On boards: How a Minnesotan taught the world to water ski

Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Ralph Samuelson was the first person to water ski off a ramp // Photo courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society

Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, Samuelson promoted his new sport with exhibitions, which began in the Lake Pepin region and soon expanded around the Midwest, down to Florida, and eventually across multiple oceans.

Water skiing rapidly caught on everywhere it was introduced, but Samuelson’s mission was far from over. Instead, he searched for ways to innovate the sport he started. In the summer of 1925, Samuelson greased a 4 foot high, 16 foot long, semi-submerged ramp with lard, launched himself from the ramp on water skis, and became the world’s first water ski jumper. Later that same summer, he also became the first person to speed ski by successfully skiing behind a World War I Curtis Flying Boat at 80 miles per hour.

Inspired by Samuelson, skiers across the country also began experimenting and pioneering ways to enjoy the realm of surface water sports. Fred Waller of Huntington, New York, submitted the first patent for water skis in 1927, which he constructed out of kiln-dried mahogany and marketed as “Dolphin Akwa-Skees.”

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Crowds gather in Lake City to watch Ralph Samuelson water ski behind the World War I Curtis Flying Boat // Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society

In Winter Haven, Florida, Cypress Gardens founder Dick Pope Sr., aka Mr. Water Skiing, became a water ski–jump pioneer, and was one of the first persons to be photographed water ski-jumping when he jumped a wooden ramp and traveled almost 25 feet in 1928. (Almost two decades later, on March 6, 1947, his son, Dick Pope Jr., would become the first person to successfully barefoot water ski, also at Cypress Gardens.)

In 1939, the first water skiing championships were held at Jones Beach in Long Island, New York. And finally, 50 years after Samuelson’s first venture in little Lake City, water skiing was recognized as an Olympic sport at the 1972 Summer Games in Kiel, West Germany.

As water skiing has taken off around the world, the sport’s wake can still be found every summer on the lakes and rivers of Minnesota. Lake City honors its native son and his invented sport every June with the annual Water Ski Days Festival. Samuelson’s first pair of skis can be found at the Minnesota Historical Society, in the “Weather Permitting” exhibit. And, on any given day from ice-out until the lakes refreeze, you can find water ski enthusiasts young and old, out on the water, yelling “hit it!”

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