In the summer of 1922, Ralph Samuelson, then 18, began his attemp..." /> In the summer of 1922, Ralph Samuelson, then 18, began his attemp..." />

July 2, 2022 – 100 Years Of Water Skiing

by USA Water Ski & Wake Sports

Ralph Samuelson with aquaplane


In the summer of 1922, Ralph Samuelson, then 18, began his attempts to stand up on skis on Lake Pepin, just a few blocks from his house in Lake City, Minn. After lots of trial and error, he eventually succeeded, and one of the world’s most beloved water sports was born. This summer marks water skiing's 100th anniversary.


On July 2, at 4:11 p.m. — the exact moment 100 years ago that Samuelson rose from the water on skis behind his brother’s boat — Lake City leaders will unveil a life-sized bronze statue of Samuelson on the shores of Lake Pepin, which stretches for some 20 miles down the Mississippi River. City officials raised $75,000 for the statue.

The Father of Water Skiing

For five days, Ralph Samuelson tried in vain to get up on his water skis. 

He knew he could do it. He had put on his skis while riding his aquaplane and had cast off, one foot at time, until he was planing on the two boards. He skied for several yards before he fell. The date was June 28, 1922. The site was Lake Pepin at Lake City, Minn.

The record should show that this was the first time anyone had ridden water skis, as we know them today, but for Ralph Samuelson that short ride did not count. He was determined to get up on his skis without any assistance other than the boat. "I was 18 at the time, and believe me, if there, was anything new or dangerous I could figure out, I wanted to try it,” Samuelson recalled for an article in a 1966 issue of The Water Skier magazine.

He continued into the weekend, trying every time his older brother Ben would give him a tow. Then on Sunday, July 2, Samuelson had an idea. He had been attempting to take off with his skis level or even with the tips slightly lowered in the water. What would happen if he pushed back on his skis and tried with the tips slanted upward? It worked (and it has been working for water skiers ever since). Samuelson was elated and so was his brother. What a way to celebrate a birthday! Samuelson would be 19 on the next day.

Those five days between the times he shoved off his aquaplane and stayed up on skis and his Sunday takeoff were merely the climax of trying for Ralph Samuelson. He first began to think about skimming over the lake when he and the other neighborhood kids used to slide down snowy banks on barrel staves.

He used barrel staves in his first attempts to ski on Lake Pepin. When that did not work, he tried snow skis. Finally, he went to a lumberyard and purchased two boards eight feet long and nine inches wide for a dollar each. He boiled the tips in his mother's copper kettle. Using clamps and braces he had worked with in making his aquaplane, he curved the tips of the boards and let them set for two days.

He and his older sister Harriet painted them white, and he picked up some scrap leather at a harness shop to make binders for his feet. Samuelson then bought 100 feet of sash cord at the local hardware and talked a blacksmith into making him an iron ring for a handle. He wrapped the ring with black tape to make it easier on his hands.

Those were his skiing "tools," and they were with him constantly for the next years of his life after that memorable Sunday. That is, all but the original skis. Once Samuelson got the feel of skiing, he began jumping wakes. One day, slamming down after crossing a particular big wave, he cracked a ski and he had to make another pair. Except for reinforcing the tips and moving the leather straps farther back to make the boards easier to maneuver, Samuelson duplicated his originals (these are the skis now on display in the USA Water Ski & Wake Sports Foundation’s Water Ski Hall of Fame & Museum). "I suppose I might have made them shorter, but I judged that length to be best for the speed of boats at that time'," Samuelson recalled. They were called, incidentally, by today's term: "water skis."

On his first skis Samuelson had the foot strap more in the middle, "but I went all over the place, so I moved the straps forward to put more weight of the skis in back." He was pulled by 30-foot boats with 200-horsepower motors at speeds up to 35 miles an hour. "The wake had a trough about four feet deep and you had to hit it just right or you'd be sure of a spill," Samuelson recalled. "No comparison to the small, high-speed boats of [1966] when there is hardly any wake behind."

Samuelson took his skis and his talents on exhibition tours in other areas of Minnesota. He became the star performer at summer weekend water carnivals, and at an exhibition on Lake Pepin on July 8, 1925, he became the first water ski jumper. A floating diving platform, 4' x 16' was converted into a ramp by removing floating supports from one end. After one false try, with his skis sticking to the 30-degee incline while he went off the five-foot end headfirst, Samuelson greased the surface with lard and succeeded.

That same summer, he skied successfully behind a World War I Curtis Flying Boat at 80 miles per hour to become the fledgling sport's first speed skier. 

Samuelson's skis went with him when he went to Detroit to work for the Ford Motor Company and later with a boat rental service. They accompanied him to Florida where he also was in the boat business, but after he broke his back in a construction accident, his skis came back with him to Lake City and went into attic storage, his water-skiing career at an end. "But even if the accidents’ hadn't occurred. I was ready to move on to other things," he recalled for that 1966 article. "I'd had mv fun and thrills and there comes a time when· you must level off. Every­thing can't he so exciting."

His next years were filled with a series of successes and failures that included the loss of a once-thriving turkey farm business and the temporary break-up of his family. His strong religious faith and the enduring love of his schoolteacher wife Hazel and his three children pulled him through his darkest days, and once more water skiing became the light of his life.

A newspaper reporter vacationing in Lake City in the 1960s spotted Samuelson's skis hanging on the wall of the municipal boathouse. The reporter's subsequent story attracted the attention of the American Water Ski Association. Samuelson became a celebrity as "The Father of Water Skiing," honored not only at the unveiling of monument in Lake City Commemorating his Lake Pepin feat, but as the guest of honor at water skiing's 50th anniversary celebration at the 1972 U.S. Water Ski National Championships in Seattle, Wash., and at the dedication of the new national headquarters of the American Water Ski Association and Museum/Hall of Fame on Jan. 22, 1977, in Winter Haven, Fla.

Ralph Samuelson died in August 1977 with the knowledge that what he started back in 1922 was still giving countless hours of pleasure and physical conditioning to millions of people around the world.


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