Zenon Bilas: 'Look, Ma, No Skis!'

By Rich Armstrong

Bilas is a world-renowned water skier, and a seven-time U.S. Barefoot Water Ski champion.

Zenon Bilas barefoot waterskiingSeven-time U.S. Barefoot Water Ski champion Zenon Bilas once appeared in a television commercial for Frosted Flakes cereal as Tony the Tiger. (Photo: Steven A. Schnitzer)

Zenon Bilas was 13 years old the first time he got up on water skis. That moment for most of us marks a great memory. For him, it was life-changing.

"I was hooked. First pass, I had a zillion-watt smile. I thought it was the neatest thing," he recalls. "How cool was it to be on top of the water following the boat?"

The unusual name (pronounced "Zen-in") comes from his West Ukrainian parents, but he's Chicago born and bred. He grew up casting a line into local ponds and from small boats in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and Ontario. "I was more into fishing at that time," he says, but all that changed in 1975. Intrigued after attending the locally famous Tommy Bartlett Water Ski Show in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin, then coached by an experienced skier who taught him the basics, Bilas couldn't get enough. He soon became a local hotshot when he learned how to turn his body around and barefoot water ski backward.

"That was unusual at that time. Back then, it was hard to find information and coaching. You couldn't just go on the internet and find videos," he says of his watch-and-learn training. "I watched the barefoot acts in the Tommy Bartlett Water Ski Show over and over. That's how I learned to barefoot forward and backward," he says. "After I watched the show, I'd go out and try it myself over and over until I finally made it."

From there, in high school, he landed a job in the water-ski pro shop at a local marine store where he met champion water-skier Mike Seipel, who is considered one of the greatest barefoot waterskiers in the world. He is credited with inventing the inverted barefoot jumping technique (where you launch off a ramp and briefly fly like Superman). Seipel became a mentor to Bilas. When Seipel opened one of the first barefoot water ski schools in the country, in Florida, he hired Bilas to run it, allowing him to turn his hobby into a career. Today, at 55, Bilas is a world-renowned water skier himself, and a seven-time U.S. Barefoot Water Ski champion. He's a sought-after coach, and he's ready to compete again this year at the Barefoot Nationals, to be held August 1 to 5, in Polk City, Florida.

Blessed with an eternally optimistic and positive attitude, Bilas considers himself "really, really lucky. I never ever thought about being here when I was working at the marine store. It's always been fun for me. I've never been on a time clock."

Now living in West Palm Beach, Florida, Bilas' coaching and competing career has taken him to 17 different countries, where he's met people from all over the world — "all through skiing!" He writes and photographs for various magazines and has appeared in several advertising campaigns. If you recall the Frosted Flakes commercial where Tony the Tiger was water skiing — that was Zenon, but with a cartoon tiger superimposed over him.

So what's the secret to barefoot ­water skiing? "Body position and technique are more critical than with traditional water skiing," Bilas says. "The sport engages the skier mentally and physically, requiring balance, strength, and a highly disciplined mindset. Most people barefoot at 30 to 35 mph," he adds. "The rule of thumb is you take your weight, divide by 10, then add 20 to get an estimate on the miles per hour you have to be traveling to stay on your feet."

Unlike traditional water skiing, when you barefoot, you start by riding on your behind with bent knees and feet out of the water, then squeezing your knees together while lowering your feet into the water and turning your ankles down to get them gliding on the water, and using the rope to pull your body upright. Also unlike traditional water skiing, when you finally get up on your bare feet, you should be standing almost upright, with feet flat on the water, skimming along. Bilas says he still loves boats, but whenever he's on one, he's thinking about barefooting. For more information visit his website. 

— Published: August/September 2017


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