Michelle Bandur, TV Media Program chair at Iowa Western Community College, blogs occasionally for Livewellnebraska.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Quinetta Rutledge once spent childhood summers water skiing and swimming. As she got older, she taught swim lessons at the YMCA and even played a mermaid every summer in a Lake of the Ozarks show, Aquarama.
“My claim to fame is, I'm a mermaid,” said Rutledge, 65, laughing.
A decade ago, multiple sclerosis took control, causing her to lose some vision, wear a device on one leg and use a walker.
At one point, her husband concocted a hydraulic hoist to lift her in and out of the lake, but it wasn't ideal. She was forced to watch her grandchildren from the dock. Little did Rutledge know that her neighbors would help her get back in the water.
Tekamah, Neb., native Kelly Kleen and her business partner and boyfriend, Sammy Casella, created WetSteps, a company based in the Lake of the Ozarks in Missouri. It produces ladders and dock accessories they deem more user friendly, especially for those with limited mobility, than what was on the market before.
The business was born after Kleen saw her mom's own difficulties enjoying the lakeside lifestyle while visiting from Burt County.
“My mom's foot and knee issues were making it a struggle to get out of the water. The tiny rungs on the old dock ladder hurt her feet, and the straight ladder made it hard to climb out,” said Kleen.
Kleen and Casella drove around the lake in search of a better ladder but didn't find anything. Casella started tinkering in a tiny shed at their Sunrise Beach, Mo., house. He created a simple, aluminum dock ladder with wide, angled steps and hand rails — WetSteps.
The couple's patent was finalized in 2010, and WetSteps has since moved into a larger facility and employs a seven-person team of welders and fabricators. They build dock ladders, high dives, handicap-accessible ramps and other safety-based dock accessories made of aluminum.
The products are sold in 10 states, come in bright colors to match boats and docks, and can be outfitted in sports team colors and logos.
Adam Mistler, owner and manager of Concrete Welding and Dock Supply in Osage Beach, Mo., has been selling WetSteps products since they first came out. He said other products on the market have similar designs, but he doesn't sell them.
Mistler has seen “a significant increase in sales” — from just a few WetSteps ladders to more than a hundred a year. Mistler likes the color choices, as does Kevin Lemmers, general manager of On the Water in Omaha.
Lemmers recently started selling WetSteps, and he too hadn't seen anything comparable before.
According to Kleen, sales have doubled each year since she and Casella started the business.
Last year was so successful that Kleen was able to quit her job selling boats — a career she started in 2005 after hitting a rough patch.
At the top of her game in the early 2000s, Kleen found herself on a list of Omaha's “40 under 40” successful young business owners. But after West Dodge Expressway construction slowed two of her three businesses, a gift and gourmet shop and two tanning salons, she was forced to sell.
She moved to her second home in Sunrise Beach and started selling boats.
Eventually she met New Jersey native Casella while on vacation in Key West, Fla.
He moved to the Lake of the Ozarks and took a job repairing hundreds of damaged bow rails on boats after a devastating ice storm in 2006. Casella knew a thing or two about rebuilding things. Growing up, he built and raced Midget Sprint cars with his father and taught himself to weld.
Casella and Kleen figured all the newly repaired docks needed ladders, too. With her mother's knee problems in mind, the pair created WetSteps.
Steve Wilbur of Carter Lake purchased a WetSteps ladder last summer.
“I grew up on the water, and as a kid I watched my parents go through so many dock ladders,” he said. “I was skeptical when Sammy and Kelly installed one.” But after using it, he was sold.
“It's a made-in-the-Midwest product, too,” Wilbur said.
The couple take pride in the fact that WetSteps products are made in the United States. They had an opportunity to produce elsewhere for less money but chose to keep the business local.
“People write to us and tell us how our product is changing their lives,” Kleen said. “People with knee and hip problems, even a quadriplegic, share their stories and how now they can enjoy life on the water as much as Sammy and I do.”
Neighbor Rutledge is one of those customers.
She asked for a WetSteps ladder for her birthday. Now, she is always the first one in, weeks before others will even dip their toes in the cold water.
“Yes, I'm that mermaid once again,” she said.