By Lee Davis
Hal Hamilton’s first experience in water skiing was free of charge, but it wasn’t an introductory lesson.
It was more like a baptism of fire.
As a youngster growing up in Eutaw, Hamilton was befriended by a pair of older boys, who were aspiring skiers on the nearby Tombigbee River.
“I was pretty much their gofer until they decided to teach me to ski,” Hamilton said. “The first time we went out, they tried to sling me off, and I lost my left ski. There were a lot of snakes in the water, so I didn’t want to fall. So I learned to stay on one ski on the first day I ever skied.”
Hamilton wasn’t traumatized by the rough introduction. Instead it made him determined to succeed, he said.
“I went on to ski with those boys all the time, and I was determined to get better than they were,” he said.
The determination paid off. By age 17, Hamilton competed in his first tournament and soon afterward got a job as a trick skier in Cypress Gardens, Fla. The job paid $50 a week, and Hamilton couldn’t have been happier.
“They paid an extra $15 if you could do the kite ski – because it was more dangerous,” Hamilton said. “You could have all the free orange juice you wanted, and there were lots of girls around. It didn’t get any better than that.”
But things did get better for Hamilton. He has spent the past six decades as one of the top competitive water skiers in the country and is a tireless promoter of the sport.
In 2014, Hamilton was inducted into the Alabama Water Ski Hall of Fame. Next month, he will receive the Award of Distinction from the National Water Ski Hall of Fame in Orlando, Fla.
“It’s an honor,” Hamilton said. “Skiing has always been my passion and is really the only sport I know.”
The 1970s were a busy time for Hamilton. He was a member of the United States skiing team in the Pan Am Games in 1974.
He also founded the Iron Man Tournament at Birmingham’s East Lake.
“Competitors would come from everywhere and so would spectators,” he said. “Some days there would be 20,000 people there to watch some of the world’s best skiers. We offered prize money to the best skiers, and there weren’t many competitions like that in those days.”
Even Hamilton’s professional ventures were related to skiing. He bought Robert’s Sporting Goods, which sold boats, skis and other athletic equipment, and also worked as a dealer for Correct Craft, which specializes in power boats and ski boats.
“My partner handled the technical part, and my specialty was sales,” Hamilton said of his time in the sporting goods business. “I was good at talking, and that helped.”
While Hamilton had great days as a champion skier in his younger years, he seems to have gotten a second wind at an age when most of his peers are golfing or playing shuffleboard. In 2008 – at the age of 68 – Hamilton won his division for the Alabama, Southeastern and national championships. Those efforts won him a spot in the Senior World Tournament in Spain, where he finished sixth.
Hamilton was forced to the sidelines because of back surgery in 2010 but came back strong four years later. He won first place overall in the Alabama State Championships and the Southern Regional Championships and also took third place in the National Championships at Austin, Texas.
To stay active in a sport that includes jumps, turns and slalom runs, Hamilton – who turned 75 earlier this month – puts a priority on staying physically fit.
“I get to the gym daily, with a lot of emphasis on weights and aerobic training,” he said. “I’m not 40 anymore, but I can still stay in shape to be competitive.”
Hamilton said he has no plans to retire from skiing. In fact, he has a special incentive to remain active at least until 2021. The World Games are coming to Birmingham that year, and water skiing is one of the featured sports. Oak Mountain State Park is the likely site of the skiing competition, Hamilton said.
And it doesn’t matter to him that he’ll be 81 when the World Games come to town.
“I know competitive skiers who are in their 90s, so I plan to keep going as long as I don’t get injured,” he said. “I really would like to compete in those games. It will be a great showcase for Birmingham and for water skiing in general.”
Hamilton has come a long way from that day on the Tombigbee River when he water skied for the first time. But he likely won’t lose his boyish enthusiasm for the sport that became his life’s passion.
“I enjoy the competition and the camaraderie,” he said. “I just don’t like to lose to anybody.”