Catching Big Air for 60 Years
By Bobby Davis ’82
Historical photos courtesy of Rollins College Archives and Special Collections
It was a Rollins reunion on the water. For one week last August, about 20 current and former Rollins students and coaches competed at the 2010 National Water Ski Championships in Wilmington, Illinois.
That so many skiers from a small college like Rollins participated in this event is impressive in itself. But even more amazing is that nearly all of them placed in their events—competing in a field of more than 800 of the best skiers in the country, ranging in age from 6 to 85. “There was something magical about Nationals this year,” said Holly Chinnery Pohlig ’01, who works for her alma mater as director of admission. “It was amazing to have so many of us there representing past, current, and hopefully future generations of Rollins.”
Not only has Rollins’ water ski program produced a large contingency of skiers competing at the highest levels, it has created a tightly knit family that spans more than half a century. “The Rollins connection is strong,” said Pohlig’s sister, Amy Chinnery Valmassei ’92, who was prompted by her sister to attend the Nationals—her first competitive performance in years. “When I got there, I couldn’t believe it—there were people representing decades of Rollins water skiing.”
It is no surprise that Rollins was so well represented at last year’s National Water Ski Championships, for by lucky historical circumstance, the College found itself at the epicenter of the new sport when it was invented in the 1920s. Since then, many of the world’s elite skiers have lived and trained in Central Florida, and, starting with Dick Pope Jr. ’52, some of the world’s greatest skiers have competed as Rollins students (many competed professionally before stepping on campus). Yet, most of today’s Rollins students are unaware that the equivalent of Olympic athletes wander in their midst. And despite the “fun-in-the-sun” image of water skiing, Rollins’ skiers have been superior students who have pursued demanding careers while, in some cases, continuing to ski competitively long after graduation.
The Popes of Cypress Gardens
Water skiing came to Florida largely through the efforts of Dick Pope Sr. and his brother, Malcolm. A born promoter, Dick was an enthusiastic skier from the time he was young, and Malcolm drove the speedboat. To promote real estate sales during the Florida Land Boom of the 1920s, the brothers put on exhibitions in South Florida.
Pope Sr. and his wife, Julie, founded Florida’s first theme park, Cypress Gardens, in Winter Haven in 1936. The park quickly drew thousands, and eventually millions, of tourists to its botanical gardens and elaborate water shows. Hollywood used Cypress Gardens and its water skiers in dozens of movies. By 1941, the park was proclaimed the “Water Ski Capital of the World.” Cypress Gardens hosted the Florida Intercollegiate Water Skiing Tournament, and Pope sponsored the second World Championships there in 1950—the year after his son competed at the inaugural event in France.
Dick Pope Jr. became one of the early stars of the sport, winning four national championships from 1947 to 1950, winning the World Championship in 1950 on his “home lake,” and setting the world record jump of 84 feet that same year. He entered Rollins in 1948 and became the vital early link between Rollins and the rapidly developing world of water skiing. “I remember Dick practicing barefoot for hours,” said former Rollins skier Margy Mountcastle Robinson ’51. ”He was so talented, and a very nice guy.”
Despite his stature as a world-class athlete, Pope Jr. was a humble, generous teammate. “He was the best, he was number one, but he wanted to help everyone get better,” recalled his former roommate and fellow skier Peter Fay ’51. “He would help someone who would later ski a tournament against him. He was the best, but he never talked about it.”
Thanks to the Popes, water skiers came to Central Florida from all over the world, which presented a huge recruiting opportunity for Rollins.