A Brief History of Water Ski Shows in Wisconsin
Badgerland Water Ski Show Team in Wisconsin Rapids for the 2018 Wisconsin State Water Ski Show Championships

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 not only become a hub for water ski shows, but is considered the Water Ski Show Capital of the World. As the time nears for the annual Wisconsin State Water Ski Show Championships, held on the Red Sands Beach along Lake Wazeecha in Wisconsin Rapids, I thought it’d be fun to share a few details about the influence this sport has had throughout the state!

Wisconsin's Water Ski Show History

Wisconsin state water ski show tournament swivel line

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. Water ski shows became a popular form of entertainment across Wisconsin’s northwoods so lake residents could ski togetherIn 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 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 the state’s history. The Tommy Bartlett Show first came to 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.

Water Ski Show Competitions

Badgerland Water Ski Show Team's Swivel Line at the Wisconsin State Water Ski Show Tournament

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 worldThis 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 include 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!

Wisconsin's Tournament History

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 Division 1 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 Janesville’s own Rock Aqua Jays, who currently hold 18 state championship titles and 20 national championship titles.

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 Championships was held in Wisconsin in 2012 and continues to grow. Previous competitions have featured teams from the United States, Canada, Australia, China, Belgium, and Germany. There are also water ski show teams popping up in countries like Sweden, Mexico, and more who will hopefully be able to compete at the Worlds tournament someday!

History of Water Ski Shows in Wisconsin Pinterest Pin

This Post Has 9 Comments

  1. Kylie

    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. chelseyknuth

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

  2. Jess Darrington

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

    1. chelseyknuth

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

  3. Leigh

    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. chelseyknuth

      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!

  4. Joel

    Hi Chelsey, if I give credit to you, can I use this blog post on the WWSF website? I’m working to revamp the entire site, and am quite impressed with your post. It sums up the history of water skiing in Wisconsin quite well with emphasis on show skiing.

    1. Chelsey Knuth


      Thanks so much for reaching out! You can absolutely include this blog post on the WWSF website as long as credit is given. I am so appreciative of your interest in my writing!


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