RIGA - In the past 15 years, Latvia's sports and leisure industry has spread like wild fire from Soviet rubble. Twenty years ago there was no such thing as an aquapark, and the country's ambitious water skiers had to rig boats with car engines to reach the proper acceleration.
Now there are sundry aqua exotica to be tried, such as slalom skis, wakeboards, kneeboards, inner tubes and the latest trend - the sky ski.
"These days water sports are growing very fast," says Egils Emersons, a competitive and recreational water skier developing a water sports center on Lielupe River. "Because in the Soviet Union we had no boats or equipment, today we have everything and want to relax somehow from our lives and work."
Although Emersons' sports club is still in its infancy, just a few kilometers up the river is the recently finished Sturis Water Sports Center. Offering the most modern water sports equipment, Sturis is just one of the many flourishing sports and activity centers being created for Latvians who, now more than ever, can afford to relax. The center offers a variety of aqua recreation, including the prized sky ski.
What looks like a wake board mounted on a long fin-tailed blade, the sky ski elevates riders 2 meters above the water, eliminating drag so they can reach up to 12 mph.
"The sky ski is unbelievable," says Ivars Ildens, 49, an avid water skier for the past 10 years who opened Sturis in April. "It's very easy. All you have to do is lean back and you can jump 7 feet into the air. It's the latest thing out there."
Ildens, who just completed his first 360-degree flip on the sky ski this past month, feels that water skiing is an ideal way to get one's mind off work and relieve stress.
Emersons is one of the best slalom skiers in the country and consistently places in the top 10 in the national championships. He says he first felt the joy of skimming the water as a young child growing up in Soviet Latvia. During those years, water skiing was relatively popular, and although there was a scarcity of professional boats, devoted daredevils managed to build their own by culling together car engines, veneer and lorry.
In fact, these ramshackle boats produced one of the best slalom skiers in the world - Ingus Burks, who placed seventh in the 2000 Water Skiing World Championship.
"You can imagine that it's not so easy to have a place like this in the world," says Emersons, who grew up skiing with Burks. "When he announced that he trained his whole life on a home made boat, nobody believed him."
In the early 1960s Burks helped found the Soviet Union Water Skiing Association, which bred some of the world's best skiers. There were four teams representing the Soviet Republic of Latvia, one of which was the second biggest in the entire U.S.S.R.
However, water skiing's popularity faded somewhat in the 80s, as people were too busy dealing with the ubiquitous political changes. But now the sport is being revived.
"Water skiing is finally back and at a new level," Ildens says.
Pricewise, Sturis offers relatively decent rental fares. For 10 minutes of water skiing, wakeboarding or tubing the price is 5 lats (7.6 euros). The sky ski costs 10 lats. And for cold weather days, customers can rent wet suits for 1 lat and dry suits for 2 lats. By comparison, in America rental prices for identical equipment are more than twice this.
Ildens fears that the biggest challenge for his business will be convincing Latvians that water sports are not dangerous and can be enjoyed by the whole family. In an effort to do this, the center is offering free lessons.
"I think it will take some 10 years to really catch on with Latvians and for the majority to afford it," Ildens admits. "It's an experiment from our side because we don't know."
"Latvians are a stubborn and determined people," Emersons says. "If something new is invented they want to get it."