Industry News

2017 Water Ski Hall of Fame Award of Distinction Recipients Announced

POLK CITY, Fla. – The USA Water Ski Foundation Hall of Fame Selection Committee is pleased to announce the 2017 Water Ski Hall of Fame Award of Distinction recipients.

Ralph Armstrong, Nick Barron, Rob Bemman, Joy Kelley and Gary Thompson will be honored for their extraordinary contributions to our sport on April 29th at the Water Ski Hall of Fame Induction Ceremonies which will be held at Walt Disney’s World Show Place Pavillion at Epcot.   They will be honored along with 2017 Hall of Fame Inductees Brenda Baldwin Nichols and Rachel George Normand.  The Award of Distinction recognizes tournament skiers, innovators, industry leaders, officials and others responsible for landmark achievements in the development of water skiing as well as those whose long periods of dedicated and generous service deserve special recognition.

Ralph  Armstrong

Ralph Armstrong’s involvement in water skiing spans more than 50 years.  Armstrong started out his career as an accomplished water skier and driver in the 1950’s, taking part in one of the first Tommy Bartlett Water Ski Shows in Wisconsin Dells.  He later stopped skiing and shifted his focus to becoming a great boat driver.  He built his own ski boat in the 1960’s and took it to every local tournament to pull skiers and traveled the region pulling skiers at tournaments in Tennessee, Louisiana and Texas.  With the advent of the professional towboat program, Armstrong sold his man made boat, purchased a MasterCraft and entered the promotional boat program.  For the next half century he dedicated his driving talents, advice and expertise to sport.  His competitive career includes many distinguished years as a driver in major water ski events.  Armstrong was selected as a driver for numerous world and national events including: Junior World Championships, World Games, Elite World Championship, Pan American Games, US National Championships and the US Open.  He was Chief Driver at Elite World Championships and numerous Pan American Championships.  Armstrong was heavily involved in the disabled skiers program serving as a driver at the Disabled World Championships in Australia and numerous Disabled USA National Championships.  Armstrong was a four-time recipient of Fred Wiley Award for Most Outstanding Driver at the National Water Ski Championships.  In 2008, upon his retirement from driving, he was awarded Senior Driver Emeritus status by AWSA Board of Directors.

Nick Barron

Over the past 60 years Nick Barron has established himself as one of the most prominent water ski racing boat manufacturers in history.  He began building the SK style “California race boats” in 1958.  A decade later when boat building switched from wood to Fiberglass, Barron purchased industry leading Hallett Boats. Spending a lot of time on the water at Lake Mead, Barron saw the need for larger, more powerful boats to navigate the rough waters of the Colorado River.  He focused on flat bottom SK style hulls in the 16 to 18 foot range with inboard engines.  Barron was the first boat builder in the mid 1970’s to experiment with a modified “V” bottom boat that would gave drivers better control and racers a “better ride” at high speeds.  He built a “V” bottom boat that was 19 feet long with a 650 horse power engine.  This experiment proved a major success as new National Championship records were immediately set behind this style boat.  At the height of the water ski and boat racing popularity in the mid 1970’s and 1980’s, Hallett Boats was building more than 50 customized water ski racing boats per year. Although Barron was never a water ski racer, he was an accomplished expert driver who has pulled races in every class and division at multiple national and world class ski racing events.  Over the past half century Barron has continued to make Hallett Boats in Irwindale, CA and promote water ski racing around the world. His boats have outdone the competition- winning more water ski racing championships than any other brand- by a three to one margin. These days, Barron continues to design and manufacture boats and has expanded his market beyond just high end ski racing boats to reach the common consumer who want a reasonably priced “fast boat.”

Rob Bemman

For more than 35 years, Rob Bemman has contributed to the sport of water skiing as a competitor, innovator and manufacturer.  Following a long and accomplished water ski career as a Cypress Gardens skier and a highly competitive barefooter, Bemman took his competitive experience to manufacturing high quality competition and recreational water ski products. These products include water ski jumps used in competitions and shows, swivels for show skiers, kite releases and booms for learning barefooting. Bemman is known as a one-man “mechanical inventor superstar” who has continually improving his abundant designs.  Bemman is best known for refining the classic standard ski ramp.  His inventive blueprint for ski ramps helped the Pro Tour battle the problem of having to waste a great deal of time and energy overhauling local jump ramps at their sites – often at the last minute and with varying results.  Since the early 1990’s, the Tour decided to use Bemman’s portable fold-up ramp as their core ramp.  Bemman is still contributing to the sport of water skiing.  Over the past few decades, he has continued to work with the Tour to provide continual improvements to his ramps that are more suitable for high-end Elite jumpers.  Currently, he operates a machine shop business that produces unique and necessary items for the sport of water skiing. All of the products are made of the highest quality aluminum and are machined and hand made by Bemman.  He built and donated the jump ramp at Lake Grew, adjacent to the Water Ski Hall of Fame.

Joy Kelley

Six-time World Champion and 17-time US National Champion Joy Kelley has been water skiing since the age of seven and started skiing competitively at age 12.  In 1987 she moved to Florida to focus on her professional water ski career with a goal to earn a position on the USA Elite Water Ski Team.  Her hard work paid off.  Kelley was a member of the World Championship gold medal winning USA Elite Water Ski Teams in 1987, 1989 and 1991.   She was also a member of the USA Elite Pan American Team.   Kelley has won seventeen National Championship titles including seven overall, seven jump, two tricks, and one slalom.  After the birth of her daughter in 1995 Kelley took a 10 year hiatus from professional water skiing to focus on motherhood and family. During this time, she continued to coach water skiers and to promote the sport.  After 10 years, she slowly started training again.  In 2013, Kelley returned to competitive water skiing with a vengeance.  She was selected as member of the 2014 USA +35 Water Ski Team.  She won World titles in Overall, Jump and Slalom and set three World Tournament Records in the Over 55 Women’s division.  She was a member of the 2014 AWSA Team of the Year.  Kelley continues to rack up titles and records.  She currently holds the #1 World Ranking for Overall, Slalom, Trick and Jump in the Female +55 division. Just this past weekend Kelley was part of the U.S. 35+ Water Ski Team that won the overall World team gold medal in Toledo, Spain. Kelley won gold medals in Over 55 Women slalom (3 buoys at 38 feet off), jumping (109 feet) and overall (3,502.36 points), and the silver medal in tricks (3,260 points).

Gary Thompson

Gary Thompson has been a key figure in the show ski world for more than five decades as a performer, boat driver, show director, promoter and manager for water ski shows, jet-ski shows, and live action stunt shows around the world.  Thompson’s water ski career, which began in the 1960’s, included three-event, barefoot and show skiing on the national and world levels.   His water ski talents landed him appearances on the highly popular TV programs the “Mike Douglas Show” and “Hollywood Squares” in the 1970’s– as well as commercials with First Bank and Coca-Cola of Japan.  Thompson has developed talent for many esteemed water sports venues, including Cypress Gardens, Oahu Water Ski Club, Sea World, and the Liz Allen Water Ski Center in the Netherlands.   He has successfully directed and installed water ski and BMX shows throughout the United States and worldwide in Mexico, Germany, Japan, Italy, United Arab Emirates, and Korea.  In 1997 Thompson purchased Water Ski Shows Inc. and turned it into the world’s largest producer of water ski shows, stunt shows, children’s shows and street entertainment.  Over the past 19 years, Thompson has been actively involved with the management, direction, and production of many of the most notable live water ski and stunt shows in the world including Universal Studios, Six Flags, Magic Mountain, Marine World, Hopi Hari, and LEGOLAND.


About the Award of Distinction
The Water Ski Hall of Fame Award of Distinction was created to recognize individuals who have made extraordinary contributions to our sport. They may include tournament skiers, innovators, industry leaders, officials, and others responsible for landmark achievements in the development of water skiing as well as those whose long periods of dedicated and generous service deserve recognition.  To see a list of past recipients, eligibility requirements, nomination forms and more information, visit the official Web site of the USA Water Ski Foundation at