailer and jump, and the team participates in Kwik Trip’s Scrip Gift Card Program.

“We are debt free and in the positive,” says Greiner. “Some clubs spend money without any regard to debt. We ski within our means. It’s nice that we can build our equipment without going into debt.”

So, What’s in the Show?

“Wisconsin is a show ski state,” says Greiner. “We actually have our own region and there are about 36 teams that compete every year. You’ll see a lot of teams that will take a theme from somebody else’s show a few years prior and make it their own. Obviously, they don’t copy it, but they put their own spin on it. We’ve taken acts from other clubs and incorporated them into our own. And other clubs have taken acts from us.”

Of course, no water ski show would be complete without the ubiquitous pyramid. Picture three skiers abreast, two more on their shoulders and one on top of theirs … going fast. Then there’s the ballet line, an act in which up to 22 girls are pulled behind one boat on one ski while doing something like a chorus line. There’s barefooting, and even a barefooter pulling a barefooter pulling a third barefooter. There are stunts and jumps. There are also helicopter spins and front flips. Oh, and there’s more. Each year a new show is conceived and created with a theme. 

“This year we have two show directors, John’s oldest son and a member from a former club. They began writing a show in January,” explains Greiner. “We try to change it up every year. The thing is … the skiing never changes, but the theme does. Last year’s theme was ‘Let’s Go to the Movies’; the previous year it was ‘Ski Time Fitness.’ Before that it was ‘Explore La Crosse’ and ‘Let’s Go to Las Vegas,’ respectively.”

This year’s theme, he says, will be “River City Ski Camp.” The performances will be about going to summer camp, kind of like “Meatballs” on the water. “The thing about a show is, you’re trying to incorporate humor and comedy, thrills and spills and it has to be well choreographed. You know, it’s costumes, sound bites and everything … to make a theatrical show,” says Greiner.

A Welcome to All

The team is always looking for enthusiastic new members. “You don’t have to be a water skier to be part of a ski club,” stresses Greiner. “There are so many things that people can contribute to the ski team. Costume making, driving a boat, running our sound, being an announcer … if you’re mechanically inclined, we run three boats plus a pick up boat and a pontoon for a temporary dock, and a jump. They all require maintenance every year. Each boat needs a driver and at least one spotter. And sometimes it’s just fun to have more people around who love being involved.”

As of late, the team has been involved in adaptive skiing, which utilizes a special ski for people with disabilities. A member donated an adaptive ski to the team, as did the North American Squirrel Association, making for two. The adaptive ski program has become popular and a way for the team to give back to the community. It also gets more people on the water, says Greiner.

The River City Water Ski Team is sanctioned by USA Water Ski.

For more information, visit www.rivercitywaterski.com or find River City Water Ski Team on Facebook.