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Willa Worthington: Wonder woman of water skiing

Western Water Ski Museum honors local icon


by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: WESTERN WATER SKI MUSEUM - Willa Worthington is shown doubling for swim sensation Esther Williams in the move 'Easy to Love.' Willa was easy to love, too, with her Hollywood-ready smile.Fans of Willa Worthington think she did as much for Lake Oswego as ore, iron, steel and shopping.

Back in the late 1940s and 1950s Willa was the world champion wonder girl of water skiing, and the great old black-and-white photos of Willa in action are still Lake Oswego icons. The pictures show her cresting across the water, leaning backward so far that she is almost parallel to the waves, or leaning far forward and smiling just like a world champion water skier should.

That was 60 years ago. But longtime lovers of Lake Oswego want to assure that those wonderful memories do not fade away. The result is the Western Water Ski Museum, a traveling chronicle of this city’s golden age of water skiing.

“We wanted to preserve the heritage of water skiing in Lake Oswego,” said resident Ken Hessemer, a longtime water skier. “We want to show the contributions of everyone who made it. Starting with Willa.”

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: WESTERN WATER SKI MUSEUM - Making up a happy quartet, from the left, are Wallace Worthington, his daughter Willa Worthington, Willa's boyfriend, and a local water ski enthusiast.The Western Water Ski Museum has been making some big strides lately. The first was the museum coming under the auspices of the Lake Oswego Corporation, which manages Oswego Lake.

“Obviously, this will help us to function better,” said Doug Oliphant, who helped Hessemer in founding the museum. “We will have new opportunities to display our skis, photos, bathing suits and other stuff. We are optimistic we’ll be able to line up more shows this winter.”

The other big step was Don G. Ibsen coming to town recently and sharing his huge collection of water ski memorabilia with Oliphant, who will make copies of the photos. The Western Water Ski Museum just got a whole lot better. That is because Ibsen’s father, Don S. Ibsen, literally invented water skiing in the Northwest.

“Dad was the Johnny Appleseed of water skiing,” Don G. said. “He knew nothing about water skiing in 1928, but he was a snow skier and a gymnast, so he decided to go on water with snow skis. It worked. He said, ‘This is great!’”

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: WESTERN WATER SKI MUSEUM - Don Ibsen looks like he is contemplating all of the changes he brought to water skiiing. His meeting with Willa Worthington proved to be a milestone in water ski history.Yes, Don S. was really onto something. As one of the pioneers of water skiing in the United States he had a remarkable career that culminated in being named to the Water Skiing Hall of Fame. He started the first water ski club in Seattle and produced the Ski Aquatic Follies, which were held in Oregon, Idaho and Washington. He put water skiing under the bright lights.

Yet the greatest thing that Ibsen Sr. might ever have done was when he came to Lake Oswego and visited with Wally Worthington at his marina on Lakewood Bay, in another effort to spread the gospel of water skiing. While there he met Worthington’s 14-year-old daughter, Willa.

“She wanted to try some water skiing,” Don G. Ibsen said. “Willa was an athletic type of gal. And she was gorgeous.”

However, Willa began her water skiing career with fear and trembling.

“I didn’t want to leave the dock,” said Willa, now Willa Cook and a resident of Florida for the past 55 years. “I thought my right leg would go one way and my left leg would go the other way and I would be torn in half.”

But just 200 feet into her first time on water skis, Willa’s fears were laid to rest.

“I thought, ‘This is it forever,’” Cook said. “I thought, ‘OK! OK!’ Water skiing was easy to love. I was a natural from the moment I got on water skis.”

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: WESTERN WATER SKI MUSEUM - Willa Worthington poses prettily with one the the trophies she won during the 1940s and 50s.The rest is water skiing history. She went on to win seven national championships and four world championships plus 18 other national titles. In the years 1949 and 1951 she swept all of the events in the national championships. She revolutionized water skiing by introducing elements of ballet and dancing to music. She was poetry in motion on water. Oregon newspapers would proudly print such headlines as “Comely Blonde Wins Championship.”

She was so good that she even went into show biz. She doubled for cinema swim queen Esther Williams in one of her typically gaudy MGM water musicals, “Easy to Love.” Williams could swim really fast, but on water skis she was no Willa Worthington. Besides, Willa’s smile was made for Hollywood. More importantly, she became a great attraction in the water ski shows at Cypress Gardens in Florida for many years.

“She generated so much interest in water skiing,” Oliphant said. “Ladies water ski clubs evolved due to Willa.”

She skied right into the American Water Ski Education Foundation Water Ski Hall of Fame in its inaugural class of inductees in 1982. That confirmed she was truly an American water skiing legend.

However, Hessemer and Oliphant think there is unfinished business when it comes to establishing her true place of importance in sports in the Northwest.

“We want to get her into the Oregon Sports Hall of Fame,” Oliphant said. “That’s why we started the Western Water Ski Museum. This lady really put Lake Oswego on the map.”

“Willa has every right to be named among the best of the best,” Don G. Ibsen said.

If that happens (and it is quite likely considering the tenacity of Oliphant and Hessemer), then the wonderful career of Willa Worthington Cook will come to a triumphant conclusion.by: SUBMITTED PHOTO: WESTERN WATER SKI MUSEUM - Blondes have more fun when they water ski. Proving this were Willa Worthington, right, and one of her competitiors at a water skiing championship.




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