Nikki Weakley would almost always rather be water skiing.
The 25-year-old corporate communications rep for GE put on her first pair of water skis at age four and joined the U.S. Water Ski Show Team at the ripe old age of seven.
Since then the Mariaville native has spent nearly every summer evening behind a boat on the Mohawk River, practicing pyramids, jumps and balletic swivel skiing moves with the other members of the team.
The show team practices behind Jumpin' Jack's in Scotia nearly every night, and performs on Tuesday nights in July and August. It took first place in a regional competition last weekend and recently they caught the attention of the New York Times.
Nikki tore herself away from practice last night to talk with us about skiing, wiping out and the one thing that might be more of a thrill than her lifelong hobby.
Why water skiing?
(Laughs) Why not water skiing? It's fantastic! It's the most fun you can have. It's a blast! And it's a family-oriented sport, which is really great. You know, you play with a soccer team and the players are all around the same age -- it's tough to get the whole family involved in one team. Same with basketball. But with water skiing we have multi-generational families on one team so we have people as young as four, up through folks in their 60s on the team.
How did you get involved?
I was actually born onto the team. My father was on the original ski team which started back in 1968 -- so were my uncles and aunts. My mother was really involved. I was 4 when I first got on skis and 7 when I first did the ski show. I was 8 years old when I learned how to drop a ski and slalom, but at 7 I was kind of tiny -- I was a very, very small kid. I was on shoulders so I did doubles with the guys on the team. They'd put me up on their shoulders and we did tricks and different holds. I also climbed pyramids when I was little too. It was hard but I had some great teachers.
What happened when you first went out in the show?
It was pretty funny. I cried my eyes out. I didn't want to do it and my father -- he made me do it and I loved it! I couldn't stop. I was completely addicted and it was great.
OK, but isn't it a little dangerous to put a 7-year-old on the shoulders of moving water skiers?
Sure, it's dangerous to a certain level. I've gotten hurt a couple of times. I got a couple of broken toes from kicking rocks. I elongated one of my legs for a little while one summer. It was a trick release malfunction so I went behind he boat a little longer than I was supposed to.
We're all pretty well trained, though. A lot of us have been around here for a long time so we don't ever let anybody do something unless they're ready for it. We always make sure we use the proper equipment. Everybody has to have the right flotation. We use trick releases in the boats so sometimes the ropes get released from the boat so they don't get dragged. So there's a ton of precautions that go into this this.
We tell people who watch the show "don't try this at home" but we definitely welcome them down here because we'll teach them anything they want to do, safely. If they become a team member they pay team dues and insurance and become a member of USA Waterski, which is the group we fall underneath. People think it's very professional and its kind of intimidating to join a team like this. We don't get paid to do this -- it's a hobby. USA Waterski regulates everything that we do -- so we all follow the same safety guidelines and rules.
If anyone joins they can learn anything they want. Anybody can do it.
We open our arms to anyone who wants to join ... even if you don't want to ski -- if you want to drive a boat, if you want to wrap ropes, if you want to just help with marketing. There's a ton of stuff people can do. This is a sport that's open to all ages and open to everybody, to all ages and every ability. You could have never seen water before and come down here and we'll teach you how to ski.
We even do ski clinics, so people who are not members can come down on a Saturday for 2 or 3 hours and they'll spend 15 minutes in a session -- they're short sessions because it's pretty tiring -- and they'll go out and learn how to ski. It's a rare, rare moment when we can't get someone up on skies, but if we can't then we'll have someone go out when them and hold them up on their skies.
We have tools to help us teach skiers, like the boom. It's a long pole right off the side of the boat so the water is softer and the skier can communicate with the people on the boat. That way the coaches can tell them to bend their knees or straighten their back. It's comforting too, 'cause it gets scary. After a while we'll put them on a long line and usually they'll get right up .
What's the worst wipe out you've seen?
Usually it's when the guys are barefooting -- that's when they don't have any skies on at all -- and the guys are going anywhere from 40-45 miles an hour. So if you can catch a toe at that speed, when you wipe out you can do a faceplate at 40 or 45 miles per hour. Or they'll roll three times on top of the water -- they'll skip like a stone. It's something you really gotta love (laughs).
The jumpers get hurt sometimes, too. With any sport there's dangers but we have a couple of medics on the team, a first aid kit and backboard on hand. I've been on the team for 20 years and I've only seen a couple of serious injuries.
Do you worry about getting hurt when you go out?
Not too much. We try to focus on staying safe, making sure that our ropes are all straight, that our skis are OK, that the boats are ready to go. If we take the precautions and have the proper personnel -- all of our spotters are very well trained to do what they do, even watching skiing from the boats -- so that prevents most of our injuries.
Alright but to defy... maybe not death... but, you know, pain every time you go out. you must get something really big out of this.
Fun. It' just fun. We love it. I mean look, we have like 20 people waiting on the dock to ski right now, we have one boat tonight and that's all they want to do -- that's all we're here for is to ski. It's a blast. And it's a great excuse to just get out of the office and hit the water, get some sun with your friends.
To talk to you, you'd think there was no greater high than water skiing.
(laughs) Not to me -- not to me. Maybe skydiving -- that's on my bucket list. I haven't done it yet, but I think that might be the only thing that could beat water skiing.
What's you're "thing"? What do you do in the show?
I'm a swivel skier, which is kind of ballet skiing. It's one ski on a wide board and the binding on it swivels 360 degrees so I can pass the rope behind my back and do like-- ice skater moves.
I'm also at the base of the pyramid, so I hold the other girls on my shoulders.
I'm trying to learn how to barefoot -- I'm kind of a wuss. [Editors note: yeah,right. Not.]
How strong do you have to be to do this? How strong are you?
(laughs) I'm stronger than a lot of other girls my age (laughs) and some guys. It ranges. We have some pretty tiny girls on our team. I've been doing it for a while and I'm kind of a stronger girl. I'm a little bit bigger. If you look at cheerleading, you know, where there's girls in charge of being on the bottom and they toss the lighter girls -- we do the same thing here -- well, minus the tossing. Of course we don't toss people on water-skis, but you get the idea.
It does take an incredible amount of strength. We get stronger as the summer goes on because you can't really waterski in the winter in New York. But we do train in the off-season -- a lot of cardio, eating right -- that kind of thing. We'll rent a pool and practice pyramids and lifts. You have to build a lot of muscle memory, so when you come back in the summer it's like riding a bike. And during the season we're out here almost every night of the week. Practice starts at six and we'll ski until sundown.
When people talk about the sports they do, do you ever sit back and go, "Yeah -- I lift other women on my head while going over jumps in the water at 40 mph?"
(laughs) Ya know, I do -- a little bit -- sometimes. (more laughter) I wish more people would do it, though! It's a great. It's seen as more of a recreational summer activity -- people don't think too much about what you do on skis behind a boat and you come down here and you see all this wacky stuff that we're doing -- it's kind of mind blowing. (laughs)
You're a show team, so you perform for an audience with music and costumes. Is it more the skiing or the performance that you love?
Oh, we're all hams. We love the attention, too. We do great when there's a ton of people here watching us. Our Tuesday night shows bring out about a couple of thousand people.
I think it's all kind of fun. After we ski and do our act on the water we run up on this stage and do what's called the payoff -- take our bow. You can see the faces and there's always kids up in the front jumping up and down and screaming, and it kind sinks in that they're having a blast 'cause you're having a blast. They're watching a sport and we get to perform it.
The U.S. Waterski Show Team performs tonight (weather permitting) and the next two Tuesday nights, behind Jumpin' Jack's in Scotia.
This interview was edited and condensed.
US Water Ski Show Team
Mohawk River waterfront
Scotia, NY 12302
Right behind Jumpin' Jack's.
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