It is safe to say 2009 was Zack Worden’s breakthrough season. The 18-year-old kicked off the year by recording the second-longest jump at the Moomba Masters then went on to a handful of top-six finishes at the Masters, Worlds and Pro Tour. He took a break from the pro scene long enough to lead the University of Louisiana at Monroe to its fourth straight national championship. The scary thing is, we’ve probably seen just the tip of Worden’s prodigious talents. WaterSki recently talked to Worden about his most successful season to date and what it’s like to carry the weight of so much expectation. — Megan Anderson
You’ve had an awesome season. Can you give us a quick recap of 2009? The season really started in March with the Moomba Masters. That was my first time going to a pro event and going without my parents or a coach. I actually skied really well there; I had the second-biggest jump in the tournament. It was my first time in the finals at a pro event, and I let the pressure get to me while everybody else really stepped it up, so I ended up getting seventh place. But I was so pumped to be there, and it was a great experience. After that, I had some tournaments at Sunset Lakes and McCormick’s, and I had some really big jumps. Shortly after, I qualified for the 50th Masters and ended up getting sixth place. Another highlight was the LA Night Jam. What an awesome tournament! I made the finals and I was stoked because all the big shots were there. I was the fourth seed going into finals and it was my first time jumping at night, but I just attacked it the same way I attack it during the day. I ended up getting third place, and it was the first time I made a good bit of money from skiing. Then I went with Jon Travers to the Pro Tour stop in Michigan. I was really excited to ski there, and I ended up in fourth place, which was really cool. To be on the dock with those guys and be on the same playing field with them is awesome. My next tournament was Worlds, and I actually qualified as independent there. I made jump finals. That had to be the most nerve-racking tournament I’d ever been to because ESPN set up a bunch of big JumboTrons. It was such a fun stage to be on, and it was a huge learning experience. I finished up fifth at Worlds, and that was the cap of a perfect season. I was pretty thrilled with that.
What’s it like to contribute to University of Louisiana at Monroe’s fourth consecutive Division 1 national title? It’s huge. I love being on a team because skiing is a very individual sport. It was a lot of fun to have that extra pressure to ski well for not only yourself but also your team. It makes that win a lot sweeter. I’ve been on the U.S. team, but there’s something about the collegiate team and the team spirit that made winning a lot of fun. I know a lot of people were talking before the tournament that ’Bama had a strong team and that we were having a tough time getting ready for the tournament, but when we got out there, everyone skied well and it was an awesome victory. We won a national championship ring, which I’m pretty pumped about. It’s a lot of fun to be on a team like that where there’s so much support behind us from the school.
Tell us about how it feels to be doing so well at such a young age. What has the transition to pro tournaments been like? Well, it’s been a lot to take in. I’ve just been trying to soak up as much knowledge and information as I can. I’ve always known a lot of the guys, but knowing the people wasn’t the issue. Getting out there and actually skiing with them was something I hadn’t done before. I tried to take something away from every tournament. I hit the high point of my season at the LA Night Jam because that’s when I knew I had the ability to beat some of these guys. I just had to take everything one step at a time and not get too far ahead of myself. At Worlds, I got kind of nervous, but in the back of my mind, I knew I could do it. It was a lot to take in over the year, but at each tournament, I picked up something new and learned something different.
You are known for your dedication and drive. What drives you most when you’re on the water? I think a season like the one I just had is one of my main motivations. I finished high school early online so I could live and work at a ski school. I really dedicated the last two and a half years to skiing. This season reminded me why I continue to do it and why I dedicate myself to it and learn as much as I can from anybody and everybody. My main motivation is to have a season like I did this year. Next year, I’m going to have to win one or two.
You are originally from Deltona, Florida, but your dad drove you to Jack Travers’ ski school in Groveland to train, which is more than an hour each way. What is it like to have a dad so dedicated to your skiing? He works hard to help make a lot of these tournaments happen for me to ski in, so he’s an added motivation for me. It keeps me motivated to do well for myself and for my parents, so they continue to support me.
At the Collegiate Nationals, it came down to your final jump to win the event. How were you able to come through in a clutch? It wasn’t Worlds, but it was a new scene. It was my first year skiing in slalom and tricks at the college level. For some reason, I got into the habit of waiting until my last jump to do my big jumps. At Night Jam and at Worlds, I waited until my third jump. So at Nationals, I knew it wasn’t a big deal, and I knew I’d done it before. I just tried to stay calm and collected and it just worked out. The collegiate scene is so much more fun and it’s more laid-back. Everyone cares about their skiing, but they also enjoy hanging out with everybody. So that was a new experience you don’t really see at ski tournaments where you’re going for money and sponsors. At that point, it was a fun and relaxing tournament.
You’re coming into the sport at a difficult time to make money as a professional skier. What are your plans after school? I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that it was going to be tough to make a living from skiing — unless you got into it like 10 or 20 years ago. I knew that going into it, so I’m going to plan accordingly. People say University of Louisiana at Monroe isn’t the best academic school, but they have an awesome construction management program, which is right up my alley. I’m getting a degree in that, and I plan to ski for a couple of years after college. If that doesn’t work out, I’ll have a good degree, and I’ll be able to join the real world.
What is your opinion on the current state of the sport, and how do you think we can get it back into the limelight? Well, it will come back. This year alone, I was really impressed with the big turnout at Moomba Masters, and Worlds was on broadcast live on ESPN 360. That’s huge. I think it’s going to continue to be difficult, but hopefully by the time I’m out of college it will be fixed. I really hope to travel and compete in World Cup events. But it will come back. There are always people out there who want to invest and help us out, and it’s a matter of finding them and presenting ourselves in the right manner to convince them why we need the money and deserve to be sponsored.
When WaterSki asks someone who they think the most promising up-and-comer is, your name is usually the first out of everyone’s mouth. How does that make you feel, knowing that so many people expect a lot from you? Does that add any pressure to competing? I think it helped me a little bit. I remember WaterSki did an article on Scott Ellis and the headline was “Zack Worden is:” and you let him finish the sentence. That was the first time I had seen someone say it to the entire ski community. It was a huge confidence boost to see that other pro skiers had faith in me. Some of these guys have been doing this for 20 years, so they have a pretty good idea of what they are talking about.