Water skiing began in 1922 when eighteen-year-old Ralph Samuelson of Minnesota declared that if you could ski on snow you could ski on water. He first tested this theory on Lake Pepin in Lake City, Minnesota, towed by his brother Ben. The two brothers spent several days experimenting before July 2, 1922 when Ralph discovered that leaning back with the ski tips in the air lead to successful waterskiing. The first skis the brothers used were made form barrel staves, then they progressed to snow skis before Ralph fashioned the first pair of water dedicated skis from some lumbar he purchased and shaped. These skis were bound to the feet with leather straps and a long window sash was used as a tow rope.
Ralph continued to experiment with and perfect his waterskiing technique and equipment and on July 8, 1925 during a Lake Pepin exhibition he performed the first ever water ski jump using a 4′ x 16′ greased ramp. Ralph Samuelson never patented any of his waterskiing equipment; that was first done by Fred Waller in 1925 who patented his Dolphin Akwa-Skees and in 1940 Jack Andresen invented the first trick ski, a shorter finless version of the standard ski.
As a result of Ralph Samuelson’s work and the development of equipment, waterskiing soon became an exhibition sport in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. The first competition was staged in 1939 when the American Water ski Association was formed and held the National Water Ski Championships at Jones Beach on Long Island, New York. Since then recreational water skiing has grown massively in popularity with recent surveys showing over 11 million water skiers in the US alone. This is despite the high costs of the equipment, boat, tow vehicle, fuel and fees associated with the sport which tends to make it a pastime for wealthier families.
As the sport progressed more competitions were held and events were split into three disciplines, slalom, trick and jump. Competitive water skiers compete against their own gender and within their own age group, some competitive water skiers are in their 80s so its never to late to take part!
Originally the slalom course was just a row of buoys in a straight line which the skier had to ski in and out of, but the course has been modified over the years. Today the slalom course is a series of buoys set in a straight path 8 feet apart and a series of 6 pre arranged buoys which make the entrance and exit gates. The boat travels down the middle of the buoys at a specified speed and the skier zig-zags behind the boat to get around the buoys. The boat driver needs to be skilled too; it is a challenge to keep a straight path while keeping in a ½ mile an hour tolerance of the specified speed. The maximum competition boat speed is 36mph which doesn’t sound fast but skiers hit speeds of up to 70 mph as they cross the wake between buoys then slow to around 20mph as they round the buoys, and they do this 6 times in 17 seconds, this sudden change in speed give quite an adrenalin rush!
When a skier completes the course successfully at the maximum boat speed they make it a little more challenging by shortening the rope length. The top slalom skiers use rope 32′ long and the buoys are set 35 feet from the centre of the boat path so the skier has to lean and stretch to make the buoy.
This originally meant removing a ski and holding it over the head, but nowadays it’s a little different. Today trick skiers do ‘toe hold’ tricks where they hold the rope by one of their feet using a special harness. They do step-overs, jumps and flips and points are awarded based on the degree of difficulty. The skier has 20 seconds to perform as many tricks as possible and is allowed two trick runs.
Jump is the most exciting event; originally jump ramps had a surface of wooden rollers! Today jump ramp height ranges from 2 ½ to 5 ½ feet and maximum boat speed is 36mph. The world record jump is over 200 feet and in the derivative event ‘ski flying’ which has a longer ramp and faster boat speed, skiers are nearing the 300 feet mark. The freestyle jump event is also exciting to watch with flips, helicopters and various other amazing tricks.