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100 years later: the impact of water skiing on the nation

It grew from one man’s dream on a Minnesota lake to a Hollywood darling, from a pastime to a sport, and changed the economic landscape of a state half a nation away. Entwined like roses, the story of waterskiing must include not only Florida’s first theme park, but the lasting impact the sport continues to have on the Sunshine State 100 years after its birth that ripples through the nation today.

As every water skier knows, the sport started when a young thrill seeker, Ralph Samuelson, decided he wanted to skitter across Lake Pepin on skis instead of the then-standard board. After days of trial and error, all young Ralph had gained was a crowd from Lake City who watched his efforts while safe and dry on shore.

But not so far away that he couldn’t hear them.

The mocking stopped on July 2, 1922, when Ralph glided across the lake, upright on his skis. When he got to shore, the crowd gathered around him, begging him to teach them how to do it. And thus, after nearly a week of trial and error, a new pastime was born.

It was nearly 25 years later when Dick Pope Sr. returned home after serving his nation during World War II. While he was gone, his wife Julie had added a water ski show to their lakeside botanical theme park, Cypress Gardens, to entertain area troops. Pope not only embraced the idea but doubled down on it. Leaning into cutting edge technology, Pope created newsreels featuring the daredevils of Cypress Gardens on Lake Eloise. In no time, Winter Haven was “the water sports center of the United States” with Lake Eloise becoming the equivalent of the sport’s Lambeau Field or Fenway Park.

Developed into a competitive sport just a few years earlier, Pope’s marketing brought international attention to both it and his theme park. All this attention, in turn, fueled greater levels of competition, and improved competitors. The stunts got bigger, the speeds faster and the distances longer. Innovations included human pyramids, clowns, titanic ski jumps and crafty inventions, such as Willa Cook’s swivel ski. The spectacle soon caught the eye of Hollywood, captured in the hit 1953 Esther Williams ode to the sport, “Easy to Love,” filmed at the gardens and featuring both its stunts and performers. As the years passed, television often used Cypress Gardens as a backdrop – and world famous celebrities took to the water during the massive water ski show spectacles.

In short, when partnered with the Popes’ ceaseless and inventive marketing campaigns, waterskiing and Florida tourism came of age together. Intertwined, they transformed the image of the Sunshine State from the marshes, swamps and cowboys of yesterday to the playground for sun and fun of today.

The relationship continues today. In Florida, as we approach its July 2 centennial celebration, water skiers still perform on Lake Eloise, where Cypress Gardens was replaced by the LEGOLAND Florida Resort 10 years ago. While the original theme park might be gone, tourism is the number-one industry in the Sunshine State, cementing Dick Pope Sr.’s legacy. As for water skiing, today it is a healthy portion of an estimated $42 billion industry, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. We like to think we get more than our fair share of that business here in Central Florida’s Polk County, where we’re blessed with more than 500 lakes ringed with restaurants featuring dockside dining as well as water ski schools staffed by those same Cypress Gardens water skiers of lore.

Polk County will highlight the unique marriage of Pope’s legacy and the sport during the upcoming year-long centennial celebration of the creation of water skiing. Starting with the USA Water Ski and Wake Sports Awards Gala at the RP Funding Center in January, at least 10 different sanctioned water ski events featuring every discipline known in the sport will take place in Polk County in 2022, including the July 2 Water Ski Extravaganza by the Cypress Gardens Water Ski Team on Lake Silver in Winter Haven. The years’ worth of events culminates in the Oct. 22-23 International Water Ski and Wake Sports World Water Ski Show Tournament on Lake Silver in Winter Haven. Held every two years, the best show ski teams in the world gather to perform one-hour spectaculars that combine entertainment with world class athletics. The USA Water Ski Show Team – which features numerous performers with Polk County ties – has won the team title each year. Other teams expected to participate include Belgium, Canada, Germany, Australia, China and Mexico.

Bringing the event to Polk County was a joint effort between the Cypress Gardens Water Ski Team and Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing (PCTSM) to bring Winter Haven the biennial world championships to the Water Ski Capitol of the World. Assistance from USA Water Ski and Wake Sports, the national governing body of organized water skiing and wakeboarding in the United States, was also instrumental.

Far from stagnant, new disciplines and techniques continue to evolve from the old. Additionally, thanks to advances in technology, the sport is far more accessible today than ever. Cable parks – think of ski gondolas without the gondola – have opened the doors to the boatless. Advances in technology have made the sport more accessible for the disabled. And some disabled athletes, like blind wake boarder Scott Leason, not only compete but often win against able competition.

Mark Jackson is the Director of Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing. A former professional water skier at Cypress Gardens, he continues to contribute to the sport as a color commentator on numerous broadcasts.

And who knows – perhaps someone in the crowd, seeing an athlete glide across Lake Silver, will start to dream. And what are dreams if not the stuff that innovation springs from? Central Florida’s Polk County welcomes the world to join us in celebrating the 100th anniversary of the sport that defines the Sunshine State, water skiing.

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