Simply put, former water skiing champion Leah Rawls Atkins is a legend. In 1953, she won the women’s water skiing world tournament in Toronto, Canada, which made her Alabama’s first water skiing world champion and the best female water skier on the planet. During her career, she also snagged two U.S. national championships, set a women’s jumping record that lasted for years, and became the first woman to complete a front-to-back and back-to-front toe turn trick in a tournament. In 1976 she became the first woman inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. Auburn University’s highest award for athletics is named in her honor. But water skiing is only part of her story. After making history, she would go on to teach it.
Leah Rawls Atkins built a noteworthy career as a teacher and historian. She taught American and Alabama history at the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB), Samford, and Auburn and authored the award-winning book Developed for the Service of Alabama, which recounts the history of Alabama Power.
We are honored to introduce the newest FACE of Birmingham, Leah Rawls Atkins.
How did you get into water skiing?
My daddy bought an old dogtrot cabin (on Black Warrior River) that had no electricity or running water. He upgraded it and put in indoor plumbing, and I grew up there in that house on weekends. [That’s] where I learned to swim at 3, and I learned to ride a surfboard at 3-and-a-half. I loved it. It made me feel good that I had accomplished that. Eventually, I started water skiing and enjoyed it so much.
A friend had visited Cypress Gardens in Florida and brought me a copy of a book she had purchased there that had pictures of their water ski shows. I would go through the book and look at what they were doing — like skiing on one ski and holding the rope on [their] heel and skiing backward — and I learned how to do those things.
I went to a local ski tournament just for the fun of it and I did well, so I decided I wanted to go to Cypress Gardens for their Dixie tournament. I went down there, and I placed last in every single event I entered.
What did you do to get better?
Going home, Daddy said, “We can’t teach you how to do this in Birmingham. If you want to do this, you need some help.” I knew the best place for me to get that help would be Henry Suydam. He was the senior men’s world champion. I worked with him for five days, and I was very happy at how I had progressed so much. So, from then on for a couple of years, I would go and ski with Mr. Suydam in the wintertime.
Of all of your accomplishments, what do you consider the highlight or biggest moment of your water skiing career?
When I won the world tournament in Toronto, Canada, on Lake Ontario in 1953. It was the most significant tournament I won. That was a sanctioned international world tournament. There was great competition there.
How did you become interested in history?
When I went to Auburn as a freshman, I had a professor, Dr. Joseph Harrison, Jr., and he was just a brilliant history teacher. The freshman history courses were U.S. history, and it was like a picture, a book, and an oral book before me. I’d always enjoyed history, but I think I really fell in love with it at that point. I took all the courses I could — even more than I was required to take — and then went and also got a master’s and Ph.D. at Auburn.
What was your specialty as a history teacher?
My number one specialty that I ended with was Alabama history and Southern history. That was my focus. But I taught U.S. history courses. I also developed a course on World War II, which was very significant to me because that was the event in history that impacted my life the most. I was 6 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and my older first cousins and my uncle went off to war. I was very much involved in being part of that war even though I was very young. Growing up in those times was significant in my understanding of history and my understanding of why history is important.
What did you love most about teaching history?
I enjoyed teaching history because I realized you couldn’t just throw material out in a lecture class and walk out the door. Students had to buy into it. I was mostly teaching freshmen and sophomores, so I felt I not only had to teach them history, but I had to teach them how to study history, how to learn history, how to write essay questions, and how to study for exams. They needed to not be afraid of the challenges of a freshman in college but be confident and driven.
Now that you’re retired, how do you like to spend your days?
I love writing. I’ve got one book that I’m working on that I hope I can get finished. I think it’s worthwhile because even if there’s not anybody out there today that wants to know about my subject, maybe there will be next year or 10 years down the road.
I like to play with my great-grandchildren. They’re all toddlers. I have 13 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given or the best advice you have to give?
If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.
Name three things you can’t live without.
The Bible, books, and radio and TV news.
Thank you, Leah — what an inspiration you are!
Meet more amazing Birmingham FACES in our archives. Click HERE.