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Ralph Samuelson  

 

 

For five days, Ralph Samuelson tried in vain to get up on his water skis.  He knew he could do it.  An expert aquaplane, 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 actually skied for several yards before he fell.  The date was June 28, 1922.  The site was Lake Pepin at Lake City, Minnesota.

The record should probably show that this was the first time anyone had ridden water skis, as we know them today, but for Ralph Samuelson that short ride didn't count.  He was determined to get u on his skis without any assistance other than the boat.

He continued into the weekend, trying every time his older brother Ben would give him a tow behind his work launce, which was powered by a converted Saxon truck engine (top speed 14 knots).

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 a 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 didn't work, he tried snow skis.  Finally, he went to a lumberyard and purchased tow boards eight feet long and nine inches wide for a dollar each.  He boiled the tips in his mother's copper kettle and. 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 almost 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 Museum). 

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 head first, 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.

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 1960's 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 National Water Ski Championships in Seattle, Washington, and at the dedication of the new national headquarters of the American Water Ski Association and Museum/Hall of Fame in Winter Haven, Florida, January 22, 1977.

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

Sourse Water Ski Hall of Fame Inductees list

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