Ever wonder about the origins of waterski shows?
It was cold. There was ice. There was snow. It had to be shoveled to make a path to get the boats launched. It was New Year's Day 1993: The show went on. We are the Portland Water Spectacular Show Team performing waterski shows from Seattle to Grants Pass and Coeur d'Alene, and as far away as Janesville, Wisconsin and Kelowna, British Columbia.
Organized in 1986, this team has dedication in its DNA. Students, families, retirees, people working full-time make up the 25-member team. Ages range from 9 to 75. Wet-water practices are twice a week starting in late May ... sometimes more. But there are also dryland practices which start in February. The team skis and performs until October.
The Portland Water Spectacular Show Team will be performing Saturday, July 6 in Lakewood Bay at 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday July 20-21 at Willamette Park in West Linn at noon and 3 p.m. For additional information about joining the team visit https://www.portlandwaterspectacular.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/PWSSkiTeam/
Waterski shows as entertainment date back to the 1920s. Dick Pope Sr., along with his wife Julie, converted part of a swamp on the shores of Lake Eloise into the well-known Cypress Gardens theme park in Winter Haven, Florida in 1936. Pope was a flamboyant character often attired in a pink-trimmed turquoise suit, wearing bright white shoes.
Prior to Pope, the lesser-known Ralph Samuelson, inventor of waterskiing, made a name for himself performing tricks at summer water carnivals around Minnesota. At an exhibition July 8, 1925, he performed the first ski jump on water. Splat. His first attempt didn't go well, but he landed the second one after greasing the platform surface with lard.
Samuelson, 22, made the world's first pair of skis out of pine planks 8 feet long by 9 inches wide. He strapped these to his feet with bindings made from leather scraps he bought at a harness shop. The first tow rope was a 100-foot long window sash cord Samuelson purchased from a hardware store. He talked a blacksmith into making an iron ring for a handle and his sister into painting the skis white. Across Lake Pepin, near Lake City, Minnesota at age 22, he skimmed across the water. Many years later the American Waterski Association credited him with inventing the sport.
Following Samuelson and Pope, Lake Oswego's own Willa Worthington entered the scene in the '40s. "She could scramble eggs on water skis never mixing the whites with the yolks" wrote The Oregonian (1947) about Willa's waterskiing talents. Worthington, a blue-eyed blonde, started skiing at fourteen. "I was afraid to leave the dock because I thought I would split in half," Worthington told The Oregonian. "But after I got the feel of it I knew it was my sport." Worthington started skiing competitively at sixteen, earning eighteen national titles. Pope, Sr., was enchanted with Willa and recruited her to perform with his Aquamaids show team at Cypress Gardens.
Even after retiring from competition in 1959, Willa Worthington McGuire Cook continued to waterski passionately for fun. She also supported the sport any way she could. The Grand Dame of waterskiing passed away April 21, 2017. She was 89.
Not only was Worthington a star at Cypress Gardens, she played the role of Esther Williams in two movies, was the first to master the backward swan on skis and the first to ski over a jump backwards (Sorry, Ralph). Lynn Novakofski, Cypress Gardens show director, developed freestyle jumping, the four-tier pyramid and strap doubles moves, plus other innovations. His experience and interest in ice-skating and dance inspired him to refine doubles and the swivel. Many of the ballet moves Willa created are still being performed by show teams today like Portland Water Spectacular.
Worthington introduced water ballet to Lake Oswego. She designed and made — mostly out of shower curtains — all the costumes for the first Lake Oswego Water Festival held in September 1955 at George Rogers Park (formerly Oswego City Park). Festival organizers decided there should be a Grand Marshall for this inaugural event. Since "Neptune" was the prefix for Oswego phone numbers at the time, George Rogers was crowned "King Neptune" by popular vote. The Lake Oswego Water Festival continued for five years. The second annual Lake Oswego Water Ski Festival in 1956 began at 8 p.m. with bomb explosions signaling the first nighttime waterski show. The 1957 Oswego Water Ski Festival featured the Spencer family: Sharon, Bill, Diane and her husband Don Nichols. The fourth annual Lake Oswego Water Festival featured kite skiing and barefoot skiing. The Lake Oswego Water Ski Festival changed its name to Lake Oswego Ski Follies in 1959 and also changed its venue from the Willamette River to the 7000-seat Oregon Centennial Aqua Center.
Jared Lipplegoos commented on Facebook, "Our family was introduced in 2014 to Portland Water Spectacular. This was our first time learning anything about show skiing. Next thing you know our son is a multi-year National Barefoot Champion. We moved to Winter Haven, Florida, skiing 365 days a year with pioneers of the sport and the best of the best show skiers. Portland Water Spectacular launched us so we have a special place in our hearts as it forever changed the direction of our lives."
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