Athletes With a Rope to Hold, and Water to Stand On

By LIZ LEYDEN | New York Times | Published: August 7, 2011

The United States Water Ski Show Team performing on the Mohawk River.

SCOTIA, N.Y. — It was almost showtime along the banks of the Mohawk River. Young women in grass skirts and hot pink spandex braided one another's hair. Men cinched black hats beneath their chins. The show's director implored: "Big smiles!"

Minutes later, the roar of a speedboat signaled the arrival of 10 "pirates" who fanned out across the river, enormous sprays of water unfurling at their backs. The crowd lining the riverbank erupted: Act 1, "The Barefoot Line," had begun.

On this night, the stage was the river itself, the theater a half-mile stretch of shoreline where every Tuesday night in July and August thousands of spectators come for synchronized jumps and quadruple-decker pyramids and glittery costumes that sparkle at sunset.

They come for the United States Water Ski Show Team. While the name suggests unrivaled national standing, the team is actually is one of a number of similar water ski clubs across the country.

The club, based in this village about 20 miles west of Albany, is the only such show team in New York and one of just a handful in the Northeast. The team was founded in 1968, and these days its 76 members include schoolteachers and engineers, contractors and college students. The oldest is a 65-year-old motorcycle-riding retiree; the youngest, age 7, just lost her front tooth.

And while it regularly competes against other show teams in the region — placing first recently in the Northeast Regional Water Ski Show Team Championship — its heart lies in these summer shows.

The club's home base on the river is Jumpin' Jack's Drive-In, a place of low slanted roofs, large glass windows and classic roadside fare: burgers, onion rings and Dole Whip, a frozen pineapple treat with its own cult following.

"It's a good marriage," said the owner of the drive-in, Mark Lansing. "They do a great job and it's a place where families can go, relax together and not spend a lot of money."

On a recent night, the shore was thick with picnic blankets and an array of fans devoted enough to ignore thunderstorm warnings: young men with tattoos, elderly couples in upright chairs, children whose chins dripped with melting ice cream.

Kendra Durivage, 41, and her three sons arrived from East Greenbush an hour early to secure a patch of grass at the front of the bank near the club's dock.

"I take them every single year, hoping it'll spark their interest to join," she said of her boys, ages 5, 7 and 8.

The boys scrambled to their feet as the boat aimed for a floating ramp midriver. Voices rose throughout the crowd.

"They're going for the ramp!"

"Here they come. You know what they're going to do!"

Four skiers fanned out behind the boat. Two sailed over the ramp, twisting their bodies into helicopter spins. As they landed, the others curved around the ramp and threaded their way between the descending jumpers, the four aligning themselves perfectly.

"I wish I had a video camera," said Kyle Chambers, a 24-year-old landscaper from Schenectady who often brings his young cousins to the shows. "It's pretty crazy. They do some wicked stuff out there."

When mistakes came — not often — the crowd was forgiving. "Good try!" one woman shouted as a couple of skiers tumbled, splashing into the waves.

More often were the oohs and ahhs, as young women in kick lines rushed past, and couples spun each other overhead as if in a ballet.

It is a labor of love that begins with snow on the ground: Club members spend winters choreographing acts, hand-stitching three dozen costumes and practicing rope work in swimming pools and pyramids in the gym. Once spring turns to summer, 20 hours a week are spent rehearsing on the water.

A broken ankle has forced one club member, Sara Pritchard, a 49-year-old office worker, to say goodbye to her beloved pyramids for much of the summer. She wistfully nodded toward Freemans Bridge, which crosses the Mohawk along the club's route.

"It's so exhilarating," Mrs. Pritchard said. "When you're going by in a pyramid, you feel like you can touch the bridge, that's how high you feel. I've got to tell myself: breathe, breathe!"

Along with a love for the water and the sport, many members are bound to one another: the club counts 31 families on its roster.

"It's just a good family sport," Todd Benjamin, a 63-year-old engineer from Glenville, said. "It's pretty athletic, and if you like performing in front of a crowd, it's a lot of fun. For kids, it builds character and self-esteem. You can't beat that."

Mr. Benjamin watched his four children grow up on the Mohawk after the family joined the club in 1992. Now, his 30-year-old son, Brad, jumps alongside him, and his 14-month-old granddaughter, Zinnia, will be the third generation in the club.

"She's not on the water yet, but she helps in the boats," he said, laughing. "She's officially a future member."

By 8 p.m., cicadas chirped in the tall grass and the smell of burgers drifted over the quieting crowd. They watched, murmuring as the final boat slowly pulled 18 skiers to their feet. The first three tiers of a pyramid rose, and Emily Bini, 9, detached from a teammate's back and began to climb.

The sun hovered, casting down across the shore. Club members squinted into the light as the boat moved toward the bridge.

"Did she make it?" someone asked.

Emily stood, feet firmly planted on the shoulders beneath her. She straightened and, holding a clutch of purple streamers overhead, smiled big as the boat sped by the cheering crowds.

"Yes," said Cindy Tygert, the club's seamstress, pumping her fist. "She did."

A version of this article appeared in print on August 8, 2011, on page A15 of the New York edition with the headline: Athletes With a Rope to Hold, and Water to Stand On.

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