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Ski shows mean work all year


It takes hours of practice for the volunteer performers in the Backwater's Gamblers water ski team to perfect acts such as the one shown above. About 30 skiiers perform 40 shows a season for the team, which has won honors in the Midwest and around the nation.

ROCK ISLAND -- The Backwater Gamblers twist, turn, fly, balance, dance, crack jokes, amaze and amuse audiences.

The water ski club started about 15 years ago when area people started skiing in the backwaters of Andalusia. It was not a particularly safe place, hence the name, Backwater Gamblers.

Before long, the group moved to Ben Williamson Park in Moline, clearing out the brush themselves, Dennis Pauley, Backwater Gamblers board president, said. It started out small, but now there are bleachers to seat 1,000 people and expansion plans are being discussed, he said.

The club has just over 100 members, including about 60 skiers, boat drivers, a sound crew, announcers, and a dock crew, Mr. Pauley said. The skiers range in age from 9 to 50-something.

``Some people will join the club and never had a day of experience in their lives,'' Mr. Pauley said.

There are 18 acts in a show, with up to 30 skiers in the water at one time, he said. Shows also include comedy, dancing and music. Popular and experienced announcer Dennis Heggen, once a skier himself, will return this summer after taking a year off.

Experience is not needed because devoted veterans enjoy helping others learn how to ski, according to Mr. Pauley, who has never skied with the group. He got involved a year after his daughter started skiing with the club.

``It is something you can do with children and they actually want you around,'' he said, adding that entire families are involved with the club.

Being a member of the Backwater Gamblers may look fun, but it's a lot of work. The group performs 40 regular season shows between Memorial and Labor Day and practices three days a week.

The Gamblers perform an average of two days a week, but also do special events and compete four times each summer, including Midwest regionals and nationals.

``The caliber of skiing is really high,'' Mr. Pauley said.

Two years ago, Backwater Gamblers placed first in Midwest regionals, and seventh out of 16 at nationals. In the past, they have finished in the top three at nationals.

In 1997, a married Gambler couple, Jim and Gretchen Post, was recognized as the outstanding male and female at the national event. It is unusual for the two to be chosen from the same team, and for them to be married, Mr. Pauley said.

The Gamblers boat driver, Brent Burill. has held a world record since 1992 after pulling eight skiers simultaneously around his boat in an act.

Mr. Pauley said the Gamblers are as good as anything people might see at Wisconsin Dells shows.

Many people don't realize skiers work on their performances all year, Mr. Pauley said. Theme planning for competitions starts as soon as one season ends, and skiers work out all year.

``Skiers will work in gymnasiums starting in January or February, working on their dances and couple programs,'' Mr. Pauley said. They hit the water at the end of April, wearing wet and dry suits to keep them warm, he said.

Part of the reasoning behind year-round practice is safety, he said. ``When the skiers are building a 20- to 25-foot pyramid, they have to know what they are doing. That water is not soft to hit.''

He speaks from experience. The last time an ambulance was called to park, was because his daughter had fallen from a pyramid and cracked three ribs. However, there never have been serious injuries in the group.

All the club's performances are free to the public. The Gamblers rely on donations and membership fees to cover costs.

``There are people who come to see every show,'' Mr. Pauley said. ``We are dedicated to putting on good family-oriented entertainment that people can come and enjoy. People come from all walks of life, from high-rises or buses full of people with physical disabilities.

``We've had some really appreciative audiences,'' Mr. Pauley said. ``Sometimes, we get standing ovations. That is what the skiers thrive on.''

-- By Kristen Foht (January 26, 1998)

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