Where do they go, and what do they do there?
The sight of water skiers using each other as living ladders to build a human pyramid while racing across a body of water falls somewhere between breathtaking and terrifying – maybe something best viewed between fingers covering your eyes.
Almost always, however, the goal is amazingly accomplished, and the show goes on. Turns out that water ski shows are a great way for families to spend a sunny summer day.
But have you ever wondered where these skiers go and what they do when – especially in the northern states of the U.S. and anyplace in Canada – cold weather settles in and the water freezes?
But first . . . how did water skiing become a thing?
Ralph Samuelson is the brave soul credited with inventing waterskiing in 1922 when he strapped two boards to his feet, held tight to a clothesline tied to a boat being driven by his brother and immediately found himself skipping across Lake Pepin in Minnesota.
A new “thrill” sport was born that day, and it wasn’t long before brave skiers discovered they could do more than just ski on water. For example, the could actually stack themselves into multiple levels . . . just because. The myriad lakes of the north-midwestern U.S. offered optimal breeding grounds for a waterskiing revolution that soon had skiers racing, jumping and inventing new tricks in their new-found pastime.
However, the lakes that warmed so quickly in the spring also grew cold rapidly in the fall. Long before the first official day of winter, most are frozen into rock-hard slabs of ice.
Fortunately, latching onto recreational activities suited for cold weather was nothing new to the outdoor-minded folks of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.
Rebecca Brusch, a die-hard, lifelong water skier, knows when to “cry Uncle” and seek new hobbies. She grew up in an active family in southeast Wisconsin, but today is the marketing manager of the Plum Ski-ters Water Ski Show Team, headquartered on Plum Lake near Sayner in northern Wisconsin. When winter approaches and local waters freeze, the Ski-ters bid farewell to one ski season and start anticipating the next . . . but they don’t waste timing grieving over hard water.
“Most of the people on our show team are involved in winter sports, like figure skating and ice hockey,” said Brusch. “And we do some cross-country skiing as well as alpine skiing on the hills of upper Michigan.
“I also play volleyball in the offseason. I played in high school and briefly in college as a walk-on, and now it’s really my main sport from fall though spring.”
Brusch added that northern Wisconsin’s annual Big Chill is actually welcomed by her team and the community.
“We truly have four seasons here,” she said, “and there are so many other things to do we actually look forward to the snow and cold. We get a lot of snow, but we get used to it and enjoy the other things we can do up here.”
Rebecca’s husband, Ben, also a member of the Ski-ters and a sports-medicine physician, gets busy playing hockey when water ski season shuts down. Then, when everything freezes solid, you can find him back on the lake with auger and a short rod in hand, ready for ice fishing.
“But I don’t do that,” said Rebecca, “because I’m a little bit of a baby with the cold. But I and Avery (her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter) will occasionally bundle up and walk out on the ice to see how he’s doing. But that’s the extent of our ice fishing.“
However, when spring approaches Rebecca wastes no time breaking out her water skis.
“In the spring I’m definitely anxious for the ice to melt so I can get back on the water,” she said. “I think I miss water skiing more in the spring than winter and fall. Some of our team members don’t live here full time and they don’t get back here until summer. It’s not unusual for the weather to be warm and nice before our whole team can get together on the lake.”
Rebecca’s background isn’t uncommon among water skiers: Following high school she trekked north a bit to attend Ripon College (famed alma mater of actor Harrison Ford, long before Rebecca’s time). Then, with college degree in hand, she snagged a co-op job at nearby Mercury Marine, the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial and recreational marine engines. The company’s mission and Rebecca’s favorite activity seemed a perfect fit. However, her start at Mercury coincided with the global economic downturn of 2008. Few industries were harder hit by the downturn than boating.
“I was working in EIS (engineering information systems) and I was hired just before the recession,” she said, “so I was first on the list of cutbacks.”
New opportunities led Rebecca to Milwaukee; Green Bay, Wis.; Fargo, N.D.; and Charlotte, N.C., but her love of waterskiing never weakened. She skied when work/family/weather/location permitted, including a stint as a member of a show team during her four years in North Carolina. But family and skiing eventually pulled her back to Wisconsin, this time to tiny Sayner (population about 400), despite its northern location – roughly between Green Bay and Duluth, Minnesota.
Now Rebecca is a skiing member and marketing manager for the Plum Lake Ski-Ters. In the off season, she manages a fund to support the Team’s printed program that’s distributed at the Ski-ters’ shows.
“My job is to spearhead that book and other ad sales,” she said. “I’m also redesigning our web site and managing our social media and press releases and assisting with graphics creation.
“We’re usually in full swing as a team by July Fourth each year, competing twice a week (with one-hour shows) and practicing twice a week.”
Rebecca, Ben and young Avery – who has already experienced skiing on trainer skis – live on Plum Lake and have no plans to leave.
“In North Carolina, water skiing was a big production because we didn’t live on a lake. Now, any day we want, we just drop the boat in and go,” she said.