A Brief History of Water Ski Shows in Wisconsin

The sport of water skiing came into being in 1922. While the true father of water skiing is still debated (it’s Ralph Samuelson obviously), Wisconsin was sadly not its birthplace. In the years since the sport’s inception, however, Wisconsin has become not only the hub for water ski shows, but now claims the title of Water Ski Show Capital of the World.

Badgerland Water Ski Show Team in Wisconsin Rapids for the 2018 Wisconsin State Water Ski Show Championships

As the time nears for the annual Wisconsin State Water Ski Show Championships (read my recap from last year’s event), held on the Red Sand Beach along Lake Wazeecha in Wisconsin Rapids, I thought it’d be fun to share a few details about the influence this sport has throughout the state!

The oldest continually running amateur water ski show in not only Wisconsin, but the United States, is located in Minocqua, Wisconsin. The Min-Aqua Bats have put on free weekly ski shows since 1950 – that’s nearly 70 years! Water ski shows became a popular form of entertainment across Wisconsin’s northwoods so lake residents could ski together.

In fact, show skiing is all about community! Though you’ll see a fair share of impressive stunts and tricks at shows and competitions, you’re also likely to see family members skiing together on the water – even if you don’t realize it. Because there are important roles for people of all ages and sizes on a water ski show team, it makes for the perfect family sport!

Wisconsin’s only professional water ski show also holds a prominent place in Wisconsin’s history. The Tommy Bartlett Show first came to the Wisconsin Dells in 1952 and has been a core part of the town’s allure ever since! This show hires only the best of the best water ski show performers to put on shows daily throughout the summer.

Wisconsin state water ski show tournament swivel line

Amateur water ski show teams and clubs usually put on anywhere between 1 to 3 free weekly shows for their community throughout the summer. Additionally, about 25 teams choose to compete at State each July, making the Wisconsin State Water Ski Show Championships the largest show ski competition in the world.

This impressive event spans four days and includes both individual and team competition. Teams compete in one of three divisions, determined by their performance the previous year. According to the Wisconsin Rapids Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, the event attracts over 3,000 visitors each year and has an annual economic impact of around $1.56 million!

A competitive water ski show has 13 scored acts on the water, but is judged on a variety of show aspects as well. Each on-the-water act receives a score for flow, technical difficulty, execution, and artistic merit. Additionally, the team is scored on their boat and pickup boat driving, sound crew and announcing, dock and equipment handling, choreography, and more!

Some of the sport’s most iconic and “classic” acts includes pyramids, jumping, ballet, barefooting, swivel skiing, and doubles. Each year, however, teams continue to think up new acts, making performances at each State tournament unique!

Performing Adagio Doubles with the Pewaukee Lake Water Ski Club

Since Jack Lukes became the “father of show skiing” with the creation of the first state tournament in 1967, the event has stayed in the greater Wisconsin Rapids area. Other tournaments, including the Mercury Open and National Water Ski Show Tournament, have also been held at Traxler Park on the Rock River in Janesville.

Among the most decorated show ski teams in Wisconsin are the Rock Aqua Jays from Janesville, who currently hold 18 state championship titles and 20 national championship titles. The team regularly hosts the National tournament, as well as the independent Mercury Open tournament.

Today, participation in show skiing is on the rise; independent swivel and freestyle jump tournaments now attract a wide variety of participants as well as spectators. The first world water ski show competition was held in Wisconsin in 2012 and continues to add more teams from nations around the world; last year’s competition featured teams from the United States, Canada, Australia, China, Belgium, and Germany. Rumor has it that Mexico may be making an appearance at the 2020 Worlds competition too!

History of Water Ski Shows in Wisconsin Pinterest Pin

Have you ever watched a water ski show? I’d love to hear what memories it holds for you. Was it a part of every family trip to the northwoods? Is there a team in your hometown? If you’re in Wisconsin, chances are you’re not too far from one! To help get you out on the water this summer, read my 3-step guide to water skiing.

This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. I went to the Janesville water ski show a couple years back! As a wake boarder myself (and not a very good one!), I had HUGE respect for the performers…so good!!

    1. Janesville’s shows are always incredible! Glad you were able to attend!

  2. Now this is something that I wish I could do! Great article 🙂

    1. Thank you! It’s definitely a fun sport to be a part of!

  3. That’s so cool – we had a show where I grew up (in the Quad Cities) but I never got to see them. I love the outfits, but the kayaker in me is wondering about life jackets!

    1. I think the Backwater Gamblers is the team located by where you grew up, as they are based in Rock Island! They are an incredible team. Because every member of our team has water ski insurance, we are not required to wear life jackets for all events. They are only required for climbing pyramids, barefooting, and jumping!

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