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Wally Morris: Local Legend

Wally Morris: Local Legend

Highly regarded locally, as well as on an international level, Wally Morris, a Gold Coast Sporting Hall of Fame inductee for water-skiing, is one of the best water-skiers Australia has ever produced. Wally holds four national championship titles and represented Australia four times at the World Championships. Travelling with a team of elite water-skiers from Australia, Wally competed at the 1959 Milan, 1961 Long Beach California, 1963 Vichy and 1965 Surfers Paradise championships. Winning four national championships is only the beginning of Wally’s contributions to the sport and the Gold Coast as we know it.

Growing up in St Lucia, Wally spent a majority of his time down by the Brisbane River. Along with a few friends, he spent weekends Canadian-canoeing down by the river. Syd Sakzewski founded Queensland’s first water-ski club, Brisbane Ski Club, in the locality of the boys’ canoeing spot. Syd invited Wally, who was then 15 years old, and his friends to join as junior members.

“We wouldn’t have thought of joining the club, but we were at the river most of the weekends and one thing led to another. We had never heard of water-skiing. Not a thing,” Wally recalls on the general perception of the sport at the time.

In return for fuelling and maintaining the boats at the club, the boys were able to make use of the water- ski gear. Given that Wally and his friends had been playing on the water for years, it did not take them too long to pick up the skill. “We all learnt to ski fairly quickly, simply because we had been watching the senior members of the club not do it very well,” laughs Wally. Wally remembers that the majority of the senior members of the club were professional locals such as doctors, dentists or lawyers. “At the time, it was a sport for the wealthier or more successful people.”

The Australian water-ski scene was still in its early days. But from day one, Wally was competing in junior tournaments around the country. Wally remembers junior events often only having a handful of kids from around Australia. Wally’s first win was in 1954 at age 15 in the junior boys’ slalom event at Woodburn.

Part of Wally and his friends’ job was to maintain the boats used for ski practise, providing him with a hands-on learning experience he would carry with him the rest of his career. “We learnt boat skills on the job, although the boats in those days were not very good – primitive by today’s standards.”

Aside from servicing the boats, the boys also had to have the boats ready in the water for use by the senior members. One of these senior members was none other than Keith Williams (of SeaWorld and Surfer’s Paradise Ski Garden fame). “After meeting at the club, he saw that we must have had some talent. He offered me and my friend a job to come work down on the Coast.”

The 50s saw the rise of theme parks in the United States and businessman Keith Williams saw a gap in the Australian market. Located originally in Carrara, the Surfers Paradise Ski Gardens opened in 1958 and ran onsite until moving to the Spit in 1971. The park offered numerous water-ski and stunt shows by pro-level athletes that proved a hit with locals and tourists alike.

“Keith was absolutely instrumental in bringing skiing to the Gold Coast. There wasn’t much else going on for daytime entertainment (on the Coast), so the shows became quite popular,” Wally comments on the success of the gardens. “We were employed to teach tourists and anybody off the street who wanted to learn how to ski. Keith decided to put on ski shows every Sunday and eventually we did Wednesdays and Sundays. And as the years went on we got to do ski shows every day of the week.”

The position of the Gardens in Carrara attracted crowds from the southern Coast as well as country areas, all looking to come and learn to ski. “They all gravitated towards the ski gardens from the country with nothing better to do,” says Wally. “Williams offered them lessons if they came to ski in the show. If you skied in the show, you have use of the equipment. We would have taught thousands of people how to ski over the years,” Wally recalls.

The Ski Gardens produced countless state and national level champs throughout the years, one of which being Joy Tucker. “Joy was a state champion. She would come down and ski in the show from country Carrara.” Meeting at the Gardens during the golden era of the sport, Wally and Joy would be married a few years later.

“Keith Williams started a water-ski manufacturing business on the grounds. I eventually inherited the title of ‘production manager’ at the water-ski factory as well as skiing in the daily ski shows,” Wally reflects on his busy time at the Gardens. Not only was Wally kept busy onsite, while balancing life at the Ski Gardens, he was also competing as a national level athlete.

The year 1964 saw the Ski Gardens team put together a touring show that skied the southeast coast of Australia. The team toured from Brisbane as far south as Tasmania via various country towns, stopping at major cities such as Adelaide and Melbourne along the way. Wally reflects on the show as “a magnificent promotional tour for the Ski Gardens as well as the Gold Coast.”

The following year, all eyes would be on the Gold Coast for the 1965 World Championships at the Ski Gardens. Initially there was overwhelming hesitance for international skiers to compete in the southern hemisphere where the sport was significantly less established. Williams took on the battle of convincing the board and had a fair share of obstacles ahead of him. As Wally puts it, “Keith never worried about obstacles; he jumped them.”

Wally considers himself lucky to have had the standard of facilities locally on the Coast. “I don’t want to sound biased, but the run at the Ski Gardens was the best out of all the ones I had been to,” Wally describes the quality of the course in comparison to previous international events he had attended. “We were fortunate enough to thank Keith for the permanent ski course and equipment we had on site – better than having to spend your weekend setting one up by yourself.”

Wally also recalls the diversity within the local and national water-ski teams during the 50-60s. “Anyone could enter the state titles, as long as they had qualifying standards. Say, if we could only send a team of six, there would always be a split between men and women.” Wally mentions some notable female athletes on the team at the time, including Beverly Baumann, Ann Murray, Betty Wheeler and Margaret Calvert who both proudly represented the Gold Coast at various state and national events.

When the Ski Gardens made the move to The Spit on Main Beach, Wally stayed on to manage the initial production of Sea World. “I looked after Sea World up to its open date and remained general manager for the first 11 years of its existence.” Alongside managing the iconic theme-park, Wally was often called upon to perform in the daily ski shows when the team was short of a performer. Wally would often be seen skiing in the show while still wearing his manager badge and hat – until his last performance at age 42.

Aside from the national championship titles, other accomplishments to Wally’s name include being the first to barefoot ski in Queensland, a technique not dared by many and mastered by very few. Wally was able to work out this technique through trial and error in an age where there was no ‘guidebook’ or online tutorial.

“Back in my day, everything was literally trial and error. We did things without thinking it out. We would get there eventually after 20 or 30 bad, ugly falls.” Driven by his own determination to do what had rarely been done before, Wally pioneered the first backward barefoot, 360 ̊-helicopter jump off a ski ramp, and countless other techniques. He also won the first slalom and overall champion of Moomba Masters in 1961. With the title, he won a Haydon Hydrodyne and 80HP Mercury outboard.

Reflecting on the heydays of water-skiing, Wally wishes the sport had received more publicity, potentially cementing the popularity it had at the time. Despite not having the traction it once had, water-skiing still lives on through events, such as the Moomba Masters, that continue to this day. These days, the spirit of water sports still lives on through wakeboarding and other surf sports, the popularity of which Wally attributes to their easy access.

The ‘golden era’ of water-skiing as a sport on the Gold Coast may have passed, but it is still alive and well in our waterways city. And the legacy set by icons, such as Wally Morris, still serve as inspiration to the watersports and surf culture of the Coast today.


“Wally Morris was a pioneer in the sport of water-skiing. His innovation and willingness to try anything new on skis — or without — led him into untouched waters; literally. It saw him explore the boundaries of his sport and try and better what those before him had achieved.” – Gold Coast Sporting Hall of Fame


By Lani Esp-Morse



Published in the August – November 2020 print edition.