MORNING. LAKE ST. LOUIS. JULY.

Boat drivers, mostly dads, wake before dawn, rouse the kids, sip coffee, grab a bite to eat, and head outside. Bugs fritter to and fro on the water. Some days, fog shrouds the neighborhood. Others, mist wafts from the lake’s surface. The sun will eventually burn that off. For now, it’s just starting to warm and light the area. It’s time to go water-skiing. By June, it’s often warm enough outside to wear a bathing suit and nothing else. On cool days early and late in the season, the water-skiers don wet suits to protect themselves against the chill of the air, the icy splash of wet spray, and the frigidity of full immersion in the water. On the best mornings, the water of Lake St. Louis sits peacefully, still like glass, unmoving, not even a ripple. The silence beckons. The Lake St. Louis Water Ski Club answers the call. “Skiing in the morning, seeing that sun come up,” says club Vice President Laura Gramolino, and here she pauses to collect her thoughts. She and her husband and kids get so much joy from the club, she wants to get this description just right. “You’re out there by yourself, doing something you love to do. It just makes you thankful for the things that you have. It’s an amazing group of people and an amazing sport. It makes you thankful for where you are.”

The Show-Me Skiers celebrate at an annual July 4th home show.
The skiers wave the St. Louis Blues flag in support during their march to the 2019 Stanley Cup.

FRIDAY EVENING. JEFFERSON POINT ON LAKE ST. LOUIS. AUGUST.

The Lake St. Louis Water Ski Club stirs to life at one of its public performances. Audience members sit on lawn chairs and eat grub bought from food trucks. Show tunes play over the loudspeakers. Broadway is the theme of this particular performance late last summer. A band waits to play after the water-skiing show is over. One after the other, various teams of the club perform, across many disciplines, from barefoot to around the boat, trick riding to trios, jumps to juniors. The highlight is arguably the pyramid team, if not for technical difficulty at least for the appearance of it. There are multiple iterations of the pyramid, the most complicated consisting of 20 people and four tiers. The bottom layer is men, with small and apparently fearless children at the top. It takes hours, weeks, sometimes years, to perfect some of these moves, time the participants are more than happy to put in. Founded in 1975, the club has 200 to 250 members spread across 80 to 90 families. For many of them, water-skiing is an everyday activity, or every day that the weather allows it. Many members grew up water-skiing and found in the Lake St. Louis Water Ski Club a way to relive their childhood memories and pass them on to their own kids. Many bought houses on the lake after becoming active members of the organization. Others live in surrounding communities and commute to the lake to get their water-ski fix. Members believe the St. Louis Water Ski Club is the only formal water-skiing organization in the state, and the club is comprised of three subgroups. First is the Show-Me Skiers. Everyone is a member. They put on two big Fourth of July shows every summer. Those performances are like a piano recital—grandparents show up beaming with pride, and everybody gets to participate.

Members of the Lake St. Louis Water Ski Club gather for an annual photo at their 4th of July celebration, where they put on a free performance for their community.
Second is the Arch Rivals. That is a competitive show team, and membership is reserved for the best of the best. The shows are similar in content to the Show-Me Skiers, but more complicated, refined, and precise, the difference between a kid’s piano recital and a city’s symphony. They compete regionally and nationally, in years they qualify, and usually put on four Friday night shows throughout the summer and perform at fairs and other events. Their performances include skits, dancing, and music. The shows are free, open to the public, and are scheduled for July 3, July 17, July 24, and August 7. Third is the Three-Event Team. The participants come from the club and are trained and coached by members of it, but they compete as individuals. The three events are slalom skiing, trick skiing, and jumps. Members of the club range in age from young children to senior citizens, and the ability to include such a wide range of ages and skill levels is a main part of its draw. Generations of water-skiers can compete and perform alongside each other. Will Jarrett, one of the father-members, explains, “There aren’t very many competitions you do where you are competing in an event, potentially at the highest level, as a family. You’re on the same team. Usually you don’t play basketball with your daughter. There aren’t very many activities where the whole family can be part of it.”
Breanne Czerniewski is a former USA National Swivel Champion and the show director for the Arch Rival team. She is executing a one-arm pull press on a swivel ski.
Early in the morning, when the water is still, is perfect for the barefoot skiers. Every weekday morning, Jim Mondl is in his boat at 6 am, steaming cup of coffee in hand, classic rock on his playlist, ready to teach a half-dozen kids how to barefoot water-ski. “It’s my favorite time of the day, favorite time of the year,” Jim says. “When you’re gliding on glass-calm water, there’s almost this buzzing sensation, rippling through your whole body, starting at your feet. It’s something you have to experience. People always ask me, ‘Does it hurt your feet?’ It does not. But it’s the coolest, most adrenaline-inducing feeling.” Jim teaches the youngest kids on Mondays, the oldest kids on Fridays, and the in- betweens in between. He puts them through a step-by-step process, starting with barefoot skiers holding a bar on a boom on the boat, to a short rope, then a long line. Once his young charges are able to ski behind a long line—which most kids can master in a summer, the more athletic among them in a few weeks—Jim gives them a necklace with a barefoot charm. Those who receive them wear them proudly, like varsity jackets. The barefooters are given priority in the morning, because they need calm water, and that’s when it is calmest. But the lake is thick with water-skiers from sunup until sundown. Lake St. Louis is a private lake, and the club practices pyramids in Jefferson Cove, which is closed for shows and during pyramid practice.

LATE AFTERNOON. LAKE ST. LOUIS. SUMMERTIME.

The boats roar across the water, and the joy that results is transcendent. The afternoon time is just as much fun as it is in the morning, though the vibe is different. The morning is like opening a gift. The afternoon is like playing with it.

“My happy place is in that boat,” says Scotty Patton, the club president. “I get no more joy out of life than when I start my boat and I get to pull these skiers, especially when I get to teach somebody brand new. Being able to teach and watch success happen right in front of you, it’s like you get a little piece of their joy and excitement.”

Safety is the group’s top priority. But no matter the preparations and precautions, water- skiing is a difficult and, at times, dangerous sport. “When you take a fall at 40 miles per hour, that water becomes concrete,” Scotty says.

As much as the club is about water-skiing, participants also learn valuable life lessons.

Sometimes success means merely coaxing a kid off the dock. Sometimes success is getting a trick right after weeks of practice. Stories abound of the club’s water-skiers facing a fear or struggling with a move and overcoming it. Scotty tells one about his daughter, Jadyn, 15, who is a swivel skier.

Jadyn Patton and Taylor Reiter, skiing backward, are on swivel skis, which have boots that can spin 360 degrees. Taylor is doing a 180-degree turn.

Swivel skis are actually only one ski with a binding for only one foot. That binding spins 360 degrees, allowing the skier to turn completely around while being pulled at 14 miles per hour (by comparison, the best barefoot skiers reach 40 miles per hour or more). It’s up to the skier to decide what to do with the other foot. Sometimes it rests on the back of the ski; sometimes it points forward.

For a move called a toe turn, a skier holds the rope handle by arching a foot into it. He or she then spins 360 degrees around. Last summer, Jadyn wanted to learn how to do that. Even on a good day, Scotty jokes that swivel skiing is 90 percent swimming, 10 percent skiing. It’s even worse when you’re trying to learn a move as complicated as a toe turn. Try, crash, splash. Try, crash, splash. Jadyn fell, and fell, and fell some more.

Then, after hours of failure, success. She did it! Scotty hooped and hollered from the driver’s seat. Jadyn beamed from behind him.

“She does it in her sleep now,” Scotty says.

Members of the Showgirls and the Junior Ballet perform at the Annual 4th of July Show.
For one event, they begin their run by being pulled off the dock as one group. In another routine, they are hands-free, with the ropes between their legs.

This is about more than a toe turn, of course. Members of the club say water-skiing challenges them physically and mentally. They push themselves to train and take risks and get a little bit better, every day. It’s self-help while skimming across the water at high speed, almost like flying.

Through water-skiing, Scotty says he, his kids, and everyone in the club have learned an extremely valuable life lesson: “When you fall down, get back up. Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do it. If you want something bad enough, keep trying.”

Photos // Lake St. Louis Water Ski Club