The Sarasota Ski-A-Rees wake up each day to loving competition.
Blake Brunner skipped off his skis and made his way to the stage. The Sarasota Ski-A-Rees show ski team member had just completed a front flip off a ramp in the middle of the Sarasota Bay during a performance.
The crowd, which had filled the twin set of bleachers next to Mote Marine Laboratory, applauded his efforts. Brunner took off his helmet and raised it in the air. His tousled hair glistened. His eyes beamed with pride.
Why not? The Ski-A-Rees were crowned Southern Region Show Ski Champions in June by the National Show Ski Association, the team’s first regional title since 2005. The team has other achievements in their stories history, such as holding the record for most people at one time, with 10, doing a “Boat-O,” or a 360-degree spin around a boat pulling the water skiers.
The record was set at the 1999 Southern Regional Tournament. The Ski-A-Rees were also the first to pull off an all-female four-tier pyramid during a competition in 1992.
The team is currently gathering funds to attend the 2017 National Water Ski Show Tournament Aug. 11-3 in Loves Park, Illinois to perform its "Star Wars: The Skiquel" show. It would be the first time the team had participated in the national tournament since 1998, when it finished sixth.
The Ski-A-Rees have appropriated $10,000 for clothes and equipment to be used at the championships. Brunner estimates the total cost to attend will be $50,000. For a team that relies on donations, it’s astronomical.
“That’s our love for it,” Brunner said of the work gathering funds.
Competing and setting records are only a part of what makes Ski-A-Rees members fall in love with the sport. The other part is spending time with family. Brunner and Lance Robbins have been Ski-a-Rees literally all of their lives, 30 and 32 years respectively.
Brunner’s father, Larry Brunner, convinced Robbins’ mother, Sandy Robbins, to join the team. Both parents got their children involved with the program from Day One.
It's not unusual to find love on skis. Jennifer Guttieri joined the team five years ago when she moved to Sarasota. She and Robbins hit it off, and are now engaged. The Ski-A-Rees are a glue that has kept families and friends close since the team was founded in 1957. Once you’re in, you’re in for life, whether as a skier, announcer or crew member.
“Most teenagers are rebelling and trying to stay away from their parents,” Robbins said. “My whole life I’ve been able to hang out with them here and compete on the same level as them, and that’s awesome.”
There are no limits when joining the Ski-a-Rees. They will figure out what interested participants can do and help them do it, no matter what limitations they may have, age or otherwise.
Young children will start out on one ski, with the motor boat idling, then gradually move on higher speeds and eventually two skis. The team also does work with charity organizations like Easter Seals Southwest Florida and Ann’s Angels to teach people living with disabilities to water ski.
The Ski-A-Rees also held a clinic for military veterans. They’ll tailor skis to a veteran’s injuries. If a veteran is missing a leg, they’ll use a kneeboard or a sit-ski. If someone has lost the ability to see, the Ski-A-Rees will flank the person on either side and ski with them so they don’t crash.
“That was probably the most rewarding experience I’ve ever had,” Guttieri said. “It was just absolutely amazing. I have family members who are in the service. Just seeing them get the glimpse of something that they didn’t think they could do anymore, or at all. They joy that they showed, it was amazing.”
While families tend to participate together, the team is looking for new members from outside their circle. Interested parties can talk to a Ski-A-Rees member after a show or visit skiarees.com for more information.
Robbins said joining the team can help move kids out of their shells. Speaking in front of the class was never a problem for Robbins in school, and he credits that to the Ski-A-Rees teaching him to be a true performer.
The Ski-A-Rees are serious about performing and helping people, but the team also has a goofy side. At the end of every season, the team holds a get-together where a highlight video is shown. The team always makes sure to add some lowlights in as well. Pratfalls, face plants and wipeouts are all a part of the show ski experience, and the crowd enjoys them just as much as a landed stunt. They’re silly, but the team laughs at them just as much as adults as they did as children.
That’s the secret of the Ski-A-Rees. The members make sure to always have fun.
“It seems like kids get all the cool stuff, and then you have to graduate and go be an old person, which is boring,” Robbins said. “There’s not a lot of cool opportunities like this for adults.”