The Twin Cities River Rats

Minnesota / Sept. 27, 2012 / by The Team

On the edges of Lake Minnetonka, a crowd gathers on the grassy banks, waiting to see a water-ski show. They aren’t going to be disappointed because the Twin Cities River Rats are about to come on their stage that is the lake and perform an exciting show for all to enjoy. Best of all, the show is free.

The River Rats are, as President Dave Tombers describes them, “a grassroots water-ski and show team, bringing people together for the love of performing and getting better at their skills of water-skiing.”

Every Thursday of the year between Memorial Day and Labour Day, the team performs a free show for the “thousands of people gathered on the river bank to watch us,” says Tombers. The show consists of everything for ‘traditional’ water-skiing on two skis, to skiing on one ski, and even no skis. There are also pyramids and synchronized ballet acts. 

“We call ourselves the best-kept secret in the Twin Cities for family entertainment,” explains Tombers. The shows cost nothing and people can come out, plant a blanket or a lawn chair on the river bank and just have a good time.”

The team consists of people of all skill level and all ages. From young children to one man, now in his fifties, who started when the team was formed in the late 1980s. The River Rats emphasize the fun and the challenge of water-skiing and encourage their audience members to become part of the next year’s team. 

Practice takes place on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays in preparation for the Thursday night show. The team will arrive at five and practice “all the way till we can't see anymore,” says Tombers. 

This summer though, because of changes in weather that have taken them from a flooded and dangerous Mississippi River, to a low river exposing rocks and sunken trees, the River Rats have found themselves practicing and performing on lakes instead of their usual Mississippi River, just north of Minneapolis. 

The reasons the River Rats keep going year after year are many. For the audience, it provides a free source of entertainment for the whole family. As Tombers says, taking a family out for dinner or to a movie, in his case a family with 6 children, can be expensive. 

“If we can give the community something to do with several hours of their evening on a beautiful sunny Thursday evening, I'm very happy with that. That's fantastic.”

Not only do the River Rats provide entertainment for those looking on, the participants learn a great deal, too. “It teaches life skills, it teaches you to be in shape and stay in shape, to work together as a team. We do fundraising to pay for our boats and our gas so there's skills that they learn in that. It's just an all around fun activity.” 

The team members who come along at a young age, or even when slightly older, learn to develop a new skill and they are constantly challenged by the River Rats coaches. 

“If we have somebody who's never water-skiied and they get up on two skies, that's great but our answer is 'what's next?'” says Tombers. “Drop a ski and do it on one ski. Drop both skis, let's see you barefoot, let's see you get out onto the jump, do the ballet...”

The participants also learn a lot about themselves. Tommy Anderson has been a water-skier with the River Rats since 1999. The experience has taught him a lot more than how to water-ski. 

“I was 10 when I joined and I matured way beyond my years for 23, just from being around all the adults since I was young ... these guys are like family to me and I’ve learned so much from them outside of just skiing.”

“We feel like we are giving to the community and they're giving to us,” says Tombers. “Our announcer will always say, 'we get paid through your applause' so the skiers just really love to ham it up and put on a good show for people, and I think the crowd really appreciates having the action, the adventure, the thrills and the spills and the danger associated with it. It's a fun time for everybody.”

For him personally, it’s a great joy to be around such an energetic team of people who are all developing their love for the sport. “For me as a boat driver, successfully pulling someone off the dock, getting them to do what they're supposed to do and bringing them back safely to the dock again, that's thrilling for me.”

The River Rats will continue to practice and perform for as long as there is an audience to watch them, and there is certainly no shortage of that. 

“I just thrive on watching these kids get it, and if it takes them twenty times before they finally get up on the water, that's worth it for me because that smile and grin on their face when they finally achieve something, you just can't even put words to what that feeling is, it's fantastic.”

To learn more about the Twin Cities River Rats, please visit their website and Facebook page.