Recreation & Destinations

Janesville’s Rock Aqua Jays Host World Tournament

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They hosted the first national ski show tournament, and now this hometown favorite is about to hose a world challenge of water skiers. Discover this exceptional group and see how they’re preparing to compete on a world stage.

The Janesville Rock Aqua Jays team holds the records for the largest pyramid built on the water, and the largest ever in competition. (Karla Nagy photo)

In 1975, the very first National Water Ski Show Tournament was held in Janesville, Wis., organized by members of the city’s Rock Aqua Jays (RAJ) Water Ski Show Team.

Fitting, then, that in 2012, the very first World Water Ski Show Tournament will be held there, also organized, in part, by RAJ team members – including one of the founders of the national tourney.

“Team member John Wilson and I started working on a national tournament in 1974,” says Duane Snow, a RAJ member since 1972. The Janesville group was one of four founding teams of the Wisconsin Water Ski Association. “We put in our bid to host, and the Wisconsin Water Ski Association actually had no data or rules, so John and I did it ourselves, and those were the rules adopted by the Wisconsin association. Of course, those rules are reviewed and amended each season.”

Wilson and Snow sent out 250 invitations for that first national event and attracted nine teams. “The farthest came from Shreveport, La.,” Snow says. “Now, teams come from Florida, Washington, New York, the Dakotas and all over the country for the national tourney.”

The inaugural World Tourney will see teams from five countries compete: Australia, Belgium, Canada, China and the U.S. “France and Germany wanted to come, but they just couldn’t get their teams together in time,” says Snow.

When the International Waterski & Wakeboard Federation (IWWF) in Switzerland decided to sanction a World Tournament, it sent out a request for bids to host; three other cities in the U.S. and two in other countries responded.

Joel Shapiro, RAJ president, constructed the bid that won hosting rights for Janesville, and then asked veteran organizer Snow to run the tournament.

RAJ member Gerry Luiting is president of the National Ski Show Association (NSSA) and a member of the International Waterski & Wakeboard Federation (IWWF) Show Ski Committee. Now in his 37th season with RAJ, it was Gerry who first got his team involved in skiing overseas, in 1999, and the exposure helped to bring the World Tourney to Janesville.

“He contacted the Chinese Water Ski Association and secured an invitation to take performers to China,” Snow says. “Overall, the team has performed there five times and competed in international events, including the Sino-American Water Ski Show Competition. We’ve never lost a competition overseas.”

As Aqua Jays, Gerry, 54, and wife Cathy, 50, are seven-time national champions in strap doubles, and each holds an impressive record of individual awards and recognition as water skiers. Each has skied professionally, with shows like Tommy Bartlett and Sea World, which is how they met. They’ve been married 18 years.

“As president of NSSA, I really wanted to get the world tourney set,” says Gerry. “I know from my travels that there’s a lot of interest, and hopefully, participation will grow, so that it can happen every two years. That’s why we really want this inaugural event to be a success. We’re doing all we can to help and guide things along.”

Pulling Things Together

While five teams may seem like a manageable number, the logistics involved in organizing an international event are monumental, especially when it’s being held for the first time. That’s where the knowledge and experience possessed by the Aqua Jays group have been key.

Systematically, since that first big event in 1975, the group has worked to improve its venue. RAJ Stadium, along the Rock River in Traxler Park, 600 N. Main St., is outfitted with four sets of bleachers, two at 20 rows high and two at 10 rows high, with a special area for those with disabilities. The ski area is protected on both sides by trees and receives little boat traffic, so the water stays calm. After purchasing its first public address system in 1976, it upgraded to a professional sound system just two years later.

As an Aqua Jay, Snow skied competitively for 15 years and drove a tow boat for four, before becoming a show judge in 1984, earning his senior rating as a national show judge in 1988. He was inducted into the Water Ski Show Hall of Fame in 2000. Who better to run this inaugural event? He and Wilson literally wrote the book on water ski show tournament requirements, from parking and spectator seating, staging areas, dressing rooms, drinking water and showers onshore, to ski water quality, width and depth, boat launches, jump specs, safety boats and more offshore.

“RAJ Stadium is a world-class venue and the optimum site for a competition of this level,” Snow says. “Because of its geographic location on the river, the water along here stays calm and smooth, and unless it’s windy, gets very little chop, which can throw the skiers off. We have a 330-foot sandy beach for the skiers to come in on, and a 10-foot by 150-foot stage with a solid surface made of ground-up tires, so it’s very soft. Our main dock is 20 by 40 feet, and adjustable for height, and we have two alternate docks for skiers that cover half of the skiable area.”

Still, the list of requirements to be met is very specific, including two inboard towboats, one double-engine outboard and one low-sided pick-up boat for each team. The group has already built a 10-foot by 66-foot judge’s platform at the top of one of its 20-high bleachers.

The RAJ clubhouse, used for concession and storage, was built in 1930 as a bathhouse for a swimming beach at Traxler Park. An anchor received in 1958 from the Great Lakes Naval Training Center is displayed in front. The park has shelters, restroom facilities and drinking fountains with plenty of parking space.

“We have a large portion of what’s needed for this tourney, but we still have other things to build and supply,” says Snow. “Even so, we went a step further and instigated an ‘Adopt a Team’ program. We invited American teams to volunteer to sponsor an international team, by supplying ropes, skis, vests – all the equipment needed to compete. One sponsor has said it’s going to build all new ropes for its team. Each team can have a roster of 35, including boat drivers and everyone, so this will be a big help.

“We’re also providing transportation to and from the airport, and to all of the social events, for the visiting teams. We want to diminish the cost of participating, and make it an accessible event.”

A Winning Legacy

It’s already been explained how members of RAJ have helped to shape their sport. Not only that, but as a team, the Aqua Jays have dominated the world of water ski show tournaments.

RAJ has won the National Tournament a record 16 times, and placed either first or second 27 times out of the event’s 37-year history. The group has hosted the annual event 23 times. (Had it not been for floods in 2008 and 2010, which forced the tourney’s relocation, that number would be 25.)

RAJ was the first amateur team ever to build a three-tier pyramid while on the water, in 1974, and the first to build a four-tier, in 1981. And the first to build a five-tier, in 1993. Oh, and the first to build a triple-tier, 44-person pyramid, in 2003, establishing a world record for the largest pyramid in competition.

“We have a group of people dedicated to paying attention to detail,” says Snow. “That’s what wins tournaments – attention to detail. And that’s what’s given us our success over the years.”

The number of people needed just to pull off the Aqua Jays’ twice-weekly shows is mind-boggling. There are boat drivers, spotters, announcers, safety personnel, of course. Add to that the women who sew costumes, the people who help with makeup, wranglers for skis and ropes, A and B teams, sound crew, show director, performers.

That’s performers as in actors, not skiers. Since 1982, the team has chosen a theme for each season, building an entertaining show around it that keeps viewers occupied as skiers get into position between events. “You don’t want dead time between acts,” Snow points out. “You don’t want people just sitting there.”

This year, that theme is “Raiders of the Lost Rock,” with Brian Cullen, a FedEx sales executive, as Indy, and Virgil Couples, a USPS employee, as Marcus Brody. The storyline always involves skiers and other characters, along with sound and special effects – this year, even pyrotechnics. As Indy makes his way to find the Idol of the Rock, he battles shooting flames just like his movie counterpart. Among past themes: “Ski-Haw,” “Mission Ski-Possible,” “SkiSI: Janesville” and last year’s “Back to the Future,” which included a real DeLorean car.

“That’s pretty much all Gerry [Luiting] and Brian,” says Snow. “They take it upon themselves each year to come up with something. Then, other people offer ideas and bits, until we have a full-blown production. It’s really become a signature of ours.”

“When we started, if we had $100 left at the end of the season, we had a party,” says Snow. “Now, it’s akin to a small business, with $100,000, and it goes year-round. Our board of directors is made up largely of young people who are getting valuable experience in management, PR and fundraising.”

The team has around 185 members, which include adults and youngsters, parents and children, spouses and alumni.

“Once you become an Aqua Jay, you’re an Aqua Jay for life,” says Snow. “We cheer on Aqua Jays who have gone on to compete against us on other teams. The term ‘team’ and everyone’s dedication to the team is the key to our success. The core group is still here, applying the knowledge and experience they’ve gained over the years, and passing it on to younger members. When it was announced that we had the World Tournament, alumni came out of the woodwork to offer to help.”

RAJ of Team USA

For the first-ever World Water Ski Show Tournament, seven members of the Aqua Jays will be competing for Team USA. They were chosen from among more than 200 top skiers from across the country who vied for a spot on the elite 35-member team.

Among them are Gerry and Cathy Luiting, hoping to add World Strap Doubles Champions to their seven National titles. In addition, each is competing in several other events, Gerry in back barefoot, jump and pyramid, and Cathy in ballet and pyramid. The couple travels from their home in Edgerton, Wis., to compete with RAJ.

“It’s a fun and successful team,” says Gerry. “Skiing keeps me fit, and being around the kids keeps me young.”

Both are thrilled to be a part of the first-time event. “We’ve both hit 50, so we know our window of opportunity for this level of competition is closing,” Gerry says. “It’s going to be exciting to see all of the talent on the other teams.”

“You get the call that you’re on the team, and you see all of the support from so many people, and you want to do the best you can,” Cathy says. “I’m looking forward to seeing all of the folks we’ve met around the world all together in one place.”
Regarding their chances, Gerry is philosophical. “We’ll give it our best shot,” he says. “There are no guarantees, but we’re going to do our best to make the U.S.A. proud.”

David Rezin, 35, champion barefooter, jumper and strap doubles skier, will be competing in barefoot, jump and pyramid. He’s been skiing since age 9, and a member of the RAJ since 2001. “The organization as a whole is the perfect blend of veteran leadership and new members who are willing to be mentored and learn to do things the right way,” he says. “I want to represent the U.S. Water Ski Show team, ski my best and help my team. And take first place.”

Ginny McGinnis, 30, will compete in swivel, ballet and pyramid. She began skiing at age 5, and has been a member of some ski team for all 25 years, 10 of them with RAJ.

“This is a family-oriented group that really works together to achieve what other teams can’t,” she says. “I’m very proud to stand up for my country and my team.”

Cullen, too, has been chosen as an announcer for the World Tourney. The 20-time regional and 17-time national champ for announcing will share duties with Adam Schaller of the Mad City Ski Team, from Mt. Horeb, Wis.

The event is important to Janesville’s local economy but offers other possibilities as well.

“What’s come to light, working with the international teams, is what a great opportunity this is to showcase Midwest America, to people whose only knowledge of the U.S. comes from what they’ve seen in movies or the news,” says Christine Rebout, executive director, Janesville Area Convention & Visitor’s Bureau. “The Aqua Jays are an amazing asset to the community. They’ve put Janesville on the world map for this sport.”

“Hosting this event is a great honor for RAJ,” Snow says. “I’ve been with the team, watched it grow. This just adds to the legacy.”

The National Tournament is at RAJ Stadium Aug. 18-19, with free admission. The World Tourney is on Sept. 15-16, with a $5 gate fee. For more information, visit rockaquajays.com or usawaterskishowteam.com.

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