Fun in the sun took on a whole new meaning Saturday for a group of physically challenged Quad-Citians who traded their wheelchairs for water skis.

The wide smiles, fist pumps and an occasional thumbs-up from the skiers proved how excited they were about the opportunity to break the Rock River waves as part of the Access To Waves Ski Clinic. Nearly 20 people with a range of physical challenges and limitations participated in what has become a nine-year tradition.

The event is sponsored by Genesis Health System’s therapeutic recreation department, the Backwater Gamblers water ski team and the St. Ambrose University health sciences department.

“It’s rewarding to get somebody who is physically challenged out in the water. You see them light up because it is just a moving experience for them,” said Glen Sancken, a recreational therapist with Genesis who helped create the annual Quad-City event.

Sancken, who has been in a wheelchair himself since an accident 15 years ago, first learned to ski at a similar event in Waterloo, Iowa. He then returned home and brought the idea back to his employer, which helped launch the event along with the Backwater Gamblers.

“The majority of the people here have had a spinal cord injury, but it is open to anyone who needs adaptive equipment to ski,” he said.

For 27-year-old Kyle Woolfolk, who has had cerebral palsy since birth, it’s an event he would not miss, having participated for about five years now. “He loves it every year. He lives for it,” his father, Mel Woolfolk, of Silvis, said while standing on the shore during Kyle’s first ski of the day.

Like many other family members and participants, he has deep appreciation for the volunteer support and energy that goes into the clinic.

The Genesis therapeutic recreation department provides the adaptive equipment — including special skis with seats, known as cages, which are fitted to the individuals. The Backwater Gamblers provide the boats and manpower both on and in the water. The event is held at the Gamblers’ ski site in Rock Island.

Many of the 60 other volunteers represent Genesis as well as the St. Ambrose occupational and physical therapy programs.

“The first year we were a little nervous because we didn’t know what to expect,” said Dennis Heggen, who helped found the Backwater Gamblers 33 years ago. “The biggest thing is safety.”

Each boat that pulls a skier has a spotter on board and is followed by two personal watercraft — each with a driver and a jumper, who hops into the water to assist the skier if they fall down or need other assistance. In addition, the boat pulls two other Backwater Gamblers members who ski alongside each side of the physically challenged skier. “The side skiers will stay with him the whole time if he needs it,” Heggen said.

Before the ride begins, there are about eight volunteers who serve as water starters, standing in the shallow water near shore to help get the skier onto the ski and into the cage as well as prepare them for take-off.

“We try to leave them with the independence to do as much as they can for themselves,” Heggen added.

First-time skier John Sparks, 45, of Davenport, took his initial ride on a ski fitted with outriggers on both sides of the main ski. “It really was cool. It was a lot easier than I thought until I took the rope myself. My arms weren’t strong enough,” Sparks said.

The equipment allows the skier to either control the ride with a rope or just sit back and enjoy the experience.

“This is my year of fitness,” said Sparks, who was paralyzed 25 years ago in a motorcycle accident. This year, he has gotten involved in a number of adaptive sports, including tennis, softball, swimming and rowing.

“It’s a lot of fun. You really appreciate all the volunteers,” he added. “They’re so helpful and it makes it easy for us to do sports.”

Jackson Tracy, 31, of Davenport, was back for his fifth year of water skiing, but he admits that snow skiing is his first love. Injured in a dirt bike accident 12 years ago, he helped create the Quad-City Adaptive Sports Association, which aids in the promotion of a variety of sports opportunities for those in wheelchairs.

“It’s good to get out with friends and family,” he said, adding, “They need to do this more than once a year.”

Some St. Ambrose students served as shore help, arranging the equipment to the size of each skier and then assisting the skiers in getting out of their wheelchairs and into the chair that took them down a ramp to the water start team.

“We see how excited people are about it,” said St. Ambrose student Bridget Slattery, 23, of Swisher, Iowa. “It’s enjoyable to assist them in doing what they love to do.”

Her classmate, April Peterson, 23, of Jewell, Iowa, said the adaptive sports class and the event have convinced her that, after graduation, “I definitely want to be involved in adaptive sports in some way.”

Phyllis Wenthe, a professor in the St. Ambrose occupational therapy department, said she brings 15 new students to the event each year and typically “has to cap” the sign-up number. “I think they probably learn more in this day than in the whole class. They see what being involved together in an activity does for the person and their family,” she added.