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History of Water Skiing and Wake Boarding

Water skiing was invented in the United States in 1922 when Minnesotan Ralph Samuelson built the first pair of skis and was towed on them behind an outboard-powered boat. What Samuelson originated became an exhibition sport on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1920s and early 1930s. It developed officially into a competitive sport in 1939 when the American Water Ski Association (AWSA) was organized and held the first annual National Water Ski Championships at Jones Beach, Long Island, New York. With the exception of 1942-1945 (during World War II), the national championships has occurred every year.

Ralph Samuelson, inventor of waterskiing
Ralph Samuelson, the inventor of waterskiing

Today, more than 600 contestants enter the five-day tournament in 30 divisions of competition.

Interest in competitive water skiing has grown considerably over the years and continues to attract many more enthusiasts. USA Water Ski & Wake Sports sanctions more than 500 tournaments each season. These range from small, local events for novices to national and world-level tournaments for more experienced competitors. Male and female skiers of all ages can compete in traditional three-event water skiing (slalom, tricks, jumping) tournaments, as well as in tournaments for wakeboarding, barefooting, kneeboarding, show skiing, collegiate water skiing and wakeboarding, water ski racing, hydrofoiling and adaptive water skiing. 

The three events of traditional water skiing are slalom, tricks and jumping

In slalom, the contestant negotiates a zigzag course of six buoys. The boat speed is increased two mph until a maximum speed for the division of competition is reached. Thereafter the rope is shortened in pre-measured lengths. The winner is the one who rounds the most buoys without a miss or fall. The best skiers do not miss until the rope is shorter than the distance from the boat to the buoy and the skier must try to round the buoy by leaning over it with his or her body! 

In tricks, the contestant performs two, 20-second routines of tricks that each have an assigned point value. Some of the most difficult tricks include wake flips, and multiple turns performed with the towrope attached to the contestant’s foot.

In jumping, the object is distance. Although there is a maximum boat speed for each age division, the skier can increase his or her speed by “cracking the whip” behind the boat; men jumpers approach speeds of more than 60 mph at the base of the jump ramp. Some men skiers in Open Division competition, the highest achievement level, jump more than 230 feet off a six-foot-high ramp. Women competitors are jumping more than 170 feet using a five-foot-high ramp.

Variations of these same events are performed by barefoot, kneeboard and adaptive athletes, except that kneeboard athletes do not jump from a ramp.

Wakeboarding Background

Wakeboarding has been one of the biggest sports-related phenomenons of the past two decades. Although it is easy to see why people are attracted to the spectacular moves of wakeboarding, it is not easy to identify the sport's birth. Perhaps the origins of wakeboarding will never be known, but surfers deserve most of the credit because the beginnings of the new sport most likely began when surfers started being towed with a ski rope behind a boat.

A San Diego, California, surfer named Tony Finn began the wakeboard revolution in 1985 when he developed the Skurfer — a cross between a water ski and a surfboard. Finn diligently promoted his Skurfer, and was quite successful in raising people's level of awareness to the new sport. However, it took the design skills of Herb O'Brien to truly send the sport off into new heights. O'Brien, a leading water ski manufacturer, took an interest in advancing the sport in the late 1980s. Before long he changed the wakeboard industry by introducing the first compression-molded neutral-buoyancy wakeboard, the Hyperlite. This innovation led to a massive growth of the wakeboarding marketplace that continues to this day. The Hyperlite's natural buoyancy allowed easy deepwater starts, which in turn made wakeboarding accessible to virtually everyone.

Water skiing and wakeboarding in the Pan American Games…

Water skiing has been a part of the Pan American Games’ sports program since the 1995 Games in Mar Del Plato, Argentina. Men’s wakeboarding was added to the water skiing program – joining Men’s and Women’s slalom, tricks and jumping – for the first time at the 2007 Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Women's wakeboarding was added to the program at the 2019 Games in Lima, Peru.

The U.S. Pan American Water Ski & Wakeboard Team has won the medal count at two Pan American Games (1999 and 2003); it tied with Canada for the high count in 1995; Canada won the high count in 2007, 2011, 2015 and 2019. The United States has won at least three gold medals in six of its seven Pan American Games’ appearances.

The XIX Pan American Games will be held Oct. 20-Nov. 5, 2023 in Santiago, Chile.


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