Not So Crazy After All – How Zane Schwenk went from insane to influential.
There are about a million things I could say about Zane Schwenk. In fact, after his more than two decades of enjoying wakeboarding to the fullest, there are very few things that haven’t been said about him at one time or another. But here’s my favorite: Countless people shared their first experience riding a wakeboard with Zane Schwenk, and he’s helped spawn the careers of so many pros — mine included. From day one, Zane has always been there, offering advice not just to better my career but better me as a person. And I’m not the only one he’s done this for. Zane’s house has an open-door policy for his friends to come ride together, hang out and even learn. He’s kind of the Master Splinter of wakeboarding, and his experiences as a rider and behind the scenes at some of wake’s best companies make him the perfect liaison for the sport. After all, Zane’s been riding since before wakeboarding was even wakeboarding, and he’s been on tour longer than most pros have been riding. Since the start, he has focused on growing the sport on and off the water. These days Zane is still shredding, and his passion for the wakeboarding community is as strong as ever. He’s still at every tour stop working for MasterCraft and CWB, and he still rides all the time like he’s 20 years old. He even still aspires to have a 20-year-old’s haircut. After all these years, Zane has lined life up pretty damn well for himself. He has a house on the lake, a beautiful wife, and a new X-Star he helped design sitting on his lift. Zane has truly earned all the love the fans, riders, companies and I have for him.
Parks: All right, here we go. Question numero uno, let’s start off basic. How did your parents decide on your name, Zane Schwenk?
Zane: My full name is Zane Earl Schwenk after my grandfather, the Earl part.
Parks: Yeah, just leave the Earl part out.
Zane: Really, I do leave the Earl part out. My mom was at work one day and some dude walked in and his name was Zane, and she liked it. And then my parents named my brother Trippy, and they both claim to have never done any psychedelics, which I don’t believe.
Parks: Yeah, that’s kind of hard not to believe. Tell us about your ski background in the early days of old Sarasota, Florida.
Zane: I grew up with Mom and Dad and Trip skiing. I started when I was 3, and we were in a little show ski club and just kind of wanted to do a bit of everything. I saw people jumping, barefooting and doing everything. I was in the circus at the time and thought it would be cool to try to do everything I could on the water.
Parks: How old were you when you were in the circus?
Zane: I was 7 and I got thrown out when I was 14. I did teeter board, and I flew trapeze. I had a regular, a 6-foot and a 12-foot unicycle. And I was a pixie dust spreader on the tilt-a-whirl.
Parks: With this entire double flip craze off kickers, a lot of people don’t realize you did it first — a double flip on skis off of a jump in, what was it, 1993?
Zane: Yeah, that was 1993. I had been trying them for a while. That was like the big thing. No one really made them freestyle jumping, and I wanted to make it. As you know, I think you were running around in spandex around then.
Parks: This is true.
Zane: It was kind of brutal because you would go about 110 feet with two pair of skis on, and the boots were about as tight as sandals you get on a cable park rental board. There’s no frickin’ way I could do it right now, but it was cool.
Parks: I think it’s safe to say no one is ever going to do that again.
Zane: I think somebody may have, but that’s the one trick that launched my ability to get on the tour and stuff.
Parks: 110-foot double front — that’s freaking crazy!
Zane: It was fun. It hurt. God, it hurt.
Parks: Is there any difference between the wakeboarders on tour now and freestyle jumpers back in 1993?
Zane: Essentially, there is no difference. They are just as crazy as all these young little wakeboarders are now, but you know the wakeboarders have done it more stylish. They’ve made it more fun. It’s different because now I have to be a little more responsible, but there are so many nights when I just forget I have to be responsible and I just get to be that kid again. And that’s why I like to get out of the house five weekends a year and go on the Pro Wakeboard Tour.
Parks: What tricks did you actually land first? Like say a slurpee or a cock ‘n balls?
Zane: Uh, the slurpee, the cock ‘n balls, I think I did the first scarecrow, but Brandon Meek named it
Parks: Yeah, Brandon Meek and C.C . Roberts might battle you on that one.
Zane: But it was all like right at the same time. And look at it this way; Al Gore hadn’t invented the Internet yet. It wasn’t like, “Oh cool, let’s put up pictures and talk about what we just did.” There were no forums, none of that. So nobody really knew what anybody was doing, but I did like toeside air front flips.
Parks: Yeah, I think you were the first to do that.
Zane: Like toe front to fakies.
Parks: I think you also got the switch whirly?
Zane: Yeah, I got the switch whirly. That was you and I, buddy. That was fun, you know. Those were the days you’d go out with a buddy and it didn’t matter if somebody was rolling the wake over because the wake was only like 8 inches tall anyway. And so you and I would go ride and, God, that was so much fun, man.
Parks: What influenced you back in the day to start wakeboarding?
Zane: I just always did things differently, and wakeboarding was a redheaded stepchild when I first started on the pro tour. I couldn’t do the traditional stuff. I didn’t go that far off the ramp, and I certainly am not a good slalom skier. So I wanted to do something different, and it just kind of fell right in with all the crap I learned in the circus years back.
Parks: You were doing 110-foot double front flips off jumps so it seems like you were in the making for some wakeboarding.
Zane: Yeah, man, and wakeboarding just took in this cool life, as you know. It just became so much more fun, and it went from being the redheaded stepchild to being the moneymaker on the tour and what really drove the industry. I wanted to be a part of that, man. And just watching people get up, you know, it’s cool.
Parks: Nice. You’ve had a very long, successful career, and you’ve been with roughly the same sponsors the whole time. This obviously paid off in the long run for you. Any advice to the pros nowadays and to future pros of the sport?
Zane: Get out now?
Parks: I mean, you see we have a lot of young riders who are chasing the next best dollar or the next person who’s going to send me here or make more for you here. You’ve been with MasterCraft, Connelly, like all these sponsors your whole career and no one else has really turned wakeboarding into the job that you have. There has to be something you can tell these dudes, you know? Or not?
Zane: Yeah, I got a couple more years left of this shit, man. I’m not done yet.
Parks: Yeah, we’ll let them figure it out.
Zane: Now, I’ll tell you what, I would tell them to stay in school. Don’t miss out on that. Because what wakeboarding can do for you is it can take you all over the world and show you some really cool places and different shit you never thought you would see and you would never get to do if you were just working a 9-to-5. But at some point you may have to go work a 9-to-5, you know? Bodies only last so long, right buddy?
Parks: How many times have you gained and lost 20 pounds?
Zane: Holy shit!
Parks: I thought you would say “not as many as you.”
Zane: No, no, the crux of that is “lost.” I’m going to go with at least five.
Parks: You’ve had numerous injuries. Can you go over them, roughly, like scratch the surface on the top 10?
Zane: I broke my leg with you when I hit the side of a boat. Then I broke it again with you trying to do an air mobe. I got a rod stuffed in it. I’ve had three torn ACLs, two scopes , chipped vertebrate, two herniated discs from jumping a PWC super frickin’ high. I broke some ankles, wrists and ribs. Oh, and then I got punched in the eye in a bar fight in Winter Haven, Florida, that broke my orbital in two places.
Zane Schwenk | Photo: Chris McEniry
Parks: It’s good to see that takes the top spot.
Zane: That one really hurt, man, because now I have a droopy eye and I have to be careful in pictures and shit.
Parks: No, you’re beautiful, man. Any tips to getting back after an injury, like mentally and physically? Obviously, it has happened to you numerous times. You see people who tear an ACL and never really come back.
Zane: Dude, if you can do it in rehab and can jump up on a box and jump off that shit, then you can do it on the water and you just have to have confidence. Because you know where you have to be and how you have to land, and once you keep doing the tricks and start building your confidence back up, then you can start doing some new stuff. While I am not the picture of fitness like you, working out in rehab is like the number-one thing, man.
Parks: Yeah, nice. Could you tell a quick story about when we met at a George Blair barefoot endurance contest?
Zane: Well, we were at Sonesta Village on Sand Lake in Orlando. I was 11 and you were 5. And, again, you know, no Internet, but I heard all these stories about how good Parks Bonifay was and he’s going to win the barefoot endurance contest. And well, damn it, I didn’t want to lose. I offered you $10 to take a fall. You didn’t. I’m pretty sure you kicked my ass.
Parks: OK, this is going to be a good one. You obviously drunk from the Pro Wakeboard Tour fountain of youth. You’ve seen so many wakeboarders come and go. How do you keep doing it after 20 years? And why?
Zane: How do I keep doing it year after year? Shit, I’m doing it because I just want to get out there. To be honest, I talk to people all the time. These guys are like 35. They buy a boat and they’re like, “Oh, I can’t go wakeboarding anymore,” and I’m like “Bullshit. You can go wakeboard.” So I want to go out there and show them that, yeah at 35-plus you can wakeboard. More importantly, I went out and rode today, and it’s like going to the beach and going surfing. It’s like a mental reset for me. It makes me happy. I’m not going to go out there and make the finals. I know that. I don’t care about that. I’m going out there to prove something to myself and have a good time and show people that at 35 you can still charge at the wake. Yeah, you’re going to have some aches and pains, but to me, launching off that lip and just frickin’ getting pulled up, that’s more important. That makes me happy.
Parks: Who’s your all-time favorite person to be on the boat with?
Zane: Not to blow smoke up your skirt, but all-time favorite, I love to get in the boat with you. Whether you’re riding or not, you always have some smart-ass remark to say, and I kind of assimilate to that really well. But, you know, right now I ride a lot with Jeff House. Jeff is a giver. He always tells me to try different stuff and encourages me, and that’s good. It’s hard to get an old man to try different stuff. Trust me.
Parks: Old dog, new tricks. What’s the most dangerous thing you have ever done?
Zane: Holy shit, I don’t know.
Parks: I’m going to go with double front off a kicker.
Zane: That might have been the most brutal to the body, but there are some things we did in rental cars. I jumped one on the super-cross track at Texas Ski Ranch, and then I jumped one into a culver out there. I’ve really done some weird shit in rental cars.
Parks: Hey, did you ever try the Mike Tollsman double wrap single ski seven?
Zane: Hell no! Mike Tollsman is on crack!
Parks: That’s right, a double rap 720. Sack up
Zane: Hank Amos did a double rap mobe.
Parks: In your opinion, what do you think it takes for a rider to be successful in wakeboarding?
Zane: It takes a little extra work. There are a lot of guys out there who are really good riders, but it’s off-water stuff like being personable, marketing yourself to the right group, talking to the right people and going the extra mile.
Parks: Boat shows?
Zane: Yeah, it’s all the stuff nobody wants to talk about, but, dude, I meet more people who wakeboard every year because I go to a ton of boat shows and, you know, it’s the middle of winter. It’s snowing and you’re in Canada, and they are stoked about wakeboarding! That’s important to go talk to those people and make sure they keep that stoke through the winter and come back and do it. You can’t get lazy, man. Shit, I saw you get lazy one year. You know you came out of the box, you kicked everybody’s ass and you took a year off because you got a half-pipe and you frickin’ started having a little fun there in Lake Alfred. Then you got your ass kicked and you came back and worked your ass off and you kicked everybody’s ass again! People do that too often.
Parks: What is the most beers you drank without peeing?
Zane: Fourteen in roughly, what would you say, an hour and a half?
Parks: Honestly, I got to 14 and I quit, and Rusty Malinoski got to like 16. I swear I think you got to 17 or 18.
Zane: It might have been 17 or 18. I don’t recall, but I do know I got to like two more beers than Rusty did that night.
Parks: So we’re going to go on record with 17 beers without peeing.
Zane: Seventeen without peeing.
Parks: What did you think of my whole roast night? You had to start it off, but you did a really good job.
Zane: I can’t tell you the last time I was so nervous to talk to a bunch of wakeboarders. Because I really just wanted to have a good time roasting you, but I totally didn’t think about how in a roast everybody roasts each other. And I didn’t think about what you guys were going to do to me, and I appreciate every fat, hairless, bald, boat salesmen comment you guys made, because it was pretty damn funny. But that was nerve-racking man. I mean, that was one of the coolest things I’ve done in a long time with wakeboarding.
Parks: You’ve competed in the best all-around skier in the world. Tell us about that and your arch nemesis.
Zane: Uh, what year was that thing?
Parks: Was that at SeaWorld?
Zane: It was at Cypress Gardens. It was a slalom, trick, jump, wakeboard, air chair, barefoot tricks, freestyle jump and I think there was a wildcard. I trained a little bit because I wanted to win it.
Parks: Yeah, you were pretty good at all of those.
Zane: It turned out all right, you know. The most fun thing was the wildcard. You could do whatever you wanted. One guy hang-glided. I went out on my slalom jumper and did half-cab rolls and tantrums and toeside back rolls and heelside back rolls on the ski and back-to-back 3s and shit. Then I went out on a pair of shoe skis and did raleys and hoochie glides and S-bends off the wake and a big-ass, I don’t know, probably like 80-foot raley off the ramp.
Parks: That’s freaking awesome.
Zane: And that was it, man. I didn’t walk real well for like two weeks.
Parks: So you’re the number-two greatest skier in the entire world overall?
Zane: I’m the number two? I ain’t the number two! I won that shit! I ain’t number two!
Parks: I thought Geno Yauchler beat you?
Zane: Geno didn’t beat me! Bitch, you’re trying to start some controversy now! I like it!
Parks: The best freaking skier in the world is Zane Schwenk, and he knows it! Tell us about the process of making the new MasterCraft X-Star.
Zane: You know, it’s kind of cool because we knew the ’03 model was kind of running its course, and what’s really neat is that even though we were in a situation where it’s a really bad economy, these guys knew we had to do something new. We had to do something fresh. The whole process starts with what you want out of the boat and what you want it to do. I see you got another beer, that’s good.
Parks: I did.
Zane: So, it’s like “define what you want out of the boat” and then we started hoisting the boat up in the air and sawing away at it and extending parts and moving the engine around. You know, with the X-Star, it’s our halo product. Everybody looks at it. It’s the pinnacle. If you have an X-Star, that’s the top of your game, you know? You don’t get any better. So we took our time. I just got off the phone with Rusty and he’s riding the lime green boat for the Pro Tour and he said, hands-down, it’s the biggest wake he’s ever hit and it’s perfect. It has the perfect snap at the top, and I agree. And not too often do I want to cut as hard as I can and do big-ass raleys, because I don’t want my kneecaps to go skipping across the water, but, dude, this thing, I got so frickin’ pumped up to go as hard as I could hit that thing and abuse myself. That’s what this wake is. It makes you want to hit it harder and bigger. It’s ridiculous.
Parks: Good thing you’re not hitting double-ups or you might not be on tour for another year.
Zane: What is a double-up? That would be knee number three or four.
Parks: Who’s your favorite pro rider?
Zane: I got to tell you, I like watching Steel Lafferty because the kid has springs for legs and, more importantly, he’s just always happy, and I can’t predict what he’s going to do. It’s pretty sick. My other favorite to watch is Shaun Murray. I love to watch him. It’s like he puts on a show. He makes it entertaining — something is going to happen. He’s either going to break himself off like at the Wake Games or he’s going to make the finals. I really enjoy watching him.
Parks: Agreed. Why don’t you do more pool jams? It’s very entertaining when you do.
Zane: So while hitting a ramp was what I was really good at, apparently hitting a piece of trex is not what I’m good at.
Parks: But you had a hard time before you even got to the trex. Apparently you even had a hard time riding in a pool.
Zane: I don’t like pools.
Parks: I tried to tell you it’s exactly like the water in a lake, but it’s in a pool so you just ride like it’s normal water. But you don’t do that.
Zane: Well, yeah. I don’t know, man. These rail jams, there’s so little time to make a decision. I’m indecisive. I’m superstitious. I can’t figure shit out, man.
Parks: So if there is more than one option you’re screwed?
Zane: Yeah, that’s why I like just the wake better. I cheered one time when the fun box on tour flipped over in the wind. I was like, “Yeah! I hate that thing!”
Parks: You have your pilot’s license, right?
Zane: No, I had my learner’s, and I used to just fly around without a license.
Parks: What are some things in wakeboarding that keep you motivated?
Zane: You know what really keeps me motivated right now is trying to learn some grabs with some late blind 180s. I’m not doing a whole lot of them, but two decades in just now trying this shit, that’s kind of odd.
Parks: That’s good you’re grabbing your board because usually the only time you grab your board is when you take it out of the truck to bring it down to the boat.
Zane: I know, it’s weird. I did make a board with a bunch of handles on it to grab, but it didn’t work. That’s the fun stuff right now and to just do the stuff I’ve been doing all the time. I have been doing some switch special Ks, which is like half of a switch slurpee. I think I can take that back and rewind it to blind, but I’m going to need some healthy knees for a little bit before I try that again.
Parks: Man, I think you lost everyone on the last one, but we’re good. You’ve contributed more than pretty much anyone in the whole sport so far. So what do you want to do in the future?
Zane: Well, I don’t want to stop contributing to the sport. I want to make sure that while the sport is changing and I’m not, it’s good to recognize and embrace all the cool things that are happening with the talent that’s out there now. I want to help with things like the Water Sports Industry Association. We have guys like Larry Meddock who work their tail off and never get recognition for all he’s done to make sure we can still wakeboard on pretty much any waterway out there. I want to work on that end of it to make sure my kids and your kids can still go out there and do that. And I want to keep working with the engineers and doing fun products because there is nothing more exciting and exhilarating. There are few moments in my life when I’ve been so proud as to introduce that X-Star. That was just really cool, you know? Working with the guys at CWB, it’s fun to try to make something new and hear, “Hey, your product helped me learn this or do that.” I want to get more people to stand up on the water. I guess that’s all I’ve ever really wanted to do. I don’t care how you do it, just stand up on the water. It’s amazing.