Reaching for the Sky: NJ’s Water-Ski Team

The state’s official water-ski team makes a splash at Lake Mohawk.

Michaela Bleakley completes a pyramid on the shoulders of twins Anna and Luke Valentine, who balance on Devaney, Lauren O’Connor and Tory Bahnsen.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey

On the boardwalk at the northern shore of Lake Mohawk, a crowd of spectators anxiously awaits the crowning moment of this overcast Labor Day. Across the lake, a boat’s twin outboards roar to life. Ten skiers sitting on the edge of a dock rise in unison, clutching their towropes. The boat accelerates, hauling all 10 onto the lake’s surface, a splashy entrance for a team that knows how to make a splash.

The boat speeds away from the shore, swings wide, heads back toward the dock and loops again to the center of the lake. The spectators tense as the skiers begin to build a human pyramid. Three skiers line up to form the base. A pair of twins, Anna and Luke Valentine, kick off their special climbing skis and clamber onto the trio’s shoulders. Once they’ve settled onto their perch, 12-year-old Michaela Bleakley begins her ascent to the top of the pyramid, shimmying up legs and torsos until she reaches the apex, standing tall, with one arm pointing gracefully to the sky.

“It was scary the first time I did it,” admits Michaela, who topped her first pyramid two years earlier. “But now it’s just really fun.”

Michaela is one of 40 members of the Ski Hawks, a club formed in 1962 by Lake Mohawk residents. She is typical of the kids on the team, who range in age from 6 to 18 and reside with their families in this private lakefront reservation within the Sussex County town of Sparta. The team also includes 15 adult skiers and has a support staff of 30 volunteers.

The youngest members of the team start out riding piggyback on the shoulders of the adult skiers and graduate to more active roles as their skills improve. One of those youngsters, 7-year-old Megan Chiesa-Rupani, is entering her second year on the team. Like Michaela, Megan had a bumpy start. “After her first fall, she got right back up, and now she loves it,” says Megan’s mom, Natalie. Inspired, Natalie and her husband started water-skiing as well. Now, she says, “Megan is giving us pointers.”

For most of the participants, the team is a family affair. There are stories of multiple generations devoting their time and energy to the squad. Brothers and sisters ski side-by-side, sometimes standing on a dad’s or uncle’s shoulders as they create the signature pyramids that helped the Ski Hawks take third place in the Eastern Regional competition last summer. In addition to skiing alongside the kids and training new members, parents maintain the equipment, create the costumes, and drive the four boats that tow the skiers and rescue those who splash down in the water.

Designated by the state Legislature some 20 years ago as New Jersey’s Official Water Ski Team, the Ski Hawks stage three performances at Lake Mohawk each summer: Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day. But you can catch the members practicing on the lake a couple of evenings a week and every Saturday and Sunday morning throughout the season, which starts in mid May. In April, well before they hit the lake, members rehearse inside a local high school gymnasium.

While it looks like fun, there’s plenty of hard work involved. “It’s a really big time commitment,” says Michael O’Connor, 13. His teammates—including Jillian Stote, Jessica Whittam and Marigrace Yuskaitis, ranging in age from 12 to 15—nod in agreement as they chat on the dock after practice. “They have to give up sleepovers and other social and extracurricular activities,” says the mother of one of the teens.

Typical performances are highlighted by three- and four-tier pyramids, as well as the all-girl ballet line, in which skiers hook the tow line in the crook of the left knee and balance on the other leg. The boys get their adrenaline jolt performing stunts on the ski jump, a wooden ramp anchored 50 yards offshore. Meanwhile, a DJ spins pop music from a tent on the beach, and an announcer sets up each routine and introduces the performers.

The season culminates in the Eastern Regionals, the premier competitive event for water-skiing in this part of the country. This year’s meet will take place in July in Northampton, Massachusetts. The meet requires a two-part performance that can last up to an hour. On land, members appear in an original play, usually a comedy written by adult team members. Meanwhile, on the water, the skiers complement the story line with a choreographed routine accompanied by music and narration. Everyone is in costume—brightly colored dresses with spangles for the girls, neon surf shirts for the guys. Last year’s play lampooned retired superheroes interviewing their replacements; this year’s work will feature competing camps, as in the movie Meatballs.

As in any troupe, the team has its headliners. Current stars include Luke and Jack Valentine, ages 14 and 15, respectively, and Paul Schwesinger Jr., 14, all of whom have received trophies and top marks for slalom trick skiing and breathtaking jumps. The boys can soar as high as 10 feet above the water, covering a distance of 40 to 50 feet while traveling at more than 30 miles per hour. Todd Muth, former club president, now a trustee, and one of the team’s adult stars, wows the crowd with his barefoot skiing.

Water-skiing is not without risk. Team members have suffered broken bones and dislocated joints; once, a skier was knocked unconscious.

“We have our share of bumps and bruises,” says Muth—but the team takes all necessary precautions, and the adults are trained in first aid.

In addition to Muth, the support staff includes Damon Jenkins, the show’s director for the past 15 years and driver of the largest of the club’s four boats. Jenkins grew up with the team and at one time skied professionally at Six Flags in Jackson.

All Ski Hawks must be members of the Lake Mohawk Country Club and the Florida-based USA Water Ski association. The team recently received permission from the country club to begin opening the membership to a small number of non-Lake Mohawk residents. Muth says new members expand the talent pool and contribute to the wider skiing community. Members can use their own equipment or borrow the team’s, including wet suits, bathing suits and personal skis and ropes. Annual dues start at $75 per member; fund-raisers are held throughout the year to help support the team. More information is available on the team’s website.

After the Labor Day show concludes and spectators disperse, one attendee, 54-year-old Lori Walker, wistfully recalls her days as a Ski Hawk, 40 years ago. “It was really just a small club,” she says. “They didn’t even have a boat with enough horsepower to pull a three-tier pyramid. It took three separate boats working together. They’ve come a long way.”

Freelance writer Tracy Campbell Bender lives on a lake in Sandyston Township. She has never water-skied.

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