On Thursday evenings in summer, spectators spread blankets on the banks of the Mississippi in northeast Minneapolis at a spot near Broadway Avenue, where the river transforms into a liquid stage. They’re here to cheer for the Twin Cities River Rats, the state’s top show skiing team. For the uninitiated, show skiing is a sort of sport-meets-musical, with a script and costumes and tunes — plus acrobatic water skiing.
The Rats began more than 20 years ago, as an offshoot of the University of Minnesota’s water ski club. But their demographics quickly broadened. Unlike other sports, where teams are segmented by age or ability, show skiing is often a multigenerational family affair. Instead of coaching or reffing their kids, parents join them on the same team.
“People can ski, they can drive a boat, they can sit in the boat and help spot skiers, they can do sound, or act on stage, or help out with costumes — there’s really something available for anybody, which makes show skiing so unique,” says Alexa Ernst, a co-director of the Rats’ show. “You can do it at the age of 5, until the age of 65.”
So how do people learn to water ski off ramps, or while holding someone overhead? It’s not like one day you’re a recreational skier, being pulled around behind the boat at a lake cabin and the next — whoosh — you’re a pyramid topper. The “join” page on the Rats’ website seems improbably assured: “You only need to know how to swim, we teach the rest.”
But, really, Ernst says, it’s true. Though she was a longtime gymnast who spent a year on her college water ski team before joining the Rats six years ago, Ernst had never attempted anything like the quintessential show skiing showstopper: the pyramid.
You start on dry land, in the offseason, Ernst explains, and practice climbing onto someone’s shoulders, or having someone climb onto your shoulders, before taking your moves to the water. Though Ernst, now a regular of the pyramid’s third tier, admits the river’s fast currents and floating trash aren’t ideal for skiers, she says it is a spectacular location for spectators.
“The experience of seeing a pyramid coming into the Minneapolis skyline is breathtaking,” she says. “The vantage point for viewers is incredible.”
Go to TCRiverRats.com for updates on performance status.