Leah Rawls Atkins, one of 20th-century Alabama’s most prominent historians and the author of Alabama Power’s “Developed for the Service of Alabama”, reached the pinnacle of her career six decades ago this year. At the age of 18, though, her career had nothing to do with history — except for making it. Not just for Alabama or the United States, but for the world.
In 1953, Leah Marie Rawls became the best female water skier on the planet when she won the women’s overall World Tournament in Toronto and became Alabama’s first water skiing world champion. In just three years, she had gone from worst to first. In 1950, at Lake Guntersville in her first tournament, she placed last in every event.
For much of the 1950s, Atkins (she married Auburn University football star George Atkins in 1954) was a force in women’s water skiing. She also won 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. Just don’t dare suggest to Atkins that she ruled her sport.
“I did not dominate,” Atkins insists. “I’ve often said I was fighting for my life.”
Yet, here are the words from her plaque at the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame, which inducted her in 1976: “Dominated the sport for eight yrs. until retirement. … Her water skiing style perfected by 12 hours per day practice, oft times in winter water, is yet copied by current champs.” Atkins was the first female inducted into the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame.
Atkins, born in Birmingham in 1935, has come a long way since her father bought a “red-stained dogtrot cabin” on the Black Warrior River, where she learned to swim and ride a surfboard when she was 4.
Today, she is a common site in the corridors of Alabama Power’s Corporate Headquarters in Birmingham. After a distinguished career as a history teacher and author at UAB, Samford and Auburn, Atkins began writing corporate histories, including “Developed for the Service of Alabama,” the history of Alabama Power. That doorstop of a book was published in the company’s centennial year of 2006 and won the James F. Sulzby Award the next year for the best book on Alabama history.