Words by Vince Whiteman

This spring I got a phone call from Dary Znebel. He was super pumped to have just earned himself a part in the Valdosta Wake Compound’s movie The Coalition, a full-length film to be released this fall, and he needed some help in filming the winching portion of his section. This interview took place while I was staying at his family cottage during our first filming session.

Photo: Brennan Grange

“Watching Dary Znebel ride over the past 11 years has been inspiring and heartbreaking at the same time. He has this enthusiasm and drive for constant progression, which motivates everyone around him. He’s such a natural on a board that he quickly got to the point where he was riding at a pro level. When he first got injured, it was hard to watch someone that passionate for wakeboarding get sidelined just as he was about to hit that breakthrough moment. Knowing Dary, I was confident that he’d come back even stronger than before, and he did…but then he got hurt again…followed by more complications. Most riders would have called it quits after going through everything that Dary went through, but instead he somehow used it as motivation and is now riding harder than ever.’’

— Sean O’Brien

I arrive at the family-run cottage resort on Lake Muskoka that Dary calls home one morning in early June. I had just cast my lure into the lake when Dary comes bombing over the hill towards the dock on a little pit bike; jumping rocks and popping wheelies all with his little dog Gracie on his lap. From the time he was born, he spent every summer on the lake at their cottage, enjoying Muskoka with his older sister Krista, and younger brother Cory.

“When I was a kid, my dad took me to a wakeboard competition at Gull Lake in Gravenhurst. I watched the wakeboarders practice their flips on the beach. I came home and tried to do flips. I told my parents that I was going to be a wakeboarder. They thought I was going to kill myself, so they put me in gymnastics to allow me to learn how to do flips in the air without getting hurt,” he tells me as we tour the property. “That’s really the best thing about gymnastics; they teach you how to crash properly so you can avoid injury as much as possible.”

Dary has been into extreme sports from a young age. “I started skiing at the age of two, waterskiing at four, and I could ollie off a drop higher than my head on a skateboard by the time I was five.” Riding a board came naturally to Dary, and combined with his love of the outdoors, wakeboarding became his passion.

Photo: Brennan Grange

As any rider knows, family support is a major building block of early success. Dary has always greatly appreciated the support he’s received from his family but doesn’t take their help for granted. His father, Boris, is his biggest fan and has worked tirelessly to create a life for his children to pursue the passions and careers they wanted. “My dad came from a really tough childhood. His parents immigrated to Canada in 1951 with very little education and English language. His father died when he was 21 and he dropped out of university to support his mom and brother. He never had the luxury of putting his own interests first. I guess he just wanted my siblings and me to be able to have the life he never had.” Just like his father, Dary shares that drive and understands that nothing comes without hard work. Four years ago, Dary started up a wakeboarding school on Lake Muskoka, Wakesports Muskoka (Wake SM). Initially, his clientele consisted of cottagers learning to get up on a board, but he soon found his niche coaching competitive riders. “I have been a competitive trampoline coach for eight years now, and have used my experience to help make a more structured approach to the competitive side of wakeboarding.” Besides coaching wakeboarding 12 hours a day, Dary works part time as a trampoline coach and part time at a metal shop. This has led to a very unexpected sponsorship from Stepcon Industries Inc., the metal shop he works at.

O’Brien Wakeboards has supported Dary with boards and equipment since he was 13. Ralph Geronimo, the Ontario rep for O’Brien, was his first sponsor. He connected Dary with professional wakeboarder Sean O’Brien when he was 14 for some winter training. Sean, one of the first wakeboarders to make a career out of free riding as opposed to the traditional competitive route, helped Dary build a very unique riding style and attitude. “Sean taught me more than just tricks. He taught me how to tweak tricks and grabs to make them look cool, and was not afraid to let me know when my tricks looked lame. He was really big on style. When learning something new, I’d land the trick and Sean would say, ‘Cool, now go do it with a grab.’ That’s where I got most of my influence from to focus on style instead of looking like a robot on the water,” says Dary. Anyone who knows Dary, and especially those of us who shoot photos and videos with him, know how much of a perfectionist he is. He will land a trick a dozen times over to make sure every movement is perfect from start to finish. This mindset isn’t one you see in every rider, so it truly makes him stand out.

“Sean taught me more than just tricks.  He Taught me how to tweak tridcks and grabs to make them look cool, and was not afraid to let me know when my tricks looked lame.”

Photo: Matt Mulholland

Dary has been big on winching for years now, but for his part in The Coalition we are focusing on nothing else. On the way home from the first night of shooting, Dary gave me some background info on how he was first introduced to winching. “The first time I rode behind a winch was in 2009 at the Red Bull Winch Masters event that Muskoka Militia held in Huntsville. Winching was relatively new to the wakeboard scene, and it was tough to even find someone with a winch. Chris Guard and Joel Adair, pro riders from Muskoka, really took me under their wing when I was a grommet. I was much younger than them, but they brought me along to film for Muskoka Militia’s movie National Defense. Jono Boysen also played a big part and he invited me to come winching with their crew in Toronto. I remember staying at Jono’s place with all the guys in the “KGB Crew” and being so pumped to be hanging out and riding with these guys that I really looked up to. Jono really took care of me while I was filming with them, picking me up at my parents’ house, buying me breakfast on the trip, giving me ideas of what tricks to try at different spots… the whole deal.”

Dary’s recent success hasn’t come without adversity. If you haven’t noticed by now, he sports a nice pair of knee braces. “It was the last trick of my run at Nationals in 2009. I was doing a big heel side 540 into the flats and landed with my front leg straight. My knee blew out pretty good tearing my ACL, MCL, medial meniscus, and lateral meniscus,” Dary recalls. He had planned to move to Florida the next month to live with Sean O’Brien, work at his wakeboard school and train to compete on the Junior Pro Tour. Instead he found himself in surgery, followed by a winter of long, harsh recovery.

Photo: Brennan Grange

He got back on a board the next summer, but was unsure if he could continue riding at the same level. “The next year I started to ride again but I didn’t trust my knee. The surgeon said it was fixed but in my head I would think, “If I go off that wake and boost way out into the flats like I used to do, is my knee just going to explode when I hit the water?” My surgeon assured me that it wouldn’t, but I didn’t know how he could be so sure. That was the hardest thing to get over, getting that trust back, knowing I could try new tricks and go as big as I wanted to without my knee blowing out again.”

Unfortunately, this wasn’t Dary’s last time under the knife. After recovering from knee surgery, and being unsure of whether he wanted to pursue wakeboarding after his injury, he decided to move to Whistler and pursue snowboarding. “I’ve always loved snowboarding, and thought maybe I was over wakeboarding because it seemed like knee injuries were so common, and I was worried that I would hurt my knee again.” He spent a full season out in Whistler, and unfortunately suffered another knee injury. “I was riding the big jump line in the Blackcomb Terrain Park when snow conditions changed. I cased a jump and tore my ACL, MCL and meniscus once again, but this time it was in my other knee”. Once his second knee was healed, he continued to wakeboard, but took his time getting back into competitions. From the date of his first knee injury, Dary had taken three years off from the competitive wakeboard scene. Eventually he built up the confidence to begin competing again, only to find that the younger group of kids had really stepped up the level of riding in Canada. “I saw riders that were just getting into wakeboarding when I first got injured, now at the top of the game in Canada, and competing at Pro Tour. I had doubted whether I would ever get back to that level of riding, but nothing could stop me from doing what I love. I rode a wakeboard because it was fun and I didn’t get that same enjoyment from anything else. I was surprised at how fast I was able to get tricks back and get to the level of riding I wanted to be at, once I was confident that my knees would hold up.”

Photo: Brennan Grange

While Dary was injured, the first system 2.0 cable parks opened in Ontario, and as a snowboarder and skateboarder who was used to riding rails and kickers, this was right up his alley. “In 2014, I decided that instead of spending my hard-earned money on a few weeks riding a boat in Orlando, I could travel to Asia for two months for the same cost. I spent five weeks at CWC (Camsur Watersports Complex) in the Philippines, and three weeks in Thailand at Thai Wake Park. “As far as boat riding goes, everyone’s doing pretty much the same stuff, it’s just how consistent you can be at doing the same tricks over and over again. On the cable you can be more creative and do whatever you want—build your own rails and features; hit the same rail countless different ways. Don’t get me wrong, I love boat riding, it just gets repetitive after awhile and it’s not as social. Whereas at the cable park everyone’s riding together, and no one is worrying about burning too much gas money. I love competing in boat competitions, the only problem is that they cost a lot of money [laughs]. If you go to a pro tour stop, you’re going to spend money on flights, a hotel, taxis, and food all just for one weekend. I want to spend as much time on the water as possible. It made more sense to me to spend my time at a cable park riding with friends, filming and traveling to new places.

This spring Dary purchased a 6 x 12 foot cargo trailer and converted it into an RV to travel around the US and ride as much as possible. After watching all the edits that The Coalition crew were pumping out online, Valdosta Wake Compound (VWC) was the first stop on his trip.“VWC is awesome because the full cable has great features, and their system 2.0 is like nothing else in the world. Growing up, my brother and I always built jibs in our front yard, and Valdosta’s system 2.0 has that same build-it-yourself feel. I planned to go to Valdosta for a week with a crew of Canadian homies and then continue south to do some boat riding. After being at VWC for a week I couldn’t leave. After doing some filming with Wesley Mark Jacobsen, Quinn Silvernale and the rest of The Coalition crew, I was having way too much fun and couldn’t leave. I stayed at VWC for three weeks and was shooting with the crew every day. The guys were stoked on my riding and crashes. At first I was just going to have a few clips in the friends’ section,” says Dary, “so I really pushed myself to try new things. I remember Wes uploading all the footage and saying, ‘Dude, our friends’ section is 3/4 you, we’re going to have to make you your own folder on my hard drive’.” After hearing that, Dary rode harder than ever in the hopes that he could get a full part in their movie. “I ended up staying at VWC for two full months filming the whole time. By the end of my trip, Wes and Quinn told me that if I was able to get some winch footage back in Canada, they were going to give me a full part in The Coalition.

Photo: Brennan Grange

Filming with Dary has been great. He has a super creative mind and is not scared of taking a digger. I think he really flourished here at Valdosta Wake Compound. Over his stay here his riding really transformed. Adding more tech and new-age swag to his already deeply rooted wakeboarding background” — Wesley Mark Jacobsen

Our first winch trip has now come to an end, and I am left with my thoughts on what I have learned about my long-time friend, Dary Znebel. I can tell you without a doubt that Dary is showing no signs of slowing down. After a lifetime’s worth of injuries and health issues, he continues to push the limits of what is possible on a wakeboard. He has flown under the radar for so long and I think it is due time the world sees what has been brewing on that hidden bay up on Lake Muskoka.