News - McHenry County

Wonder Lake Water Ski Team offers recreation to disabled skiers through NISRA

NISRA camp gives special needs learners chance to be brave

With the help of Abby Hartmann, Erik Hoary waves to the crowd as he water skis Tuesday, June 21, 2022, while performing in the Wonder Lake Water Ski Show Team and Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association’s show on Wonder Lake. The performance was the end of the team’s learn to ski clinic. Members of ski team have constructed adaptive water ski equipment, which has proven year after year to be successful in allowing every participant to be able to water ski.

Erik Hoary uses forearm crutches to help him walk, but that challenge didn’t stop the 30-year-old from learning to water ski with the Wonder Lake Water Ski Show Team this summer

For 15 years, the Wonder Lake team has offered summer classes allowing Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association participants the opportunity to learn and have new recreation experiences, said Jan Thompson, a program leader with NISRA.

This summer Hoary along with seven other young adults and one teenager with physical and mental disabilities.

The special recreation association offers recreation programs for children and adults with disabilities throughout the year. It is funded by area parks and recreation districts and city departments, according to its website.

“The kids have so much fun and are excited to do something everybody can do,” Thompson said of the water-skiing sessions.

Thompson lives on Wonder Lake and her own child participated in the sessions for a few summers before the COVID-19 pandemic paused the public shows in 2020, she said.

People cheer as Sam Lenihan water skis on Tuesday, June 21, 2022, while performing in the Wonder Lake Water Ski Show Team and Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association’s show on Wonder Lake. The performance was the end of the team’s learn to ski clinic. Members of ski team have constructed adaptive water ski equipment, which has proven year after year to be successful in allowing every participant to be able to water ski.

The NISRA students have three practices with the team to learn how to get up on skis and hone their skills. On the fourth night, the participants get their own water skiing show on Wonder Lake.

That happened Tuesday when team members and the young people’s families and friends were invited to the team’s practice facility on Wonder Lake to watch and cheer them.

Just like the regular, 65-person ski team on each Friday night in the summer, the clinic participants get costumes, music, and their names announced on the loudspeaker, said Crissy Hansen, the team’s publicity manager.

During the practice sessions, the team uses a boom – a bar extending from the side of the boat – that allows the students to stay close by and get extra help to get them started. Some advance to skiing on a line behind the boat, said Bria Hartmann, 26, of Wonder Lake. She has been a part of the team since she was six years old.

“They are right next to the boat. For some, we tie the skis together and some we lift them up” to get them up on those skis, Hartmann said.

Stanley Nowiki water skis Tuesday, June 21, 2022, as part of the Wonder Lake Water Ski Show Team and Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association’s show on Wonder Lake. The performance was the end of the team’s learn to ski clinic. Members of ski team have constructed adaptive water ski equipment, which has proven year after year to be successful in allowing every participant to be able to water ski.

Kennedy Norman, 28, joined the NISRA clinic to learn to ski this year. She’d been out on boats before, watching other family members water ski, but she wanted to learn how to do it herself, she said.

What she learned during the classes was to hang on to the rope, bend her knees correctly, and that “I am braver than I thought,” she said Monday during their final practice.

She doesn’t like it when the boat goes too fast, she added.

Keeping the boat at the right speed to both get the learning skiers upright and keep the young people comfortable is Bill Hartmann’s job. A team member since he was 11 years old, the 55-year-old drives one of the boats for practices and shows and his daughters, Bria and Abby, are team members. When the students are learning, ski team members are right there with them, he said.

The team members “do a great job” of communicating to him what the new skier needs: whether to speed up a little bit, slow down or stop the boat, he said.

Jamie O’Conner and Fred DeWitt add adaptive ski equipment to a boat Tuesday, June 21, 2022, before the Wonder Lake Water Ski Show Team and Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association’s performance on Wonder Lake. The performance was the end of the team’s learn to ski clinic. Members of ski team have constructed adaptive water ski equipment, which has proven year after year to be successful in allowing every participant to be able to water ski.

“At first they are a little scared,” Bill Hartmann said of the NISRA trainees. It is the team’s job to make them comfortable and give them the confidence to get up on the water skis, he said.

“Between the communication and the relationships, they make them all comfortable,” Bill Hartmann said.

Janet Carran, 57, has been part of the team for 43 years and developed the program to teach special needs students. Since the team is a nonprofit, she wanted a way for it to give back to the community that supports them by donating and coming to their shows.

The water ski team provides free shows on Wonder Lake every Friday from Memorial Day through Labor Day. They also compete at the national level.

Carran saw another water skiing team doing lessons for special needs children, using chairs to tow them behind the boats. She contacted NISRA to see if they could offer a similar program here, she said.

She coached water skiing programs in college, Carran said, so she felt they had the tools for training.

In the 15 years they’ve offered the program through NISRA, it has had a 100% success rate, Carran said.

“We will get them up on skis, whatever it takes,” she said.

Hoary’s mother, Jan Hoary, shook her head at her son’s bravery on the water. She’d tried to get him to try zip lining with NISRA and he refused to do it, she said.

But he was up on the skis on the first day, Hansen said.