ALTON — While the rest of us are shoveling our walks and cursing the snow, the Alton Water Ski Club already has warm temps and fun in the sun on its mind.
The club is holding a fundraiser and membership drive to continue a 60-year tradition of high-flying performances and charitable activities along the Mississippi River.
Founded in 1955, the club carried the purpose of promoting the sport and recreation of water skiing. The club became well-known in St. Louis and throughout Southern Illinois; performing as Midwest Water Ski Show Productions. Club skiers were fixtures in Fourth of July exhibitions in front of the Arch. An annual New Year’s Day “Polar Bear Ski” attracted skiers from all over, with even Santa Claus temporarily swapping his sleigh for skis.
As the club grew in popularity and size, it acquired riverfront property in Godfrey along the Great River Road, along with a clubhouse. This base of operation provided a staging area for performances.
“We use costumes and music to really put on a show,” Vice President and skier Todd Thompson said.
The club went through a downturn starting in 1993. Midwest Show Ski Productions was dissolved, equipment was auctioned and the club was nearly abandoned. With just a couple of boats and the property, a small group of passionate members managed to keep the club going.
In the spring of 2010, revival came when a group of show skiers from a neighboring area joined. The new team began working toward the goal of becoming a nationally ranked show club under the name River Road Renegades.
“When our membership is up and we feel like we have a good competitive team, we go to regionals with the hope of moving on to nationals,” said Thompson, who has been competitively water skiing since the age of 15.
While the club provides an avenue for competition skiing, it remains open for all ages, skill levels and interests. For Thompson, the sport is a family tradition.
“I’ve been water skiing about 40 years, from 7 years or 8 years old,” Thompson said. “I got into show skiing when I was 15. Now my kids do it with me.”
The club encourages an all-ages approach to water skiing.
“The youngest member we had was a 4-year-old,” Thompson said. “She was climbing pyramids within days, even before she learned to ski. We’ve also have members in the fifties, and regularly compete against skiers in their seventies.”
The Alton club has used water skiing to give back to others.
“We’ve helped out the Missouri Disabled Water Skiing Association at Creve Coeur Lake,” Thompson said. “We also hold a ski for Down syndrome and teach kids with the disorder to water ski or knee-board.”
A continual challenge to the club’s activities and membership levels has been the river itself. Since 2010, the flooding and drought have often kept members off the river, which has cut into membership. According to Thompson, the Army Corps of Engineers is formulating a plan to dredge out the river channel to help the ski club and other recreational water establishments, like the marina.
Despite the river’s ups and downs, the club has been actively engaged in evangelizing the watersport to others.
“If you want to learn how to ski, join the club or participate in one of our ‘learn to ski’ events,” Thompson said. “We’re open to people who are interested in skiing. Come on board and we’ll teach you what you want to learn.”
The club is hosting a mouse race and silent auction fundraiser Saturday, March 14, at the Alton VFW. Doors open at 6 p.m. and tickets are $12. For information, visit www.altonski.com.