From pyramids to barefooting, water ski clubs have been a Wisconsin family tradition for sixty years.

By S. Nicole Lane 

In late August, I drove from Chicago to Twin Lakes, Wisconsin for the appropriately named Cornfest, where the $5 entrance fee earns you all-you-can-eat corn as well as legendary water performances. Propped up in folding chairs, a good friend and I sat amongst a group of around a hundred folks on the last day of the event. The three-day festival had already kicked off two days before—and as we shouted and screamed, “How do they do that?!”—we clearly stuck out in a tight-knit community of water sports veterans.

Water ski shows are essentially Broadway musicals on water. Choreography and music build on a theme that centers on a story, skiers climb on top of one another, balance on one ski, and appear like ballerinas on water. It’s something out of a 1950s Midwestern tourism catalog—but it’s happening right here, right now, live and in color.

In 1922, on Lake Pepin in Lake City, Minnesota, 19-year-old Ralph Samuelson became the first known person to ever water ski after deciding if you can ski on snow, you can ski on water. At 22, he would make the world’s first water skis out of pine planks that were eight feet long and nine inches wide. From there Samuelson began to exhibit his talents on tours around Minnesota, ultimately becoming the first water ski jumper and first speed skier. Water skiing wasn’t an invention of the coasts, it didn’t come from sunny Florida or California, but right in frosty Minnesota.

By contrast, where show skiing—skiing that includes performances and music—originated is a bit fuzzier, however. Some ski-history claims that it actually started 1,000-or-so miles East of the Midwest in New Jersey with performers riding on each other’s shoulders.

Show skiing wouldn’t spread until American showman, Tony Bartlett—who didn’t water ski until he was 70 years old—brought show skiing to the masses in Wisconsin. After seeing a ski show in Chicago, he founded the Tommy Bartlett Water Ski and Jumping Boat Thrill Show in 1952. A year later, the show would become a permanent attraction in the Wisconsin Dells. To this day the state still has the most show clubs in the nation, with Wisconsin known as the “Show Ski Capital of the World.” Over thirty teams still regularly perform on several of Wisconsin’s 15,000 lakes.

Founded around the same time were the Min-Aqua Bats of Minocqua, which are the oldest water ski show club in the nation, with roots tracing back to 1950. Young locals would ski every Sunday and folks began watching their efforts, eventually encouraging them to build a club for local entertainment.

In 1967, Jake Lukes from Wisconsin Rapids, WI, began a national tour of water ski shows,  while incorporating rules and procedures for competitive shows so as to give the sport more legitimacy. Since then, competitive show skiing has been a staple for small-town communities in the Great Lakes region. For example, the Wisconsin State Water Ski Show Championships has been running since 1967 and is the longest-running water ski show tournament in the world. The four-day tournament, featuring 24 of Wisconsin’s best show ski teams takes place on Lake Wazeecha in Grand Rapids. For one hour, each team puts on their best performance for thousands of spectators.

Twin Lakes is home to the Aquanuts, one of the best Division 1 show ski teams in the nation. Starting in the 1970s, the Aquanuts gained national attention after acquiring sponsorship from the soft-drink company that manufactures Dr. Pepper. By the end of that decade, they were placing 1st at State and 2nd at Nationals. Throughout the past 45 years, the team has continually won championships. Last year, following a hiatus due to the pandemic, they were named Best Ballet, Barefoot, Jump, Pyramid, and pick-up boat team. This year, they won both the State and National Title, for the first time since 1984.

Such traditions are enduring. For Kailey Koehler, 26, her career in waterskiing began when she was just two years old. At age six, she was a member of the Aquanuts. In 2022, she was named “Most Valuable Female,” at the State Tournament.

Koehler has been a competitive barefoot skier for many years, a performance I’m lucky to witness at Cornfest (barefoot and skiing backward). “The falls can definitely be painful, but ultimately it takes a lot of falls to progress in the sport and become an elite performer,” she says. When she ends her segment, she climbs up on the dock, waves to the crowd, and is ushered on to her next performance. For over an hour, performers move from one activity to another.

Wearing costumes decorated with bedazzled rhinestones, they climb into human pyramids, ride on the shoulders of other skiers, swivel ski, and balance seamlessly in moves that evoke ballet. Unlike in ballet, skiers range in age—from 6 to 60—and the announcer mentions siblings, families, husbands, and wives, or cousins skiing together. It’s clear that the sport is family-oriented.

“Waterskiing, specifically Show Skiing, is a family sport that definitely carries over from generation to generation. My dad, Bob Koehler, was on the Aquanuts for a few years. He and my mom also met while skiing on the Como Lake Ski Club many years ago,” says Koehler.

Nick, Jenny, Evelyn, and Sophie Gutknecht are a family involved in skiing with the Shermalot Ski team—which was founded in 1975—in Nekoosa, Wisconsin. While Nick and Jenny don’t ski, their daughters Evelyn and Sophie, who are respectively 14 and 11, are skiers on the team. “My husband drives or rides in the pickup boat and I support by helping with fundraising and promoting the team at Booth’s in the area,” says Jenny Gutknecht.

For the Gutknechts, their family lineage of skiing starts with them. “During the summer of 2020, we came across a booth at the farmers market promoting their junior ski sessions on Monday nights,” explained Gutknecht. After one lesson, the girls were hooked. “They learned to ski with the team and the following summer began shows. As they fell more in love [with skiing] my husband and I became more involved in other ways. It’s truly a family sport.”

Shanna Schulfer, 42, has been show skiing for over thirty years, starting at the age of six. “I became involved in the sport when my parents and three older brothers decided to join the Aqua Skiers of Wisconsin Rapids,” she says. “My father drove the boat and my mother was a show director.”

Now, Schulfer’s family—members of Shermalot—continue the legacy, with her 16-year-old daughter a member of the team since she was four. Schulfer—like many show skiers—is a Jill of all trades. “I have done doubles, trios, climbing and basing pyramids, ballet line, swivel skiing, ski jumping, and barefooting,” she says.

“One aspect of show skiing is the ballet line,” explains Schulfer. “It is a line of girls of all ages that ski on one ski and utilize different hoods to free up our arms. In the different holds, we are able to perform choreographed arm movements. There is always a dance before and after the ballet line performs on the water. The amount of time and commitment it takes to choreograph the dances and arm movements, to teach the girls in the line the choreography and practice until it’s perfectly in sync, is enormous.”

The choreography is usually decided in the winter and taught on land in the spring before performers even step foot in the water. Pyramids—the star of a ski show performance—are practiced on land with ropes. “The ski team meets several times at the end of winter into spring to work on climbing on land,” explains Gutknecht.

When it comes to scoring in water show skiing, everything counts. From the powered watercraft pulling the skiers to the introduction of participating persons, the judges keep tabs. Flow, execution, difficulty, and spectator appeal are all worth zero to 25 points. Sound, towboat driving, pick-up boat crew, showmanship, and overall show are worth zero to 250 points.

But can just anyone join the team? Gutknecht reassures me that yes, everyone can be a skier. “It takes practice and hard work but it’s very possible for every person to find a place in the show. Depending on your skill set, there’s always a place for people.” Each club has a different tiered membership cost but most range from $100 to $150 for individual memberships and all clubs offer a family package for an extra fee. All members must have a USA WaterSki membership, which is $85 for individuals over 25 and $55 for individuals under 25.

What makes water show skiing so magnetic is the athleticism of each movement. Skiing on one leg—also known as the “ballet leg”—and moving the other leg in front of the body, to the side, and behind, takes immense strength and coordination. In order to begin training for this technique, performers first practice on land by using a rope. This type of practice is the same for each skill utilized in a show ski performance. Land first, water second.

And this isn’t to say folks don’t fall—they do.

Ski show clubs typically perform two to three times a week. Here’s where they can practice in front of a live audience, as well as show the crowd what they’ve been working on. Sometimes pyramids fall apart, when others make a mistake when launching from the dock, and some people just aren’t strong enough in the moment to hold everything together. But this doesn’t seem to be a huge concern, overall. It’s inevitable for mistakes to happen on the water. When a member falls off in the water, they emerge smiling and waving at the crowd, and they are met with cheers.

Schulfer says, “I have so much love for this sport. The challenges, teamwork, and ups and downs are all part of putting on the best show we can, and building the trust and love of your show ski family is an experience.”

It’s that familial encouragement that makes the falls less disappointing. It’s a “Try again next time,” mannerism that permeates the sport. It isn’t a cutthroat environment, it’s Midwestern patience and kindness.

Koehler explains, “To me, show skiing is family. When I am out on the water, I am in my happy place.”

S. Nicole Lane is a Chicago-based freelancer and deputy editor of Giddy.