Tim Cullen is the Vice President of the Rock Aqua Jays Water Ski Club, Inc., Chair of the Janesville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, Owner of Roundhouse Marketing, and a Spin Instructor at Janesville Athletic Club.
So, Tim Cullen, but not the Senator.
No, not the senator. I get confused with him a lot! Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes people come to a meeting expecting to see the senator, and they are disappointed. Other times, it pleases them that I’m not him.
He is my uncle, so we are related, and I’m proud to have the name.
Are you from Rock County?
I was born here in Janesville in 1969, and I’ve lived here all my life.
What were some things you enjoyed doing while growing up?
I loved the Rock Aqua Jays. My family joined the Rock Aqua Jays water ski team back in 1978. At that time, Janesville wasn’t that big of a community. You could ride your bike down to the river and ski for the afternoon or stay for practice with the team into the night. I also played Little League baseball. I wasn’t very good at it, but I enjoyed doing it.
And I loved the idea of Janesville. My family’s from here, I had a grandparent that worked at General Motors, another grandparent that worked for the railroad. It had a very industrial feel to the community growing up. I think that’s changed a little bit now. It’s certainly still a great community to be a part of!
Where did you go to school?
I attended eight years at St. John Vianney Catholic School. Our graduating class was only 20 people, so very, very small. Then I went to Marshall Jr. High downtown. That was quite an experience to go from a class of 20 to a couple hundred! I attended Craig High School, graduating in 1988. My small claim to fame is that Speaker Paul Ryan and I were good friends in high school. I still consider Paul a friend. He’s a nice guy and has done a lot of good things for the state.
What were your activities in high school?
I was involved in athletics, football and track. My senior year I was on the Student Council. I also skied with the Rock Aqua Jays. I really enjoyed going to Craig after being in such a small school for so long.
How old were you when you started skiing with the Rock Aqua Jays?
I started skiing when I was 7 years old. At that time, I was in the shows, but not as a main skier. Then, from 1983 until 2003 I skied in all the tournaments and shows that we did. Over that span, we won 15 or 16 national championships and several state titles.
Overall, we’ve won 19 championships. My parents, Tom and Carole Cullen, and my oldest brother, Brian, have been a part of all 19! My dad drove the boats for 40 years! That’s a great legacy to have out there. It’s been a lot of fun!
Now my nephew, who’s in college, is in the show. I’m a boat driver for the show, my brother, Brian, is the announcer. My other brother, Todd, also skied until 2002. I’ve been driving for five years going on six now. My uncle Tim, the senator, also skied, but only for fun.
Tell me about your overseas adventures.
I traveled to China a few times to help the team compete against China’s national team, as well as helping to train them. It’s a long trip, but worth it to experience a different culture like that. We went to Beijing and all of southeast China on a tour. We did 10 days of touring around rivers and lakes and different temples. They really wanted to just get to know us and have us train them a little bit in addition to skiing.
We performed shows for some massive crowds. There must’ve been 100,000 people in the park! It was just gigantic. And they loved it, they really did. We had a great time. It was kind of like our little “Olympic moment,” we went to one of the capitals and had a ceremony. That was back in ’99. I went again in 2000 and in 2013. The team has been there probably six different times. It was a great experience. And to think that water skiing took me halfway around the world!
What were your ambitions for after high school?
I knew I wanted to go to University of Wisconsin-Madison, I liked the idea of the state school and liked their accounting program. That’s my degree. My older brother was a graduate from UW Madison, as well. I figured that’s where I wanted to go, too. So, I set out to get that degree, and did! I actually lived in Madison for a few years working at Firstar Bank in downtown Madison.
Did you continue skiing in college?
Yes! I continued commuting back and forth to Janesville. I liked the director of the team and wanted to be loyal to the team, of course. Also, it’s much better conditions skiing on the Rock River than anywhere else.
What brought you back to Janesville?
I came back to own some property on the river, to be a part of the community and to continue to help the Rock Aqua Jays. I still do. I was recently President of the team and now Vice President of the team.
When did you become involved at that level?
Even in college, I was Show Director for the team. Being Show Director means you’re basically the general manager, setting up practices, putting the theme together, costumes, etc. You don’t do it all yourself, of course. You have a great support team down there to get it all done.
In college I was Director of the team twice, so that kept me coming back and being involved. Overall, I have been Show Director for six different seasons. In some we got second place in Nationals and some we got first place in national tournaments.
I’m very proud of our team’s legacy of excellence. Not to pat myself on the back because there are SO many people who make it happen. You meet some wonderful people being in RAJ’s and make lifelong friends!
When was the team first established?
The Rock Aqua Jays claim 1961 as the first year they formed. Years before that, there was a group called the Rock River Boating Association. People did some skiing, some boating. Then they changed the name to the Rock Aqua Jays. Rock, for the Rock River. Aqua, the Latin word for water. And Jays, for the high school mascot at the time. The name reflects the community.
Has it always been at Traxler Park in Janesville?
We started out at Riverside Park and were there for years. We had a “boating gala,” an event at Riverside. Now I live across from there, which is kind of funny. In fact, when I look at pictures of the event, I can see my backyard, which looked a bit different then. The trees were a lot smaller!
I believe in 1965 they officially moved the location to Traxler Park. It used to be a swimming area with a swim house. The City of Janesville has allowed us to lease that area for over 50 years. We just renewed the lease not that long ago.
Tell me about the events you’ve hosted.
We love hosting events! We’ve hosted 26 of the 42 National Championships, and the World Tournaments in 2012 and 2014. We’re hoping to bring that back in two years, in 2020. It would be really great for the city to really roll out the red carpet to welcome all the teams from Canada, China, Germany, Belgium, Australia, from wherever they come!
In addition to the larger events, we’re going to do a couple things this summer with the Rock Aqua Jays ski show and the Southern Wisconsin Humane Society to bring them down to one of our shows. We couldn’t do that before. The Janesville City Council had to allow that. We want to connect what the Humane Society has with what we have. And a couple of times a year, the Hedberg Public Library has brought their bookmobile down to the show on site. We’re glad to do that, too!
What have been some challenges for the team throughout the years?
Maintaining that level of excellence is the biggest challenge we have. This day in age, there’s more to do as kids get involved in sports opportunities and other activities, it’s hard to attract them and keep them. But, if you can offer a great product like we have, a fun family environment, teamwork and a lot of different skill levels, it’s a fun experience. We have people with all skill levels from beginners to top level skiers in the country.
It would be easy to let things slide and to go from a national caliber team down to a Division 2 team. But, we don’t want to do that. We feel we’ve built up a great product, a good reputation. That’s why I do what I can and want to keep helping out as long as I can.
What are some of your other obstacles?
Flooding has been a challenge that’s growing more and more each year. It has to do with the runoff we’re experiencing in the community. It’s not just when it rains in Janesville. When it rains north of here from Newville to Fond du Lac, it comes down the Rock River to us. The narrowest part is near the Center Way bridge in Janesville. But, why is there more water running off our parking lots? It’s a constant problem year in and year out.
It really restricts our practice time on the water. Even though the city allows us to practice in one limited area, we prefer to go farther up the river to practice. But, we don’t ask for that exemption for individuals, only for the team from certain hours and in a certain range.
So, the flooding is certainly a problem and it has to be addressed at a higher government level than just by the Rock Aqua Jays and the City of Janesville. It’s an issue that affects so many communities, and if we could all play very nicely together, we could probably control that water level more than we’re doing right now. But, that’s a bigger conversation.
What happened during the flood of 2008?
2008 was our hardest year. It really put restrictions on us. We weren’t doing any shows! When we can’t do shows, we can’t bring in income. We had already paid for insurance, we hardly practiced, we had tournaments scheduled and had to give one away that was supposed to be in Janesville. But, we had to let it go because the whole park was under water! It went through the middle of our clubhouse. We had six inches of water in there!
It did some damage, but the lasting damage was the financial effect on us. Luckily, we had some savings and we were wise on how we spent our money. We came through it okay.
Here we are years later, and we hope it doesn’t happen again. We tend to think it’s a “100-year flood,” but since then, we’ve experienced high water conditions every year! Still, nothing close to 2008. Thank God!
What are your sources of revenue?
We are funded solely through donations, traditional fundraising, advertising revenue, sponsorships, food & beverage sales, hosting special events, membership dues and the sale of logo merchandise. The organization does not receive any public funding for its operations.
We’re lucky to have wonderful sponsors! We get our engines from Mercury Marine in Fond du Lac and they help us out because we are successful and we have a lot of exposure. We also have some wonderful people in the community who donate to us, whether it be $20 or $1,000. There is continuous support from wonderful donors in the area. Many donate anonymously, as well.
We also host national tournaments, which are a big fundraiser. We have our next national tournament on Friday, Aug. 10 through Sunday, Aug. 12. We try to make money on the events to help improve things for our members, equipment and such.
We recently purchased a new set of bleachers, with 2/3 of the funding coming from the City of Janesville, and the other 1/3 coming from us. We really have the best water ski show area in the world. The conditions are perfect. There are still improvements and enhancements we can make, whether across the river or in the park, but these bleachers got us close to 5,000 seats. We’re very proud of that and it’s going to look fantastic!
How can young people become involved in the Rock Aqua Jays?
A lot of people come to the shows and then say, “Hey, I want to try that!” What we do is offer a “Learn to Ski” event a couple times a year, depending on the water conditions. We pick up quite a few members that come down, whether they’re 5 years old or 15 years old. They want to try it, we get them out in the water and they love it! Then they join the next year. They become members year in, year out!
If you’re under 16, it is required to join as a family. We need people to ride in boats and help on the shore, it’s a great family sport. It’s one of the best family sports you can do.
I encourage people to come see the shows, and if you like it, give it a try and join the team! It’s great exercise and you get to meet so many new people. I met my wife through the team and I know other couples who met through skiing. It’s just a great thing to be a part of for any age!
The tops of the pyramids are always little ones. How do you determine who gets up there?
Whoever the brave ones are! You won’t see any guys up there, as they need to be at the bottom of the base. The smaller girls go up to the top. My wife was brave enough to be at the top years ago. I would certainly never do it. Sometimes they do the barefoot pyramid going at 40 miles per hour and then they have to bail off the back!
How do you decide when you need someone new at the top?
It’s a tough conversation to have. But the captains and show directors have to have those discussions. The men get shuffled around, as well, or sometimes just don’t cut it. That’s the unfun part of it all.
Couples get to determine who they ski with, though. It depends on how well they work with a partner. You need good teamwork and coordination.
Do the men who do the helicopter flips and tricks go through training?
We all do training at a local gymnastics studio called Creative School of Arts. We get to go out there and practice from January through April. The guys work on the trampoline, work on their flips and the girls work on those pyramids. They teach them the proper ways to climb the pyramid and how to balance. They train us with spotters and mats, so it’s a safe way to learn.
Tell me about your other community activities.
I love being involved when I can and try to make a difference. I should probably say “No” more often.
Being a part of the Janesville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau is great honor. It’s really not a ton of work because Christine Rebout and her team do so much of the work behind the scenes. They are fantastic in what they do for the city! I meet so many wonderful people and learn about other events in our community that I wish other people knew about. Each group does a good job of promoting their events, but there’s so much out there that people don’t know about, things happening each weekend. I hope we can make people more aware. And as the chair of JACVB I try and help connect those dots.
Sometimes a person will come to the Rock Aqua Jays show and say to me, “I’ve lived in Janesville for 30 years and didn’t know this was here!” And I think, “How can that possibly be? You had to have driven over the river in the summer sometime and seen us.” But, that’s why we have to keep people aware.
What are some of the changes you’ve witnessed over the years?
For us, there has always been consistent support for the Rock Aqua Jays, whether it’s from the City Council, City Manager and the Convention and Visitors Bureau. I don’t think I can say there’s been any big change in what we provide. We provide a free show for the community.
We’ve always tried to maintain our place as a group offering entertainment and competition.
Do you see positive growth in downtown Janesville?
Yes, definitely. We are on the north end of Main Street and we’re going to be connected more and more. Downtown Janesville, Inc., Forward Janesville, the Rotary Club, the Lions Club, who donated the park to the City of Janesville back in the 1920’s, they have all been so supportive of us!
We will be a part of the signs around the city as a local attraction. We definitely bring in anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 people on a Sunday night show. And now, our Wednesday night shows are almost as big!
What is it about Rock County that you love?
I love the blue collar feel to it. But, I also feel that there’s a good mix now of blue and white collar. And we’re seeing that at our shows, in our sponsorships and in our family membership, as well. You see all sorts of different people helping out wherever they can. That’s what makes us sustainable. We need everybody in this community.
Do you plan to stay?
Absolutely! I plan on helping the Rock Aqua Jays for many years. They’ve made me an Honorary Member. They gave me that distinction many years ago. And I love seeing them succeed. It’s such a great thing for the community!