Q&A with Lake City Skiers: How is northeast Indiana’s water sports culture growing?

When the Lake City Skiers first glided across northeast Indiana’s Hidden Lake in 1989, they had no way of knowing they would one day make history.

As Indiana’s only competitive water ski show team, they've grown to about 160 members over the past 30 years, and now they're putting Warsaw on the map for show-skiing nationwide.

For the first time ever, the Division One National Ski Championships were held in Indiana this year Aug. 9-11, and the Lake City Skiers were responsible for bringing the competition to where they started—at Warsaw’s Hidden Lake.

But hosting a major ski tournament is no easy feat. From the lake and beach to the local accommodations, everything has to be just right. Not only is Warsaw the first town in Indiana to be chosen for the competition, it is only the fourth town to host the Division One Nationals ever.

If that is not enough, the city is now bidding for the competition to return to Warsaw in 2021 and continuing to build on its water sports culture.

Input Fort Wayne sat down with Lake City Skiers Director Chuck McLaughlin to learn more about the Skiers and how they are bringing national attention to the Warsaw area.

Lift stunts require skill, coordination, and practice.

IFW: You’re a founding member of the Lake City Skiers, and you’ve helped build the team in Warsaw for 30 years now. How did you get started?

CM: I started skiing with a small team in 1986. We went to the Division One nationals in Janesville, Wisc., just to watch, to see what it was all about, and we decided that was the type of team we wanted to have. So, I went ahead and got incorporation for the team. That was in December of 1989.

When we started, we had a total of maybe 20 members. We started competing in 1990. At present, we have about 160 members, but they’re not all skiing. We probably have about 70 skiing members.

It takes a lot behind the scenes. We put almost 60 people on the water at one time in what we call our big act.

Stunts are a common part of water ski shows and competitions.

IFW: Wow. What does the “big act” consist of?

CM: Our big act is a combination of conventional doubles skiing. We have the strap doubles, so they can do lifts with the girls. And then we’ll do trios with two guys and a girl, and they’ll send swivel skiers out. The swivel skiers can do 360-degree spins on their skis.

IFW: That sounds awesome. What is the age range for your team?

CM: As far as skiing goes, we have skiers ages 6 to in their 50s.

The Lake City Skiers have members of all ages and abilities.

IFW: While the Lake City Skiers are based in Warsaw, they’re really a regional team. Tell us about your members.

CM: We have members who live in Fort Wayne, Columbia City, over towards Akron, Nappanee, there are some members from down around the Silver Lake area. Teresa Laughlin, who was one of the original members of the team was from LaFayette, and she still comes up and is part of the team with her family. And we have one member from Valparaiso.

Some of our members have skied professionally at Lego Land, Sea World, and Indiana Beach. We have one member right now who is skiing in China.

IFW: Of all places, why have you chosen to be based in Warsaw?

CM: Everyone was from the general Warsaw area when we started the team, and of course, we were looking for a place where we could do our performances. We found out Hidden Lake was available.

Water skiing was always a big thing up around the North Webster/Tippecanoe Lake area, primarily because of Bart’s Water Ski Shop up there, but with the influence of show skiing in the community, the growth has been pretty large.

We had people contact us over the weekend (of the tournament) who wanted to be involved. We added about 30 members to our team this year, and we would love to add more next year.

Members of the Lake City Skiers have won many awards over the years.

Skiing is a big family sport. It’s one of the rare sports that you can go out and perform with your family members. That’s kind of what’s unique about our sport. Actually, the whole show ski industry is like one big family. The people you’re competing against are the exact people that are sitting in the stands cheering for you, and vice versa.

The City of Warsaw and local businesses have been great in supporting our team and supporting the Division One National Competition, too. We couldn’t have done that without them and without our sponsors.

Lake City Skiers is a 501(C(3) organization, so we work off of donations and what ad sales we put in our brochure. All of that is important to keep us being able to do what we're doing. I really can't say enough about the City of Warsaw and the Kosciusko County Visitors’ Bureau here. They were outstanding.

IFW: That’s great. So your team is growing. Have you seen interest in watching water sports growing in the Warsaw area, too?

CM: When we first started in 1990, we would have maybe 50 or 60 people on a good night at shows. Now, we’ll have anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 people show up. Labor Day Weekend will be our biggest show, crowd-wise, and there will be close to 2,000 people. And, of course, the bigger the crowd, the better the team does.

The Lake City Skiers provide free water ski shows to the public at Hidden Lake.

IFW: Tell us about your competition cycle, and the potential to host Division One National Competition again.

CM: We do about 26 home shows per year, and then we do anywhere between two and four travel shows a year. This year, we hosted three.

Every year, we have the City of Lakes Tournament in June and the Central Lakes Tournament. This year, we hosted the Division One Nationals, too.

Rockford, Ill., Janesville, Wisc., and Steven’s Point, Wisc. would be the only other places the Division One National Competition has ever been held. Wisconsin is their own region. Our region consists of Missouri, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio.

To host the Division One National Competition, we have to bid on that two years in advance, so we bid on it in 2017.

Next year, we’ll be hosting the Division Two Nationals, and we’ll be going back down to Florida in November to bid on the 2021 competition for Division One. I heard there were five different locations that were bidding on it for 2021.

IFW: What are some of the criteria for hosting this national event?

CM: You have to have a regulation show size body of water. You also have to have bleacher seats, a stage area, all the accommodations that go with that big of an event, and, of course, having hosted the other tournaments helps because you already have the experience, so you know what you’re doing.

Skiing is a family, team-building sport.

IFW: How has this event has benefited the Warsaw community—and all of northeast Indiana?

CM: The economic impact of this event was more than $4 million. It drew about 13,000 people to Warsaw over the weekend, and, of course, it was webcast live via the USA Waterski Facebook page. We had over 300,000 viewers worldwide for that.

We booked more than 1,000 hotel rooms for this tournament. There were people who had to go to Fort Wayne and South Bend to get hotel rooms. That doesn’t include the bed and breakfasts or the campgrounds. Everybody benefited, especially the restaurants and all your filling stations because all those people came, and they filled up here both cars and boats.

IFW: I’m sure everyone is curious. How did your team do in the Division One Nationals?

CM: We finished ninth out of 14. We had a little issue that took us from seventh to ninth because we had a deduction, but that's OK.

We just recently broke into the Division One category, which is top-level show ski competition. We had won the Division Two competition four different times, 2006, 2007, 2014, and 2016.

Members of the Lake City Skiers perform a lift.

IFW: What would you say to anyone interested in water skiing, to encourage them to give it a try?

CM: You can enjoy it at any age or any level, from beginner to expert. It doesn't matter. We host a couple of learn-to-ski clinics each year. We charge $20 per person just to cover our fuel for the boats and USA Waterski sanction fees. We take people out who have never skied before, and we put them where they can be right there with the instructor. We've had 100 percent success.

If somebody's interested, we usually give a pretty decent break on team dues, too. Individuals are $75 per year. We cut those in half or sometimes waive them all together this time of year. Everybody does have to have a USA Waterski membership. USA Waterski is the governing body. They can go online to USA Waterski and get their membership there, and once they have that, they can download the membership packet from lakecityskiers.org and bring that to one of our practice nights.

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Read more articles by Amanda Demster.

Originally from Bremen, Ind., Amanda Demster graduated from Bethel College in 2008 with a B.A. in English. She has ten years of combined experience writing and editing for small-town publications and currently works in special events.