IF YOU CAN SKI on snow, why can’t you ski on water?
That’s what eighteen-year-old Minnesota native Ralph Samuelson wondered back in 1922. So one day he headed to Lake Pepin, slapped on some snow skis, and hooked himself up to a powerboat driven by his brother Ben. And then he sunk like a slab of granite.
Refusing to lose faith, Samuelson experimented with skis of various sizes and shapes. He tried out a pair of eight-foot-long pine boards, curving the tips and making foot binders from leather scraps he picked up at a harness shop. He then tested a variety of starting positions before deciding that his best bet was pushing back on the skis with the tips pointed upward.
On July 2, 1922, Samuelson took off and stayed up. Water skiing was born.
An enthusiastic sportsman, Samuelson spent the next several years showing off his lake-gliding skills during one-man water shows. He took his demonstration to various locales, including Florida’s Palm Beach in 1926. In 1939 the American Water Skiing Association was formed and the sport’s first championships were held that year on Long Island.
By 1963, water skiing had become a hugely popular pursuit but Samuelson’s role in creating the sport was forgotten. A St. Paul Pioneer-Press reporter called him out of the blue that year and the fifty-nine-year-old Samuelson, a retired highway department worker, retold the story of water skiing’s beginnings. Three years later, the American Water Ski Association officially proclaimed Samuelson the Father of Water Skiing.