It’s a sweltering summer evening in Oldsmar, Florida, and like he does almost every Saturday from May to October, 31-year-old insurance agent Clint Gordon is busily wriggling his 6-foot, 245-pound frame into yet another tight, bright costume. Tonight’s theme? Aargh, it be pirates, mateys! Don’t laugh. A few weeks earlier it was the platforms and bell bottoms of Swedish uber-band ABBA. Soon Gordon, along with about 30-odd friends, will come together and all get their Jack Sparrow on — even sweat their way through a few choreographed dance numbers.
Local community theater? Some kind of weird live-action role-play? Puh-leez. Gordon and friends are proud members of the Tampa Bay Water Ski Show Team, putting up with the pirates to put on yet another free performance for an audience of tourists and devoted locals who find their way through an industrial park, down a gravel road and to the club’s show site on Tower Lake, a picturesque body of water framed by, what else, two immense radio towers.
Glamorous? Maybe, maybe not. But for my money, tonight’s old-school water-ski show — along with my $1 hot dog and choice waterfront seat — just may constitute the best entertainment in town.
The Show Goes On
Cypress Gardens is sadly no more, but the iconic Garden’s marquee draw — show skiing — lives on thanks to Tampa Bay’s finest as well as countless other clubs around the U.S. There’s the Ski-A-Rees from neighboring Sarasota, the Portland Water Spectacular team from Oregon, and the powerhouse Rock Aqua Jays from Janesville, Wisconsin. Like the team from Tampa Bay, these teams regularly perform for audiences who long for a bit of water-skiing nostalgia mixed with a little song, dance and some modern extreme-sport thrills. Likewise, most also compete for regional, national and even world titles. Tampa Bay finished second in the hotly contested Southern Regionals last year. This year’s competition show, “Pirates — Battle for the Bounty,” could be the club’s strongest yet.
Show skiing traces its roots to Ralph Samuelson, the father of water skiing, who produced the first ski show at the Atlantic City Steel Pier in 1928. It was arguably Dick Pope Sr., however, who put show skiing on the map for mainstream America. That same year, Pope rode his water skis off a small jump to entertain crowds in Miami Beach. Fifteen years later he brought water skiing to Cypress Gardens, establishing a Florida tradition that exists to this day. (Yes, it may now be a Legoland, but the Gardens successor still fields a ski show.) Other venues, like the popular Tommy Bartlett Show in the Wisconsin Dells, draw large crowds throughout the summer months. It’s clubs like Tampa Bay, however, that truly keep the tradition alive. Tonight’s show includes all the classic acts, including the ballet line, a line of skiers on single skis with unique swiveling bindings that allow skiers to pirouette in unison, often while holding the tow handle with only a foot; Adagio doubles, a picturesque act that typically features a male skier hoisting a graceful female performer overhead; barefoot skiers and muscular jump teams doing spins and flips off the ramp jump; and, of course, arguably show skiing’s most iconic image, the human pyramid. Tampa Bay’s pyramid currently includes 22 people and soars four levels into the air. The club aims to add a fifth level soon.
Altogether, the acts are graceful, athletic, a little kitschy and one heck of a lot of fun — even if they do require Gordon to play a little dress up. “I’m convinced that whoever first designed show-ski costumes didn’t like me,” he chuckles. “They seem to always be too tight and undoubtedly neon pink. I get razzed by friends for wearing our show costumes, but I know they’re really just jealous!”
Halfway into tonight’s show, however, history and haberdashery are likely the last things on Lauren Henry’s mind. As Tampa Bay’s show director, the 28-year-old has been crafting the “Pirates” show since last November. She’s been creating an audience-friendly storyline, fleshing out that storyline with acts that will showcase the club’s immense talents, and doing her best to include as many club members as possible, whether they perform in front of the audience, handle the sound booth behind the scenes, or dish out dogs at the ridiculously reasonable snack bar. Other members have helped Henry fine-tune the speaking lines, decide on costumes and sound, even work out the on-water patterns of the three boats that will tow the acts on the water, but ultimately this is Henry’s baby, and tonight’s show in mid-May is the first before for a live audience. In addition to being a participant, Henry is eager to see the audience’s reaction. She’s also constantly looking for areas the team will need to improve on for the Southern Regionals.
“I kind of have my hands in everything, and it can feel like a full-time job,” admits Henry, a pediatric ICU nurse in reality who commutes five hours round trip from Gainesville multiple days a week just to be part of the team. “You always just have to be on your toes about everything. You have to know what acts are coming before and after yours, and if something goes wrong, you have to know what you have to do to fix it. A lot of times as show director, I pull myself out of the act so I can be behind the scenes, and if something goes wrong, I know where I need to run or what ropes I need to grab. It can be stressful at times, but it’s definitely very rewarding, especially when you see it on the water for the first time and the crowd gets into it. It’s my passion and I enjoy sharing it with others.”
From the looks of the crew running from dock to dock on Tower Lake, other members share the feeling. On the water, a ski show can seem like one effortless performance after another, but behind the scenes the work is obvious. Skiers often transition from one act to the next with little to no downtime. One fall can cause a ripple effect in the performance (and some quick impromptu entertainment from Tampa Bay’s humorous announcers). And then there’s the dancing. No ski show would be complete without the requisite dance numbers that happen as skiers take to the stage after exiting the water. Impressively, every member of Tampa Bay’s team does it.
“It adds to the show,” laughs Loren Scherschel, a former gymnast who as recently as 2015 was the No. 2 ranked swivel skier in the country. “If we didn’t have the acting and dancing, it would be cool, but you need a show. I love it. I always try to help with the choreography. That’s what keeps it alive.”
A Family Affair
What truly keeps these clubs alive, however, is not skiing or embarrassing shuffles, but family. Florida transplant Linzy Reinders skied with her real family in Wisconsin before moving to the Sunshine State after college. The 25-year-old teacher, now also one of the nation’s premier swivel skiers, considers the Tampa Bay crew a worthy stand-in.
“I was on a team up in Wisconsin, and now I’m on the ski team down here, and I feel like both of them are a second family. These are all people I trust and hang out with outside of ski team. I like doing the shows because of the teamwork aspect and the people. I love building pyramids and having a big ballet line. It’s one thing to push yourself individually, but it’s another thing to push a group of 20 girls into going out and doing a routine.”
The family bond isn’t just figurative but often literal as well. The Skidd family — dad Dave, mom Lisa, and teenage daughters Jacque, Shelby and Kiley — have been part of the Tampa Bay team for the past eight years. Dad and daughters are frequently the building blocks of the pyramid, while Lisa has transitioned into a photographer for the club. All enthusiastically note ski club beats soccer and softball, hands down. “If your kids go play softball, you’re not going to be out on the field with them,” Dave explains, “but Kiley and myself ski the doubles act together; we all participate in the pyramid. You can’t do that in any other sport; you can’t actually work right alongside your kids.”
Come early to Tampa Bay’s regular Saturday night performance and you’ll see how deep that family vibe goes. Kids perform all the acts in the popular pre-show, and more often than not fellow family members are cheering them on before they themselves perform in the main show that follows. Even those who don’t have immediate family in the show soon find themselves forming a deep bond with fellow members.
“At first you’re attracted to the fun sport of show skiing and pushing your abilities,” Gordon says. “The stuff that can be done on the surface of the water is nothing short of amazing. But you soon find out that you stay because of the people. They turn into your extended family, and you can’t wait to hang out with them on the weekends. It has been a joy to watch shy youngsters turn into outgoing, charismatic young adults. Life lessons, heartaches and triumphs help shape every one of us into an integral part of this awesome team.”
Ready to join? Tampa Bay welcomes new members at every Monday night practice. Just be ready to have plenty of fun — and yes, maybe shake your hips to ABBA’s “Dancing Queen.”
Get Your Show On
Looking to check out a show near you? Here’s a sampling of similar clubs around the country, along with a few of the remaining park shows still in existence. For a complete list of show-ski teams and locations, visit usawaterski.com.
U.S. Water Ski Show Team
Oxbow Water Ski Show Team
Carolina Show Ski Team
Tega Cay, SC
Cypress Gardens Water Ski Team
Winter Haven, FL
Chippewa Lake Water Ski Show Team
Twin Cities River Rats
Rock Aqua Jays
Mad-City Ski Team
Aquanut Water Shows
Twin Lakes, WI
Lake St. Louis Arch Rivals
St. Louis, MO
Waterhawks Ski Team
Metroplex Ski Club
Fort Worth, TX
Canyon Lake, CA
Tommy Bartlett Show
Wisconsin Dells, WI
Winter Haven, FL