Rock Aqua Jays ski to the top
JANESVILLE—Duane Snow was in an Arizona airport and wearing his Rock Aqua Jays shirt when somebody said: “You're from Janesville. We've been to your show.”
Because of Janesville's reputation, “If you mention the Rock Aqua Jays, and you're in the water ski world, they will know who you are and where you come from,” Snow said. “You can go just about everywhere.”
The club's home in Traxler Park on the Rock River is also part of that reputation, and the premiere venue is well known for its calm waters and choice views.
The Aqua Jays consistently score among—if not at the top of—the best, and other clubs aspire to be as good, one water show ski expert noted.
Locals who take in the occasional water ski show likely have no clue of the team's world prowess.
The Aqua Jays formed in 1961, one of many show ski teams in the state. Wisconsin has 26 teams, more than any other state, and is its own region under the umbrella of the National Show Ski Association.
Teams from up north, such as in Rhinelander, were formed by vacationers, usually from Illinois, Snow said. Most Aqua Jays live within 30 miles of the club.
A strong core of members who train all year helps Janesville consistently achieve top scores in tournaments.
“It is not only the board of directors, but many of the adults that are committed to the team itself,” Snow said.
“Without a question, we have enjoyed this core group of people, like Gerry and Cathy Luiting, for instance,” Snow said. “And they're the pinnacle, the cornerstone, of our water show team.”
Gerry Luiting has been show director many times and has skied all over the world. He, his wife, Cathy, and son, Aragorn, currently ski for the Tommy Bartlett Show in Wisconsin Dells.
“So many people over the years have made the club what it is today,” Snow said.
Entire families join the Aqua Jays, to the club's benefit, he added. Family members get to watch one another progress and become outstanding skiers, Snow said. They help out with tournaments and events.
“We want them to join so the whole family experiences the fun of ski shows,” Snow said.
“We've enjoyed that family aspect. That's what makes us very strong. I would say that we have a stronger family core group than many teams have because a lot of the northern teams travel back and forth to Chicago.”
Snow, who was an active member from 1972 to 1990, recalled when club members set a goal to win tournaments rather than simply put on shows.
Snow went on to organize the national tournaments in the mid-1970s. Later, he organized the world tournaments.
The first four national tournaments—from 1975 through 1978—were in Janesville.
The Aqua Jays won their first national tournament in 1979 in DuQuoin, Illinois.
“Our reputation and abilities and skiing quality had progressed from that date,” Snow said. “And, of course, it's all due to the talent in the club and the ability to attract good skiers.”
From then on, “We've never been lower than fourth,” Snow said.
“We've won 19 national titles,” Snow added. “We've won 10 or 11 Triple Crowns, and I forget how many Wisconsin State Tournament Championships we have right offhand.”
The club hosted the 2012 and 2014 world championships, pumping millions into the local economy.
The 2014 world tournament was so popular that it ranked in the top three live sporting events streamed online the weekend it was held in Janesville.
Snow figures the club has sent about 40 skiers to the professional ranks.
“There are a lot of very good water show ski clubs that send skiers to the professional ranks,” he said. “But we're recognized throughout the water show ski industry for having excellent talent. I would say from a single team, it's probably more than a lot of other teams.”
The Aqua Jays' skiing venue in Traxler Park is one reason the club continues to attract tournaments, and not only for ski shows. The club will host the 2015 Pro Wakeboard Tour in August.
The site's development is the result of a partnership between the club, its sponsors and the city of Janesville.
The site is well sheltered from wind. “It has to be a very odd wind to produce wind that comes straight up the river,” Snow said.
“We are really in a protected situation.”
The shoreline has lots of grassy areas so people can spread out.
Additional bleachers were just installed, and the venue can seat about 4,000 people.
The club's goal is to seat 5,000 so it can host the X Games, an annual extreme sports event organized by ESPN. Snow figures a bleacher fund drive will be held soon.
Scott Atkinson is director of communications for USA Water Ski, the governing body for the sport of water skiing in the United States. He also is editor and publisher of The Water Skier magazine.
Atkinson said the Aqua Jays and Janesville are well-known in the world of water show skiing, especially since hosting the last two world championships.
“Obviously, countries around the world that have show skiing and water skiing are quite familiar with Janesville and the Rock Aqua Jays based on the coverage and the social media,” he said.
The Aqua Jays do a wonderful job of developing show skiers, including hosting clinics, which results in the solid team it has had for years, Atkinson said. He noted the club's community presence and the support the club receives in return.
The Janesville ski club's worldwide reputation isn't something the occasional visitor to club's shows would ever guess, he said.
The show ski shows are great community family nights out, Atkinson said. The shows are free and laid-back, although donations are encouraged.
“You wouldn't think that you're watching a world-class show ski team,” Atkinson said.
“The performances are entirely different than the competitive show team,” he added.
History is proof of the quality of the skiers here, Atkinson said. The club has won more national titles than any other show ski team.
“They're at the top of the sport,” Atkinson said. “Most show ski teams would want to aspire to the success that the Aqua Jays have had.”
“They have proven that they're one of the very best, if not the very best.”
This story was revised July 27, 2015, to reflect the following clarification:
SNOW NO LONGER ACTIVE WITH AQUA JAYS
An earlier version of this story might have given some readers the impression that Duane Snow still is an active member of the Rock Aqua Jays show ski team.
Although Snow joined the team in 1972 and is an honorary member of the team, he said he has not been an active member since about 1990.