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Water skiing was ready for Willa Worthington.
When she came East from her home in Lake Oswego, Ore., in 1946 to enter her first National Water Ski Championships at Holland, Mich., the organized sport was just emerging into true national status. She won the slalom, tricks and overall titles to launch a tournament career that was equaled only by her years as water skiing's most talented show skier.
Willa began water skiing in 1942 at the insistence of her father Wally who was operating a marina in Lake Oswego. She was 14 at the time, and her interest in athletics was confined to her training to become an AAU diver. However, she was spending some time on the water riding an aquaplane, and when her father insisted she try a pair of water skis, she was hooked. Her first time around the lake convinced her that this was "the greatest of all sports."
Three years later, Don Ibsen, one of water skiing's pioneers, brought a traveling ski show to Lake Oswego, and when he saw Willa' s natural ability, he invited her to perform a hula act with his troupe and convinced her that she should aim for the national championships.
Ibsen proved to be a good judge of talent. Until her retirement from active competition in 1955, Willa won the overall crown in eight of the nine Nationals she entered. She picked up 18 national event titles and never lost in tricks at the Nationals. She scored a rare "clean sweep" of all three events in the 1949 and 1951 Championships.
She represented the U.S. at four world tournaments - - in 1949 at Juan Les Pins, France; 1950 at Cypress Gardens; 1953 at Toronto, Canada, and 1955 at Beirut, Lebanon. She won the overall title three times and scored five world event victories in the process.
Willa describes as her "proudest moment" in the sport her carrying the American flag in the victory parade of nations at Beirut as the band played "The Star Spangled Banner."
Willa's show career began in earnest in 1947, when she organized the lake Oswego Water Ski Club and encouraged the members to form a traveling ski show that played at festivals. A ballet routine she developed became the most popular act in the show.
Word of her talent spread, and in 1948 Dick Pope invited her to join the Cypress Gardens Show to perform as prima ballerina and teach his aquamaids. She continued as the show's star attraction for 10 years, all the while designing costumes, choreographing routines, directing films, performing in numerous motion picture and TV Productions, and teaching water skiing to many young hopefuls who later became champion tournament skiers as well as show stars. She was the first to employ a musical background for show skiing.
Among her many other show innovations were the back swan, the backward jump (which they said at the time couldn't be done), the toe 360 and the swivel swan. Willa used the swivel swan in her winning tricks routine at the 1950 world tournament, but it was later outlawed as a "gadget not readily available to all." However, her swivel ski became the standard for water ski shows ever since.
Innovations in tricks came naturally for Willa. "My theory is if you can feel it, Ski it," she once commented, adding "I do a lot of analyzing and dry-run skiing in my mind and then I transpose it to the practice session." That's the way she taught her skiing pupils, and it serves as a successful formula for trick skiers to this day.
As it has done for so many others, water skiing opened a whole new world for Willa. "I was just a country girl," she says. "I knew pigs and chickens and horses, and I knew water, but little did I dream where water skiing would take me."
She and her husband, Bob Cook, are determined to give something back to the sport. Most moments they can spare are spent in working for the American Water Ski Educational Foundation. He is a member of the foundation's Board of Trustees, and she heads the Museum Committee, employing her talent as an artist and designer in the development of the Water Ski Museum/hall of Fame in Winter Haven.
"What we have to give is only what we have experienced," she says. Her gift to water skiing has been full measure.