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  • Tara Crutchfield

Wakeboarding Great Zane Schwenk Passing the Handle

A waterskiing and wakeboarding legend turned towed water sport exponent, Zane Schwenk got his start in a unique after-school program. The Sarasota native said casually, “I was in a circus as a kid, which was weird and fun.” The young adrenaline junkie dove into acrobatics, the flying trapeze, and the teeterboard, and by 12 years old, he had a 12-foot unicycle. Nothing too crazy happened at the circus, Schwenk said, well, except for that one time four lions chased him in South America.


He flipped and flew in the circus from third grade until the tenth. That’s when he told his dad he wanted to join the water ski club. Schwenk started skiing at age three. The sport was a family affair. Blood may be thicker than water, but water seemingly runs in the Schwenks’ veins. Zane’s brother Tripp went on to swim at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, winning a gold medal in the medley relay and a silver in the 200-meter backstroke. “We had a very aquatic upbringing,” Zane said.


By tenth grade, he would ski four to five days a week. “In Sarasota, it’s not easy to do that. It’s an hour and a half of cleanup afterward with the boat and taking care of stuff – but it was good. You learn a lot of responsibility,” he said.


Schwenk began competing and made it to the water ski nationals in Wisconsin. “Mark Jackson interviewed me and gave me my first chance of getting any real notoriety,” he said. That landed the water skier his first sponsorship from Connelly Skis out of Washington state. Shortly after, they asked Schwenk if he wanted to try out their wakeboard. The sport hadn’t yet gained widespread popularity, and Schwenk didn’t know what it was. “They looked like a surfboard. […] This was like a bungee cord over the top of your feet, and then go try to do some flips. It was really crude,” he remembered.


He tried out the wakeboard but continued skiing, improving his freestyle jumps. “Crashes were fun and obscene – that was a cool thing to do,” he said. Schwenk eventually got so good at freestyle jumping that he would become the first and, to this day, only person to land a double front flip ski jumping.


Schwenk joined Cypress Gardens in 1993, where he would then travel on the weekend for tournaments across the country. “One of the coolest things that happened at Cypress Gardens for me was I was encouraged to try new things,” he said. Schwenk remembers attempting that double front flip off the ramp there, a feat he’d hoped to accomplish since the ninth grade. “You get beat hard – it really is painful. You’re going about 110-115 feet, hitting the ramp at 40 plus miles per hour, trying to do two flips and land, and you can’t see the landing. It’s crazy,” he said.


One of the skiers at Cypress Gardens encouraged him to try the jump again as the owner of the park, August Busch, was on the dock. “I came whipping around – I tried it, I made it. I was super excited.” About a week later, he received a handwritten letter extending a sponsorship from Cypress Gardens. They wanted to help Schwenk achieve his dreams. “I came from a hardworking family. I moved over here with like 300 bucks – that was it,” he said. Now he had a full sponsorship to go out and compete. “It was the break I really needed.”


He continued skiing while ramping up his wakeboarding career, competing in both. “Wakeboarding really didn’t want to identify with waterskiing. It was like two factions happening at the same time, on the same lake, at the same events, but the wakeboarders were kind of the red-headed stepchild for a while,” Schwenk said. “Very much like extreme sports, [wakeboarder’s thought] we’re going to adapt. We’re not going to be the establishment, we’re going to do something different, we’re going to be flexible. […] I’m still very passionate about waterskiing, and I’m so happy to come full circle – waterskiing and wakeboarding coexist really well together now.”


His circus background also lent itself to the stunts Schwenk went on to master and even name. “There was a group of probably five or ten of us all learning these tricks and going, ‘Hey, I learned a new trick! I’m going to bring you a VHS tape of it, and I want to call it this.’ And you’d get that to the magazine as fast as you could because your buddy in Orlando was probably trying the same thing. So, you got to name a few tricks, claim a few tricks.”


Schwenk skied with his buddy Parks Bonifay who he called a wakeboarding “phenom.” At just 14, Bonifay won the inaugural wakeboard competition at the X Games. “I’m 20, and he’s 14, and we’re just learning new tricks left and right, and I’m feeding off this kid who’s six years younger than me who’s going to kick my butt,” Schwenk laughed.


Like Bonifay, Schwenk garnered legendary status as a pro tour wakeboarder, medaling in the X Games and winning the 2000 America’s Cup, Australian X Games, French X Games, and other pro events. The 2000 America’s Cup was a special event for the wakeboarder. “I traveled so much that I didn’t get to see my family a whole lot, but my dad was with me for that one, so that was really cool,” he said.


His record-setting career earned him the title “World’s Greatest Water Skier” in 1999 at Cypress Gardens. Schwenk also worked with high-performance boat manufacturer Mastercraft to design the first wakeboarding boat, the XStar, as well as wake surfing systems. He worked with Mastercraft for over twenty years, even hosting their video series, “Rewind.”


In March of this year, Zane Schwenk, alongside fellow wakeboarder Tara Hamilton-Wynne, was inducted into the USA Water Ski & Wake Sports Foundation Hall of Fame.


Reflecting on his career, Schwenk said, “As cheesy as it sounds, outside of all that – I had a lot of fun times – but getting to teach people and encouraging the next generation of wakeboarders and kids and skiers to get out there and promote the sport – that to me has been the greatest thing I could have done.”


Schwenk started the Pass the Handle initiative in 2014 with fellow wakeboarding legend Shaun Murray. The program encourages “any towedwater sports enthusiast to get out on the water and extend their arm to people in need of an awesome activity,” according to www.passthehandle.com. “Our goal is to truly engage those already involved to “share the stoke” and teach as many people as they can to ride.”


Schwenk called the initiative his “driving passion” in recent years. “We’ve got a lot of wonderful athletes focused on doing double flips and all these cool things, but you didn’t get to do a double flip if you didn’t learn how to get up.” Pass the Handle promotes accessibility to help more people get out on the water and ‘learn how to get up.’


“We challenged [those already in watersports] to take somebody new. Go to your church, go to your school, go to your neighbor, and get them out on the water and help expose the sport to somebody else. That’s been really successful,” Schwenk said.


Calling the Chain of Lakes our “greatest resource,” Schwenk is also avid about promoting safety on the water. “I don’t sound like the guy from the mid-90s who was doing crazy stuff,” he said, “but we’ve got to promote safe boating.” With more boats on the water, he encourages boaters to keep aware of their surroundings and guard the throttle. “Use common sense – like If you’re on a pontoon boat, don’t sit on the front of the pontoon boat while it’s going and drag your feet in the water. I see that every weekend.”


Schwenk now lives in Winter Haven with his wife Lauren and their kids, five-year-old Stone and eight-year-old Stella, and has taken the marketing skills learned with Mastercraft to work as Director of Marketing and Media at Oakley Transport. Stone and Stella are getting an “aquatic upbringing” similar to his own, already learning to ski and wakeboard. Asked if he sees his kids breaking any of his records in the future, he smiled and said, “I hope they break my school records which will be easy for them to do, I think.”


Numerous knee surgeries and previous wakeboarding injuries keep the Winter Haven wakeboarding great from being on the water as much as he’d like. Schwenk said, “You just can’t keep doing that forever, but if you can leave a lasting mark on a sport, that’s what I wanted to do, and I feel pretty good about that.”

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