Editor’s Note: Kicks presents 20Q, a feature that introduces readers to people involved in the area’s arts and entertainment community. Compiled by kicks Editor Greg Little, each piece will include a short bio, photo and answers to questions that provide insight into not only that person’s artistic interests but also his or her unique personality.
Much like the waters of the mighty Rock River, Tim Cullen’s roots with the Rock Aqua Jays water ski team run deep.
Cullen’s parents first got involved with the team in 1978, and he started skiing at the age of 7—going over his first jump at 9. Cullen went on to ski in shows for more than 20 years, and he has been the team’s show director on several occasions.
This summer marks Cullen’s fourth as the team’s president, a responsibility he says he treasures. His goal is to leave the team with a great foundation on which to continue to grow.
The team dubs itself as “the most successful water ski show team in the world,” having garnered more than 60 total tournament victories including 19 U.S. National Championships. The Rock Aqua Jays perform twice-weekly shows on Sunday and Wednesday evenings from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend at RAJ Stadium on the Rock River at Traxler Park in Janesville.
To learn more about Cullen and the Rock Aqua Jays, visit RockAquaJays.org.
1. How does one go about becoming a member of the Rock Aqua Jays? I think we make it easy to become a member. No prior water ski experience is necessary, but it is recommended. We will take members of all ages and for any part (there are plenty of areas anyone can help the team on and off the water, from helping in concessions to riding in a boat).
2. Can one become a professional water skier? Yes, one can become a professional water skier, but I chose to beat up my body for free. It’s an amateur team, and we even pay dues … but we also win championships, which is a lot of fun. There is a pro team in the Dells (Tommy Bartlett’s Water Show), and a few of our skiers are part-timers up there.
3. Is it a rule that water ski show themes must be slightly corny? We couldn’t make a ski show theme any cornier if we did a “Hee Haw” theme. Wait ... we did that back in 1989—so I guess yes, it’s an unwritten rule to make the theme a little odd. The audience gets a kick out of it.
4. How many world titles have the RAJs won, and to what do you attribute that success? No world titles—that would be a Team USA event. But the RAJs have had numerous members be part of the past three USA Championships. Our team has competed with and in China a few times, and it has had success. Since I don’t speak Chinese, it’s hard to tell if we actually won or not. However, our team has 19 national championships.
5. In the late ’70s, ABC aired “The Superstars,” which featured professional athletes from a variety of sports competing against each other. Water ski legend Wayne Grimditch won the competition in 1978. What do you say to those who say water skiing isn’t a sport? Well, at least you didn’t ask about Fonzie on “Happy Days” jumping the shark. Show skiing is the ultimate team sport. You have skiers of all ages and abilities along with announcers, drivers, spotters, sound techs, costume committee, etc. It takes a lot of talented people to be on the same page to pull off the shows that we perform.
6. In an average week during the ski season, how many hours do RAJ members spend on the water? A lot. There are shows on Sunday and Wednesday nights plus practice on Monday and Tuesday evenings. And then we have a younger team of up-and-comers that practices Thursday and Friday evenings. Total water time? I’d say around 20 hours.
7. If I want a really good hamburger, I go to: I love the pretzel burger at the Tree House (in Janesville). They are done perfectly each time. They have other good meals, but their burger is excellent.
8. Have you ever known a water skier who was either afraid of the water or was not a strong swimmer? If you find a skier who’s a really good swimmer, then you probably didn’t find a really good skier. The goal is to stay on top of the water, not in it.
9. A 2,300-pound boat pulls a 150-pound skier toward a 35-degree ramp. If the skier clears the ramp at a speed of 30 mph but doesn’t land on his skis, will he be more sore or embarrassed? It’s like if a tree falls in the woods—it all depends on how many people saw it. If it happens in a show or a tournament, then you would be more embarrassed than sore no matter how hard the fall.
10. Do you keep up with the Kardashians? I’m wondering if the Kardashians are keeping up with me! Running this ski team, being one of the boat drivers and also trying to run a marketing company keeps me pretty busy.
11. Do you prefer dogs or cats? Dogs! The best would be any dog that loves water or riding in a boat.
12. Name the one item you own that you could not live without? I love being on the water, so I’d have to say a boat. Our season here is pretty short, so it’s nice to enjoy the summer on the river.
13. The RAJs perform and practice on the Rock River, which is constantly moving. Does that make skiing more difficult or easier than skiing on a lake? I’ve honestly never thought about the current being different. The current wouldn’t bother us, but the constant waves from all directions that a lake can have would bother us quite a bit.
14. What is your worst habit? In spring, I constantly watch the water gauge to see when the “slow/no wake” restriction on the Rock River in Janesville area will be lifted. Can’t wait to use the water, and the river goes up so quickly but down so agonizingly slow.
15. Are there any embarrassing events you’ve had while skiing that stick out in your mind? I once stepped on the whisker of a catfish during a show, and it stuck right in the middle of my foot. My uncle was in the audience. He saw it happen and jumped out to pull the fish from my foot. I think I was up to date on tetanus shots, so I put duct tape on it and finished the show.
16. The Rock Aqua Jays would not exist were it not for: All the hard-working members-–all year long. Even though the public sees us Memorial Day through Labor Day, we run it like a business all year. It takes all levels of talent on and off the water. If you can ski, do that. But if you can’t ski, then you drive a boat, and if you can’t do that, you announce the shows (taking a jab at my brother, Brian Cullen, the team announcer).
17. Left-handed or right-handed? Mainly right-handed, but I do some sports left-handed, such as golf and baseball. I really have no idea why.
18. How do Wisconsin water skiers train in the winter? Our team experiments with skiing behind snowmobiles, and randomly falling down on ice helps prepare for hard, barefoot skiing wipeouts. In honesty though, we practice twice a month at an indoor gymnastics place called CSA for Kids. It’s a great way to prepare.
19. Do you have time for any other hobbies? Lately, I’ve taken a liking to spin classes and teaching spin class. It’s excellent cardio exercise, which I need to do more of.
20. Comedian Pete Lee is a former member of the Rock Aqua Jays. Was it as funny watching him ski as it is watching him do stand-up? It was an interesting time with Pete on the team—more of a give-and-take relationship where we would give advice and he would take the hard falls. That was pretty funny—especially on the barefoot falls. But maybe this prepared him for the hard world of stand-up comedy, so we did him a favor. Pete was a fairly quiet guy when he was on the team, and I had no idea he was funny until we saw his act on State Street. We’re proud to call him an Aqua Jay—he’s a great guy.