How We Got to be the First People to Waterski on Veteran’s Park Lagoon in Milwaukee

Joel Hughes
6 min readAug 10, 2022
Pro Skier Whitney McClintock Rini rounds a slalom buoy at the Malibu Open 2016

From 2010 to 2016 the quiet lagoon in the middle of Veteran’s Park in Milwaukee would transform into a premier urban waterski venue for one special weekend each year, hosting an elite professional waterskiing tournament called the Malibu Open. This tournament has since moved to another location, but for those 7 summer weekends we had something really special going on with waterskiing in the heart of Milwaukee.

A very long list individuals and corporations contributed time and money to make this amazing event happen. We played a very, very small part in comparison. Here is the story of how we helped out on one cold, windy autumn day in 2009.

Ski boat floating on Veteran’s Park Lagoon, Milwaukee WI
My boat floating for the first time in Veteran’s Park Lagoon

Earlier in 2009, a professional water skier I knew at that time named Wade Williams reached out to me. It seemed there was a need for a boat and a portable slalom waterskiing course near Milwaukee so that the lagoon in Veteran’s Park could be tested out for waterskiing tournament feasibility. I just happened to own a boat and a portable slalom course, and I lived less than an hour away from Milwaukee so it seemed like I’d be a great fit to supply the equipment for this adventure.

After swapping a few emails and settling on a date, our place in Milwaukee waterskiing history was set as we’d be the first people to ever waterski on Veteran’s Park Lagoon. This was truly a unique opportunity of pioneering urban exploration, fraught with unknowns and wonder. I couldn’t wait to do it.

Courtesy Wisconsin DNR Website https://dnr.wi.gov/lakes/lakepages/LakeDetail.aspx?wbic=44600

Any waterskier who has ever driven down N Lincoln Memorial Dr. has wondered what it would be like to ski at the Veteran’s Park lagoon. The lagoon is man-made, constructed as part of the park in 1927 and covers about 14 acres. It has a fairly gradual shoreline and is well-protected from wind on both sides. The lagoon is just wide enough for a slalom course and a jump course, while also being narrow enough that spectators have a clear view of the action along both shores.

Veteran’s Park Lagoon looking North from the West shoreline.

As an event site the surrounding park also seemed ideal: ample parking, plenty of shady exhibit space for sponsors and booths, a nice winding path around the lake, major airport nearby, numerous hotels and city amenities just blocks away. Truly a perfect urban waterski venue and it was just sitting there hosting nothing but paddle boat rentals up until this point.

Nobody really knew if the pond was skiable. Depth throughout the pond was a total unknown other than an old DNR survey. Underwater obstructions were also a total unknown. We also didn’t really know where the slalom course would best fit, what the boat paths would be, and how the pond would ski. All of these factors had to be worked out in person, at full scale.

The Lagoon expedition (which we had special permission to do, by the way– DO NOT try this on your own) would take place on October 14th 2009– a very cold, windy Wednesday. My wife and I both took the day off of work and headed up to Milwaukee with boat and slalom course in tow, arriving mid-morning. We met up with Wade and a few of his friends and got started immediately upon arrival.

The first challenge was simply figuring out where we’d launch the boat. There was no official boat launch on the lagoon, of course, but we did find some nicely sloped shoreline near the paddle boat rental area that worked perfectly as a launch. Boat launch, check. This area would subsequently be used as the boat launch for the tournaments.

Exploring Veteran’s Park Lagoon in a ski boat for the first time.

Once we launched the boat, we had to cautiously canvas the lagoon to check for depth and underwater obstructions throughout. I have to note here that it was beyond surreal to be in a ski boat staring up into a dense urban jungle in a public park in a major city, I couldn’t believe the setting. I remember using poles from the slalom course and a few skis and other implements to prod and poke the water around the boat as we idled around. We truly had no idea what would be under water– shopping carts, rebar, logs, concrete? Luckily none of these. Everywhere we explored had consistent water depth, zero obstructions. Amazing. Another big checkbox checked.

Next, it was time to deploy the slalom course. A portable slalom course consists of about 1000’ of specially constructed polyurethane rope with an anchor on each end. Skier turn buoys and boat guide buoys attach to this main rope via perpendicular telescoping PVC “arms” that float underwater and keep all of the course buoys aligned correctly and reliably. It’s quite a system and it takes bout 20 minutes to go from a big pile of PVC pipe, buoys, and a rope to a ready-to-ski slalom course floating in the pond. We tried to guess where the most ideal spot would be to drop the first anchor and start playing out the mainline of the course, taking into account a run-up area for the boat on both ends as well as distance to the shoreline on both sides. Coincidentally where we dropped the course in is pretty much exactly where the permanent course anchors were eventually installed. Course installation, check. The lagoon was ready to ski.

Skiing a slalom course in Veteran’s Park Lagoon

Only 3 of us were brave enough to jump in the water and ski due to the weather conditions that day. I wore a bulky drysuit due to the freezing water and air temps and could barely make a complete pass through the course. Being a pro-level skier, Wade was by far the most skilled of the group and showed us all how it was done.

Your Humble Author Skiing Veteran’s Park Lagoon

What a thrill. Everything worked great and the lake skied like a dream. I’ll never forget how amazing it was to be skiing in this pond alongside commuter traffic, joggers, and skyscrapers right in downtown Milwaukee. It was truly, truly an amazing experience that felt as pioneering as it did rebellious as we ripped down the lagoon.

Wade Williams Skis Veteran’s Park Lagoon

After a few passes through the course our work was done and it was time to pack it all up. Upon returning to my truck I realized it had been running at idle the entire time– I was so excited when I launched the boat that I had never turned the engine off!

Us skiing via the Paddleboat dock

Every subsequent year that we visited the lagoon in Milwaukee for the actual Malibu Open event it was always felt just a little more special for us. Beneath all the vendor tents, boats, scaffolding, and revelry we smiled inside knowing a secret that nobody else did: we were there first!

2010 Malibu Open Event that next year following the Lagoon exploration mission

--

--

Joel Hughes

Tech exec in B2B Trade Publishing writing about transitioning to entrepreneurship at https://www.boardroombye.com