Life as a ski rat

by Jackie Renzetti

Donning a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costume, Abe Cass zipped along the Mississippi River on water skis, completing a few back flips along the way.
The stunt was part of the Twin Cities River Rats show. The water ski team has performed shows in the Twin Cities since 1985, and this summer, they perform every Thursday night on the Mississippi River in northeast Minneapolis. 
Last weekend, the team won their second consecutive regionals tournament. Before heading to nationals on Friday, the team will host another show on Wednesday.
Each year, the team picks a different theme. This year, the show is themed after the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The show uses skits on stage and water skiing to tell a story. Roughly 150 to 200 people watched on Thursday as the River Rats formed various pyramids and formations. The show also featured dances and individual skiers’
spins and flips.
The roughly 80-person water ski team members of the River Rats range in experience and age. The team practices three nights a week, and their shows are completely
Cass’s water skiing journey began 20 years ago. Over the years, he has skied professionally at Sea World in Texas and joined the River Rats about six years ago.
“To be honest I still get the adrenaline rush. I do jump and sky-ski, and it still scares the crap out of me, so I think that keeps me on the water,” Cass said.
Aside from the thrill of the sport, Cass also said he values the family atmosphere of the team — a sentiment reflected by all of the members interviewed.
The youngest River Rat, 6-year-old Maesa, joined the team a year ago. She performs conventionals, in which a skier stands and poses on the shoulders of another skier.
“It makes you feel good, and sometimes the water is cold at first and then you get used to it. … The good thing is people cheer for me, and I have a big audience. It’s super fun,” Maesa said.
The show incorporates different sections to include all skill levels. A “development show” features beginner skiers prior to the main production, and skiers perform in teams and solo acts throughout the show.
Seated on a lawn chair among spectators, former team member Bruce Erickson said he comes to almost every show. 
After his daughter, Kala Stanek, joined the team as a child, Erickson helped for 18 years as one of roughly 40 non-skiing members, running concessions or driving boats.
“They’re really a family organization. My daughter was 12 [when she joined]. She was welcomed with open arms so readily and nicely. The older people on the team always kind of looked out for her and the other kids; it’s been that way all the way through,” Erickson said.
This summer marks the first that Stanek has been off the water since joining after seeing the team at an Aquatennial performance. She met her husband on the team and is now expecting a baby. More than 15 other married couples have met the same way. 
“We’re family, and that’s the part that I love,” Stanek said. “We all have kind of a crazy love for the skiing. It’s like having 30 older brothers and sisters. Everyone takes care of everyone,” Stanek said.