Credit: Photos by Margie O'Loughlin

Credit: Photos by Margie O'Loughlin

Twin Cities River Rats make a big splash

Updated: August 27, 2015 - 10:33 am

Every Thursday night this summer, Minneapolis’ one and only water ski club has been churning up the Mississippi River just south of the Broadway Bridge. Known as the Twin Cities River Rats, they’ve been performing free community shows in that location for 10 years now. The last show of 2015 will be Thursday, Aug. 27. Stretching out on a blanket with a picnic or treats from their concession stand would be a fine way to mark the end of summer.

The club boasts about 70 active water skiers and 40 support people, including costume sewers, script writers (the shows are themed), sound techs and boat drivers. Their numbers have surged since 2013, and their motto is: “You don’t have to water ski to join, but you do have to swim.” In other words, they can teach anyone and age is no restriction either. There are members ranging from three years old to more than 60.

The River Rats roll out what’s called their Development Show at 6:30 p.m. That’s when the newest members are given time to perform in front of a smaller crowd, to develop confidence for the Big Show which starts at 7 p.m.

Water skiing has evolved into an action sport after starting from humble beginnings in Lake City, Minn. It was there in 1922, that native son Ralph Samuelson was towed by his brother across Lake Pepin at 20 mph. He strapped two pine boards to his feet and used a clothes line for a tow rope. Samuelson was just shy of his 19th birthday when he leaned back on his “skis”, lifted their tips, glided across the surface of the water — and made waterskiing history.

The sport has come a long way since then. There are state, regional, national and even international competitions. Dan Horak, board president of the River Rats said, “Our team is pretty small compared to others. We’re only about half the size of the Wisconsin team, for instance, but we can hold our own. Our goal is to enrich the lives of members by promoting teamwork, skills development and community engagement.”

The River Rats can be found practicing their routines down at the river Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, with performances on Thursdays. Sometimes there are additional performances on the weekends and if not, members are encouraged to call each other and get out on the water together.

The club owns six tow boats, two safety pontoons, two large docks, one jump ramp, and so many pairs of skis that they’ve lost count. Members can borrow skis from the club, so no one has to invest before they’re ready. All that’s required to get started is a life jacket, the annual dues and a willingness to learn.

Safety is “priority number one” for the River Rats and Horak said, “Everyone in a position of leadership attends safety and water rescue courses. We also have a few nurses on the team, and that helps with the occasional bumps and bruises one can get being pulled behind a boat travelling over 30 mph.”

Horak grew up water skiing and, to this day, is happiest when he’s on or near the water. With all of the responsibilities of being River Rats board president, working full time in a sales position and keeping up with his own water skiing hobby, he regularly logs 16 hour days away from home.

The club is nothing if not dedicated. Each year, they host an annual Military Appreciation Day with proceeds going to benefit members of the military and their families. When the I-35W Bridge collapsed in 2007, they hosted a benefit and raised $35,000 in donations form one performance. All of their funding comes from donations. The average crowd on a Thursday night is about 3,000 people and Horak said, “We hope to average $1.50 per person in the audience —  that’ll keep us afloat.”

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FYI: For more information, check out their website at www.tcriverrats.com or email info@tcriverrats.com.