Issue 51: ProFile with Zach Gordon

We’re sitting around the Kitelife office before we head off the the AKA Convention / Grand Nationals. I was trying to prep a little, going through last year’s competition scores on the AKA website. John Barresi normally doesn’t “handicap” any comp events ahead of time, but I decided I’d try and get a little information from him regarding who to concentrate on when we’re watching the comps at the Nationals… Asking John who he thought might do well this year, and in what disciplines, one name he mentioned repeatedly was Zach Gordon.

Following the AKA Grand Nationals, of course, the results spoke for themselves with Zach in the top three of six different masters events… When it came down to who we wanted to interview in this issue, we immediately thought of that young kid at Nationals again – the one that “wowed” everyone so much with his MIB routine. Herewith, the Kitelife interview with a 14 year old phenomenon who has captured “Top-Of-The-Heap” this year, and is likely to be around for a while – and with good reason, too! Such a pleasure watching him fly…

Hi Zach. Okay, let’s start this interview off the easy way. How did you first get started in organized kiting? Was it a dual-line kite you focused on first? When did that happen, what got you started, and what really grabbed your interest so that you stayed?

Well, I got started in kiting because of my brother, Josh. We had a house in Southwestern Michigan and spent lots of time on the beach there in Bridgman, MI. It was 1994, I was about 2 years old at the time; Josh and my mom met some people on the beach that had big bags of stuff; we did not know what it was. Anyway, we approached these people with the bags and it turns out the bags contained kites! Over the next few years, our family developed a relationship with them. Wayne and Jennifer were very giving and allowed Josh and I to fly their kites, offering one after another for us to try. The first kite I bought myself was a Beetle, the most indestructible! I was six. When Josh was 13 and I was 7 we attended our first competition. It was in South Bend, IN. I did not compete there, but I was introduced to a Revolution kite. George Wright of the Windjammers let me fly (crash) his Rev all day long. I had a great time that weekend, spending most of it flying George’s kite!

Several weeks later, after the next competition where George once again let me fly his Rev, I decided to buy myself my own quad line kite. My mom split the cost of the kite with me; it took me months to work off my half of that Rev! The first time I competed was in Experienced Multi-Line Ballet at Kites Over Burlington in Burlington, IA. It was September 2000. I competed with my new Rev, using the Gordon family “first time ballet song” A Whole New World, from Aladdin. I was so surprised to win third place! I felt incredible joy and such a wonderful feeling when I was flying. That was what really grabbed my interest. Now I was really hooked.

Once you got rolling, who did you fly with and who acted as your teacher or mentor? How much did your family help in that regard? Or did you join a club, or hang out with a group of (non-family) fliers, or just fly by yourself?

I flew a great deal with my brother and with the members of the Chicago Fire Kite Team. Remember, I was 8 years old, and our family traveled together all the time. Josh and I began to develop a relationship with the team during the spring of 2001. Not only were they good mentors, they were also very generous in helping out with our equipment needs. At every competition there were flyers teaching me, giving me advice and showing me the ropes. I couldn’t believe how open they all were, sharing their knowledge. The sense of the family of kiting really became clear and strong during that time. The Chicago Fire Kite Team and all the other Midwest fliers became my extended family.

Regardless of who you hung with, by then you were intoxicated with the “Joy of Flying.” Tell us a bit about how you felt with a dual-line kite in your hands, and how it changed your outlook.

Yes, I was intoxicated with the joy of flying. I enjoyed the differences between the dual-line and the quad. I liked the dual-line because of the continuous forward motion. The quad gave me the opportunity to feel complete control and the ability to do all the things a quad can do. When I had a kite in my hands, I didn’t really have to think about what I was doing, it just happened. It was so great to fly and learn and have so much fun all at once (and it still is that great). The biggest thing I remember is how cool it was to hear a song and imagine my kites flying to that song. I couldn’t hear a song without thinking “would that be a good kite song?” That part of kiting is one of the things I enjoyed the most, and still do. In fact, now I cannot hear a song without imagining flying to it!

And sooner or later, you got to the point where you knew you wanted to compete. So was that a natural outgrowth of your dual-line flying, or did someone approach you directly to start competing? Or was there always some family “pressure” so that you knew going in that competition was the goal? Tell us about your early comps, Zach.

Well, as I said earlier, the competition part of things entered my life soon after I bought my Rev. In fact, I owned the kite for 10 days prior to my first competition. And I couldn’t have competed with confidence had it not been for my first true coach, my grandma Jean Vondriska. I bought the Rev at Mackinaw Kites and Toys in Grand Haven, MI and my grandma spent the next several days on the beach righting my kite for me over and over and over! No, she was not a kiter, but she was the best ground crew ever! There was never any family pressure; in fact my family has always been very supportive of me and my choices. Competitions felt very casual to me. Yes, they were nerve-wracking, but fun at the same time.

My first competition was in Multi-line Ballet only, but by the next competition I was ready to fly in dual-line as well, starting out in both Novice Ballet and Precision. At first I wanted to fly only ballet, but my more experienced kiting friends convinced me that flying precision as well would make me a better flyer. I’m glad I listened to them! My first Nationals were in Billings, MT where I competed in five disciplines. It was in an incredible experience. I met many of the flyers that I compete with today! I really enjoyed the sense of accomplishment I felt, practicing before the competition and then executing what I had worked on. I was taught to believe in myself and that anything worth doing is worth doing well. It was great to be able to apply those things to my new sport.

I think that, as I said, practicing and flying whenever I had the opportunity, helped me to become a better flyer. I had and continue to have a wonderful support, not only within my nuclear family, but my extended kiting family as well. Initially, Josh and I did not have equipment for all conditions and when that happened, Eric Wolff stepped in and lent us what we needed. In fact, for some time we competed with old Chicago Fire team kites, B2’s.

At a competition in 2001, Ken McNeill from Blue Moon Kites approached Josh and me, asking if we would like to try his kites. We did and were permanently hooked on Blue Moon kites! We flew the Mojo’s, Mako’s and then the Mamba and are currently flying the Mamba. Lolly Hadzicki-Ryno of Revolution kites is another person that has always been very supportive of me. Without being able to fly excellent kites, things might be very different today.


And so you worked your way up the ranks of the competitors… And eventually you’re recognized as one of the “hot” pilots. Just how did all that come about? In that climb, who did you figure you had to beat? Who had you just heard about but not seen fly, and who coached you, taught you or “inspired you” in your quest? And how long did that climb to become “the best of the best” take you, and what did you learn during the process?

I really do not look at it as a “climb”; I have just been having so much fun. I rarely looked at the standings and had the conscious thought “I have to beat….” Yes, when Nationals came around, I checked out the competition, but not on a regular basis. Dan Brinnehl has a great collection of videotapes of old competitions that he shared with us. I was able to see many flyers that no longer compete and some that have passed away. One that really made an impression on me was David Bui and unfortunately I never met him.

My brother really inspired me as well, don’t forget, I was two when Josh started to fly, so I grew up watching him! My mom is a great coach; she drove us to all our practices and competitions; she’s a great teacher, even though she doesn’t really fly! I have to say that I have learned something and been inspired by nearly every kiter I have ever met. I know that sounds funny, but they have all taught me something. The “climb” has taken me all of my competitive kiting life, seven years, and I have learned never to be a sore loser or a gloating winner. I learned that it’s kiting. It’s fun!

By now you’re really pretty integrated into the competition scheme. So what did that associations with other pilots, this “kiting camaraderie,” mean to you? And who were the other hot pilots at the top of the heap that you were always competing against?

The kiting camaraderie means so much to me. If I did not have my friendships with the other flyers, I would not be where I am today. I have my friends/competitors in the Midwest as well as around the country. Nationals mean tough competition, but it also means seeing my friends that I only get to see once a year. I just don’t know any other sport where we are friends and pals off the field as well as on. The advice, teaching and sharing of equipment is unheard of in other sports. For my first competitive season, I competed against Josh, but he moved up before I did. When I moved up to Masters, I was competing with guys like Russ Faulk, Shawn Tinkham, John Barresi, Lam Hoac, Ron Despojado, Ron Graziano, Wayne Fu and of course, Josh once again.

Now, somewhere in here, you added a couple of “branches” to the Zach “flying tree” here. Let’s take them one at a time, shall we?

First off, when did you and Josh decide you might like to fly Pairs together? I’m assuming that EOS didn’t just happen overnight, so tell us about the decision process to fly together. Who does the music selection, and who does the choreography? And who’s the real “pusher” when it comes to practicing your precision figures and freestyle and ballet routines?

Josh and I decided to fly pairs the first year I began competing with dual-line. That was in 2001. We began as the “Wind Devils” and competed at Nationals in Billings, MT. He was flying a “Midi” at the time, and I bought a used one from Walt Park. That’s what we first flew pairs with. We were at the beach in Michigan and thought we should give it a try. It was so tough at first because we were not used to flying with each other, with someone standing so closely! We kept telling the other to move over, working together until we felt comfortable. Our first song was by the Beatles, “I Get By With A Little Help From My Friends”. That is how Josh and I really felt. We got so much support from our kiting buddies.

Our first pair’s competition was so funny; I crashed, Josh kept on flying, even pulling an axel right over me while I was on the ground. I finally relaunched. It was definitely not a “pairs” routine; more like two individual flyers! The next season we changed our name to “Eos”, a Greek god of wind, continued to work together and have fun. Josh and I both choose the music and choreograph the routines. When we first started, and for a number of years after that, Josh called. As we improved, both as individuals and as a pair, we realized the importance of letting the music do the calling. Calling slows you down in ballet. You can do much more by not calling and letting the music fly your kite. Yes, it takes a long time to get to that point, where you are in sync with each other, but we feel stronger as a pair now. In precision, Josh calls. I think that I initiate the practices more than Josh does, but we both understand the need. All in all we have lots of fun and have learned so much from each other.

And – somewhere along the line – you got your hands on a Rev and began playing with “the Dark Side” a bit. How did that come about, and what did that do to you and for you? Yeah, I know it’s probably tough to make a comparison between the dualies and quad-lines, because they’re so different, but tell us what keeps you flying Revs these days….

I really enjoy flying my Rev. The control is so much different than with my Mamba; the fact that I can hover, stop so quickly and maneuver it in such a different way. I fly at a number of non-competitive festivals throughout the year and it’s fun to play with the crowd. They especially enjoy when the kite comes to a screaming stop just before it hits the ground. Eric Wolff and I have been flying as a quad pair, “Something Old, Something New” for the last couple of years.

We are hoping to see Multi-Line Pairs at Nationals as a competitive event really soon. I am also working on putting together a Midwest quad team; there are a number of great quad flyers who are willing to participate in that with me.

Okay – So what are some of the notable events you’ve attended over the years? Yes, I know you’ve been to lots of them, but which ones stick in your mind – and why? Which festivals or competitions “ring your bell” and make you want to attend them again and again. And are there comps and fests that you feel you “have” to attend to be competitive whether you really want to or not?

I think my first Nationals is something I will never forget. Just the experience of competing on that level was incredible. Nationals in Ocean City, 2005 was memorable in that Eos won Masters Pairs Ballet. We were so happy with that because it was our new song and we had worked really hard on the choreography. One of the pairs’ flyers we greatly admire came over to us after that performance and congratulated us. It really meant a lot. Nationals in Des Moines, this year, had to be my most favorite Nationals ever because of the fun I had being with my friends, competing, winning MIB and to top it off, I was asked to fly with the Chicago Fire Kite Team.

In 2002, I, along with Josh, the Gombergs and other American flyers, was asked to attend the Japan Kitefliers Association Children’s Day Festival. It took place in Uchinada, Japan. Dan Brinnehl was our chaperone and it was an unbelievable trip. We were treated like royalty, flying on a beach with the Sea of Japan as our background. The trip was something I never imagined and would love to repeat. One of my dreams is to travel back to Japan for an extended period of time.

I think my favorite festival of the year is the Great Lakes Kite Festival held in Grand Haven, MI every May. It takes place on the shores of Lake Michigan and it is just beautiful. There are fighter kites, single line kites, sport kiters, a huge kite store set up right there on the beach and tens of thousands of spectators. It is three days of fun demos and friendship that I really enjoy.

Now, you’re pretty young in the sport at this point, but I’m going to ask this anyway. If you’d had a chance to go back and fly at ANY of the comps or festivals you’ve heard about, which ones would you have wanted to attend, but missed? I’m thinking specifically of some of the International events, but there are probably some that were held in the USA that could apply too…

Kites on Ice, held in February on a frozen lake in Madison, WI is a festival I hope will return some day. It was one of the largest and most well attended festivals ever. It was so much fun to put on winter clothes, ice cleats and walk out onto the lake and fly kites!

As far as other events that I have heard about and would like to attend, Old Dominion sounds like fun and so does Outer Banks. I would also like to check out WSKIF.

I don’t feel that I “have” to attend any comps or festivals. I have complete freedom to choose whether or not I want to go. I always choose to go because I just love to fly.

Okay, a slight switch in the direction of questions here… Let’s talk a bit about your “family” a bit – both your nuclear family and your “extended” kiting family. You have both a brother (Josh) and a sister (Elizabeth) who’ve both competed at the AKA Grand National level. Not only that, but it seems like you have some fairly close family ties to a few Brinnehls – a solid, Chicago area, kite-flying family as well.

Anyway, your older brother, Josh, is certainly no slouch on the end of a pair of dual-lines, having won some AKA Grand National “wood” of his own. And your sister, Elizabeth, competed at the AKA G/N events in daulies this year and acquitted herself well. So how does it feel to be part of the ‘Flying Gordons?” Is there a competition between you on the flying fields, at comps and fests, or during practices? Do you and Josh try to help or teach Elizabeth, and do you share flying techniques amongst yourselves – or is it more “everyone for themselves?”

I think it’s cool that my entire family flies kites. Yes, there is competition between Josh and me, but it is friendly. Josh and I had not competed against one another for a number of years. So when I moved up to Masters it took some getting used to, but we were fine with it. What a great feeling it was at Nationals in 2005 for both of us to place in Masters Individual Precision. We do share tricks, techniques and ideas with each other; it is definitely not everyone for themselves. I think we have that philosophy because of how we were raised and because of our experiences within the kiting community. When Elizabeth decided to compete, we were all very excited that she was so interested. Dan, Josh, Mom and I all helped her out. The other competitors in our region were also very supportive of her. Not only is it a good thing to have new Novices, it’s great that now Elizabeth will be part of the competitive kiting world.

Then there’re the ties to the Brinnehl family, and the rest of the Chicago Fire team. AND – by the way and before we forget – HUGE Congratulations for being selected as the new “6th MEMBER” of Chicago Fire, Zach! What help do you get from these members of your family – both those in your immediate family and from the other Chicago Fire members?

Thank you for the good wishes on being asked to fly with the Fire. It was such a cool way that Eric set that whole thing up. I was totally surprised at the convention auction, being shocked that people were bidding $1000.00 for a chance to win a team shirt and have a chance to fly with the team! Then I realized Jim Barber was bidding with my auction number and Eric announced me as the winner of the prize!

Yes, I do have some pretty strong ties to the Brinnehl family. Dan is my step-dad. Dan and Kathy were so helpful to Josh and me when we first started competing. They helped us understand how to choreograph routines; showing us the “grid” system of creating a precision freestyle routine. One day we sat for the longest time at a picnic table in Busse Woods, one of the places we practice, working with Dan and Kathy on this. That was such a great help. Dan is one of the best judges I know and he taught me the importance of honoring the flyer when you are a judge.

The other members of the team are so great. Eric, as I have said, has been fantastic in his support and help. Russ is always there for me and I know that I can count on any one of them for anything I might need. In fact, this year at Nationals, I picked up my Mamba to go to the MIB field for the competition and my leading edge had been stepped on and was broken. Eric, Russ and Dan dropped what they were doing to help me fix my kite quickly. I was back to the field long before it was my turn to fly. That is how it always is. One thing that I would also like to mention is the friendship that has developed between Eric’s sons and me. Woody and Noah are so much fun and we have a great time at kite events and during the off season as well.

My extended family is hugely supportive; my dad, my grandma, aunts and uncles attend as many kiting events as they can. My grandma and uncle are getting pretty good at flying kites, too!

And, since we’re on the subject anyway, how do you see your new membership in Chicago Fire augmenting and / or changing your flying in any way? Yes, I know the flying techniques are somewhat different, but really not all that unlike what you’ve already been doing with EOS… Do you think being a member of Chicago Fire changes your own personal focus at all, or will you still have the same focus and directions you currently have, and just be adding the Team flying part? And will this mean you’ll be attending other festivals and comps just because Chicago Fire will be competing or demoing, or will your kiting event schedule remain about the same?

I think the biggest thing I will have to concentrate on when I fly with the Chicago Fire is my speed control. When I fly pairs with Josh, I only have to worry about one other flyer, but with the team, there will be five other kites in the sky with me. I don’t think being on the team will change my focus, but it will certainly bring another dimension. I plan to keep on flying as I have been and participating in the same disciplines, adding team. The team and I generally attend the same festivals and competitions, so I expect my schedule to remain basically the same.

And finally, we can’t forget or dismiss the “pivotal” member of your family, your mother, Ann. Not only is she your mom, she’s also your “teacher,” right? So here’s your chance to tell the world what a wonderful lady she is, and give us all insights on how she guides you through this somewhat crazy world. I suspect she’s your biggest supporter in Kite Flying, and also is outside of kiting too. Care to fill us in on that score?

My mom is the greatest mom anyone can ever imagine. I am homeschooled, so she is my teacher. I agree that she is probably my biggest supporter in kite flying, and that’s a good thing. She backs me up in whatever I choose to do, whether it is kiting, golfing, kayaking, judo or church activities; she is always there for me. My mom is the one who drives me to my practices and encourages me to be the best that I can be. It’s not about being first; it’s about being my best. Whenever I have a hard time accomplishing something, my mom sticks with me and works with me until I achieve the end result I desire. She has given all of us a great sense of self-esteem and that is a wonderful gift. She has never forced me into anything, but rather gives me support for my choices. I think her philosophy of working hard for what you want has really helped me in my life so far.

Zach, we also need to ask is there any area of kiting that you’d like to explore that you’ve NOT had the chance to dig into yet? Are you at all interested in the “Power Kiting” scene, or perhaps “Wind Surfing?” Do you want to take a look at the “Tricks Party” form of competition in the future? Have you any interest in Fighter Kites, or making Single Liners? And for that matter – does para-gliding, hang-gliding, sailing, or any other wind-powered sport interest you? In other words, how far are you interested in “pushing the Wind and Air Envelope?” (And have you signed up for Private Pilot’s lessons yet?)

I would really like to try kite boarding. I have had the opportunity to be “body dragged” in the water by a 12 meter sail, (with a few airborne seconds), but have not been on a board. I am hoping to try it again this May when we are at the Great Lakes Kite Festival. Para-gliding would be cool, but my mom says I have to wait until I have my own insurance!

Okay – time to break away from the past and present history here to ask you an “opinion” question. Do you think the sport of kiting will ever return to its “Hey-day” or even exceed those old kite-flying participation numbers? Will Sport Kiting ever grow up to become “Mainstream?” And what do you think we can do to help kiting grow as a sport?

I would really like the sport to exceed those old kite-flying participation numbers. I look at the final standings of past conventions and wish I could have competed with that many people. I just can’t even imagine what that was like, with that many competitors and multiple heats. I don’t know if the sport will ever be what it used to be, but I know that I want the sport to grow. I talk about kiting with my friends and encourage them to come and try it. There are so many other things pulling at their time and their parent’s time, most of them can’t fit it into their schedule. I am lucky that my whole family flies kites and competes; it would be much more difficult if I were the only one. The toughest thing is to explain the sport to people and help them understand what I do. For the sport to become mainstream and grow we need to keep having festivals and competitions where more and more spectators can be introduced to kiting. At many of the demos I participate in, most of the people have never even seen a sport kite. So flying ballets and getting the crowd excited is a great way to bring interest to the sport.

As a 14 year old, looking at college, I think we could bring young people in by offering kiting scholarships. I haven’t worked out the details yet, but even a small amount of money might be an attraction.

Finally, it’s time for a few questions about Zach all by himself – without the kite-flying…

Among other things, we know you don’t attend the “traditional” public or private schools, being “home schooled” instead. Still, I imagine you know many of the other youngsters that attend the more “normal” schools around your home. What are the advantages and disadvantages that YOU (Zach) see to your schooling, as compared to your peers in your home community? And what do you think the long term benefits of home schooling might be in terms of your participation in society as you grow older? (Yeah – it’s kind of tough to predict the future, but here’s your chance to try anyway.)

I have been homeschooled all my life and do have the choice if I want to go to conventional school or not. Yes, being homeschooled does have many advantages. For one thing, I am able to finish my school work much faster than conventionally schooled kids. I have my basic curriculum set by my mom, but I am able to also study what interests me. Homeschooling has allowed me the opportunity to travel and of course be able to fly kites. We have some great field trips, even one to Japan! I think homeschooling is giving me better life experiences because I am not inside a building all day long; I have freedom to explore the world. And I have friends of all ages, which I think is a huge advantage.

I expect you’ll say you’ll always have a kite around you in your life, but where do your interests and aptitudes seem to be leading you in the future? I’m assuming you want and expect college in your future, of course, but where to you want to end up somewhere down the road? Fireman? Cowboy? Major player in the business world? Doctor / Lawyer / Merchant / Chief ??? Or maybe the nation’s foremost Kite Manufacturer?

Yes, I believe I will always fly kites; I would like to try and make one or two sportkites for myself. Cowboy?! Sounds like fun, but there are not many cows where we live! I will definitely attend college and would actually like to be a structural engineer, specializing in roller coaster design.

And finally – just for fun – a couple of “quickies” here… xBox or Nintendo or Playstation – and why? And what do you prefer in the way of music? Rock, Rap, “oldies,” classical, or the blues? What do you have on your own personal MP3 player? Into major-league sports? Baseball (Sox or Cubbies?), Football (Bears any good this year?), Basketball (Bulls or Sky – or both?), Soccer (the “other” Chicago Fire?) or Hockey (Blackhawks, all the way, baby?)? Finally, are you a recreational “reader” and if so, what kind of stuff?

Playstation all the way! In fact, I just bought a PS3! It is awesome. The graphics are much better than Xbox 360. I just have two games, but that’s fine with me. The new motion sensitive controller really tops off the PS3 experience for me!

I enjoy all types of music, mainly current Rock, Techno-Rock and some oldies Rock like Led Zeppelin. I like Hans Zimmer, Danny Elfman and what they do with movie soundtracks.

I am a Cubs fan and a Bears fan. I think the Bears are doing pretty well this season. As far as the Cubs, let’s wait until next year!

I enjoy reading, especially the Harry Potter and the Chronicle of Narnia series. That type of fiction appeals to me.

Zach – Thanks SO much for taking the time to share all this great information with us. You’ve been one of “the wonder-kids” of the whole kiting scene in the Midwest these past few years, to the point that you’re almost a fixture now – and one of the great ones at that! We at Kitelife and those of us who’re kite-fliers look forward to having a very long time to delight in watching Zach Gordon (and your brother and sister) fly! Yes – I think you’re going to be one of the GREAT ones, Zach! So, we’re delighted here at Kitelife to have someone of your caliber share this information with us. Thanks Loads!

Thank you for the opportunity to participate in this interview. It’s really been fun.

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Author:Dave Shattuck

As one of our regular and most prolific contributors, Dave "Geezer" Shattuck is a driving force here at Kitelife and a regular at many NW events as well as other locations throughout the year.

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