Rock Aqua Jays mark 50 years
By Shelly Birkelo - The Janesville Gazette - June 26, 2011
It was a summertime big deal then, and it remains a summertime big deal now—water ski shows on the Rock River.
Tom Kuhlow knows because in 1961 he was one of the founding members of the Rock Aqua Jays. He also was an organizer of its forerunner—the Janesville Gazette and WCLO-sponsored Aquacade—an event that started in 1957 featuring boat races, a boat parade and a ski show performed by members of the Rock River Boat Association and Star Zenith Boat Club skiers.
“It was always sensational,” Kuhlow said.
The one-day Aquacade was held every August for five years. It attracted more than 15,000 spectators, who sat on blankets and chairs along the wall at the lower end of Riverside Park.
“Crowds ran the entire length of the shoreline,” Kuhlow said.
An announcer kept the crowd informed about what was happening on the water while jump, barefoot, mixed doubles and slalom ski acts took off from a makeshift pier. A 17-foot, 350-horsepower boat that belonged to Kuhlow’s father pulled 12 to 15 skiers—both male and female.
“People were barefooting around the country, so it wasn’t new, but it was new to this area, and very few people could do it at the time. We just kept trying it and trying it until we found out how to do it.
“Finally, there were four or five of us who could barefoot. It was very exhilarating. We had a lot of fun showing off,” Kuhlow said.
Don Snyder, Janesville, also a barefoot skier with the Aquacade, said they were “just kids having fun.”
Snyder is an honorary lifetime Aqua Jays member who was president five consecutive years. He led the first Blackhawk Open three-event tournament with skiers competing in trick, jump and slalom skiing when the Aqua Jays hosted it in 1964 and drove boat for 99 percent of the shows between 1961 and 1975.
“We were good for the time, but when compared to the (club) athletes and modern equipment today, we were pretty dinosaurish,” he said.
Snyder laughs today when reflecting on the twin 35 horsepower outboards that pulled one barefoot skier in the 1960s compared to today’s triple rig with a combined 900 horsepower that pull 42 skiers off the dock.
“I never imagined the club would have thousands of dollars worth of boats today,’’ he said.
The shows weren’t very polished because they were performed only once a year, and the ropes and skiers had to be changed after every act, Kuhlow said.
“It didn’t flow like today’s shows,” he said.
Show skiing was in its infancy in the late 1950s and early 1960s. At the time, the Min-Aqua-Bats were well known statewide for putting on multiple ski shows a week during the summer, and Tommy Bartlett was just getting started at Wisconsin Dells, Kuhlow said.
The Rock Aqua Jays were born after five years of the Aquacade when Kuhlow, Bill Manthey, Wayne Manthey and Roger Sterk bought a new racing boat from California. They hauled it back to Janesville and converted it into a ski boat with a 348 Chevrolet engine they bought from a junkyard in Madison.
“We named it the 4 Aces after us four guys, and it became the official boat of the Rock Aqua Jays,” Kuhlow said.
The foursome named the ski club the Rock Aqua Jays, drawing its name from the Rock River, the Latin term for water and the Janesville High School blue jay mascot.
“It wasn’t planned. It just kind of happened,” Kuhlow said.
That same year, the Rock River Boat Association gave the Rock Aqua Jays permission to use the clubhouse at Traxler Park.
Since 1961, the club has grown from 25 skiers and primarily three-event skiing to more than 150 members and a world champion show ski team that this year will celebrate its 50th anniversary during the Fourth of July weekend.
“People are coming back to the reunion from all over the country. A lot of people in the ski club have formed a lifetime bond and made a lifetime commitment to water skiing. It’s our passion,’’ said J.R. Wilson, Milton, an honorary lifetime club member who joined in 1965 and remains active with the club today.
In the beginning, those involved with the club never imagined it would last so long or be so successful, winning 15 national championship titles since 1975.
“We never knew we’d grow to the fame and prestige that we carry throughout the nation and world today,’’ Wilson said. “No club has been able to do what we’ve been able to do as far as maintaining the level of skiing over the years. Our (U.S. Show Ski) nationals is the Super Bowl to us.”
Kuhlow agreed: “It’s pretty phenomenal for anything to go on 50 years and be nationally recognized. It’s hard to believe it all started the way it did and kept going the way it has.’’
Wilson attributed the club’s success to the members’ commitment.
“It has been the club’s whole approach to everything,’’ he said.
Tom Cullen, Janesville, who has been a club boat driver for more than 30 years, club president five times and local national tournament chairman 18 times, said the club has “hard-working people who don’t leave.”