Despite relentless rain, the U.S. Water Ski Show Team has weathered the season and has finally been able to get back out on the river.
“The rain has been an issue. The flooding is tough because even if it’s not raining here the river could be up two or three feet, which impacts our equipment. It makes the current faster, which makes conditions unsafe,” said Nikki Weakley, a longtime member of the team.
When the Gazette spoke with team members last week, they’d only been able to ski three shows all season. Usually, by that point, they’d have skied seven Tuesday evening shows at Jumpin’ Jacks Drive-In. However, team members are just happy to be back out on the water after not being able to perform last year because of COVID-19 and have been practicing as much as six days a week.
“It’s been a rough summer with the weather but if the weather is nice . . . the dock will have skis from the beginning to the end of people waiting in line to go skiing. We’re just kids at heart. We can’t wait to hit the water, which adds to the excitement,” Weakley said.
The team dates back 53 years, with Weakley’s late father Roger, along with several others founding the team. They started out performing shows on Mariaville Lake and moved to Jumpin’ Jacks in 1986, right around when Weakley was born. She didn’t start skiing until several years later.
“I was considered a late bloomer. I was in my first show at the age of 7,” Weakley said. Some people on the team started performing when they were toddlers. However, Weakley quickly picked it up and now performs everything from ballet to swivel, where the skier spins or swivels around on one ski.
“It’s one of those things where you try to make it look easy. It’s almost like figure skating, where if something looks easy, it’s probably really hard,” Weakley said.
She’s also an announcer for the shows, which this season are themed “M-Ski-TV,” with plenty of 1980s references, music and dancing sprinkled throughout.
“We change the theme every year. We want to make sure the entertainment value is up. We have a lot of repeat fans that come to the shows so it’s good to have fresh content. It keeps it exciting,” Weakley said.
It takes about a full year to write the shows, plan the theme and make the costumes, which are hand-sewn by team members.
During the shows, crowds of local and not-so-local attendees line up along the shoreline to watch and cheer as the skiers perform high-speed tricks, zooming through the water barefoot at 40 miles per hour, or jumping off a ramp and spinning 360 degrees before landing on the water.
Some of the skiers will come up on stage after getting out of the water, sometimes to dance or to perform skits.
The gaze of most attendees is on the skiers, however, what goes on behind the scenes is just as carefully orchestrated.
“It’s an operation. It’s like putting on a show over at the amphitheater,” said Sara Pritchard, the team’s treasurer. The 25-year member performs in the shows, doing everything from the pyramid to swivel.
Onshore, other team members clear ropes out of the way, help to get skis out of the water and make sure that the skiers next on the line-up have what they need. Oftentimes, the family members of skiers, or those who have retired from performing, will help out with everything else that needs to be done to keep the show running smoothly.
That includes people like Stacy Griffin, who was in a sense born onto the team.
“My whole family is involved and always has been. Then all of my friends water ski at this point. Most of us have been here a long time. It’s just super fun,” Griffin said.
Her father, who was one of the founding team’s members, taught her to water ski at a young age and she was in the shows starting at the age of 2. She spent a decade skiing in the ballet line and centering the team’s four-tier pyramid.
After retiring from performing in 2011, Griffin, who also serves on the National Show Ski Association, started driving the team’s twin rig boat.
“My father was the twin rigs driver before I was so he kinda passed the reigns down. He had taken them from my uncle before that so it’s just been in the family,” Griffin said.
‘One big family’
That’s the story that so many on the team have, which according to long-time members is more like a family.
“It’s just one big family and I can’t stress enough, even the newcomers [feel that],” Pritchard said.
“We’ve got folks who came on this team single and now they’re married and they have kids and the kids are skiing. We have couples who met on the team, got married and had kids. We call that from water skis to wedding bells,” Weakley said.
Griffin, Weakley and many others on the team want to carry on the tradition of the sport and the shows and are always looking for new members.
“We’re always talking about how we’re kind of an open enrollment ski team. If you have any interest whatsoever in learning to ski or learning how to drive a boat, or you just want to be a part of something, it’s an excellent summer hobby,” Weakley said.
There are practices nearly every day except for Saturdays and show days. The 23 skiers on the team range from 6 years old to 73 and some began with hardly any experience on the water.
“I’d say within a couple of weeks folks feel pretty comfortable on two skis. We do have folks that come on the team who have zero experience. They’ve never been behind a boat before and we’ll get them up on skis first or second try. Then they figure out what they want to do from there,” Weakley said.
The team also skis in regional tournaments during the season.
“It challenges you, makes you excited, makes you want to work harder and be a better water skier,” Weakley said.
They’ll be on the water each Tuesday through the end of August. They typically start around 7 p.m., though that may change as the sun sets earlier.
“It’s a cool summer experience and it’s not something that everybody has in their area. Hopefully, we’re bringing some entertainment to Schenectady County and the surrounding areas,” Weakley said.
For show updates and more information visit the U.S. Water Ski Show Team on Facebook.