When Stephen Pierce moved across the country with his family from Carlsbad, Calif., to Cornelius, the then 10-year old had never even used a wakeboard in his life.
Pierce and his younger brother, Ben, liked to surf, but they road waves in the ocean just for fun.
However, shortly after moving to the Lake Norman area, Pierce discovered a passion for wakeboarding that is still growing today.
Pierce rapidly ascended in the wakeboarding ranks under the tutelage of former professional wakeboarder, Justin McClure (1998 to 2002), who like his student grew up in Cornelius on Lake Norman, and is now realtor in Mooresville.
By age 14, Pierce was teaching lessons with McClure at the Charlotte Water Ski Center in Cornelius.
By age 16, he was already teaching private lessons and was starting to pick up sponsors to help acquire the best equipment to teach his students.
Before he graduated from Hopewell High School in 2010, Pierce was a four-time, state wakeboarding champion and two-time, national wakeboarding champion in 2008, 2009.
By age 19, Pierce decided to leave UNC Wilmington to pursue a career and dream as a professional wakeboarder.
Now 25, Pierce is not only a professional wakeboarder, who has competed across the country and the world, but also has become a top-notch wakeboarding instructor, teaching hundreds of kids each year at his Stephen Pierce Wakeboarding School in Cornelius, which features everything from private lessons to camps.
“I don’t know what path I would have taken if I had stayed in California, definitely sports, but when I moved from the ocean to the lake, it changed my life,” said Pierce, noting the support of his parents, Jim and Beth, has also been a huge part of his success. “Even growing up here, I never imagined that I would be a professional wakeboarder.
“I kind of dreamed of it, but I took the path (to being a professional) very slow, step-by-step.”
It paid off.
“I’m a big believer of that if you do something, you do the best you can. Everybody has a talent, they just have to find it. I think I’ve become a talented wakeboarder. But my talent is also teaching/coaching. I love working with young people in water as much as I love wakeboarding myself.”
Pierce’s mentor, who he says “taught him everything he knows about the sport” has also enjoyed watching his student evolution in the sport.
“I remember getting Stephen out in water, up and started in wakeboarding, and we used to practice two to three times a week,” said McClure, 36. “He was like a little brother to me and grew up on the lake like a mirror image of what I had done 10 years earlier. …
“But to see him take that passion (for wakeboarding) and turn into to a career, make a living and continue to do what he loves to do has been very rewarding for me to watch. We were the perfect fit (athlete/coach) and I take a lot of pride in what he accomplished as a person and the way he rips on a wakeboard.”
The professional tour
Pierce has accomplished a lot since joining the Professional Wakeboarding Tour in 2013.
He not only finished in the top 20 of the “King of the Wake World Rankings, three years in a row (2013, 2014, 2015), but has won six different times in the last four years professionally (including “Big Air,” competitions) including victories in Orlando and Miami, Fla;, Seattle, Wash; and Lathrup, Calif; and two times (2015 and 2016) at “Wake Fest Tennessee,” in the Nashville, Tenn., where he took home $8,000, the biggest prize money of his career from a single event.
Pierce will go for a three-peat at Center Hill Lake at Wake Fest Tennessee on July 28-30.
Pierce has also competed internationally in both Canada, Mexico and Japan.
While Pierce’s knowledge has helped the thousands of students he teaches, he also says his sponsors have been a big part of his career in allowing him to provide the kids with the best and latest equipment from boat to the board to the accessories.
Pierce is sponsored by Malibu boats and drives a Malibu 23 LSV; Liquid Force Wakeboards; Rip Curl USA; Stronger Faster Healthier health and natural products; Scott Sports for bikes; and Babes’ Boasts Detailing Products.
The teaching time
But while Pierce has become an accomplished wakeboarder, he also discovered his “passion for giving back to the sport that has given him so much.”
From April to October, most of Pierce’s efforts from sun up to sun down go to his students, teaching 30 to 40 one-hour lessons per week, usually putting in at least a 12-hour day between lessons and his own practice in the water. He has taught lessons to kids who have come from as far away as Canada and Japan.
Pierce had a big weekend recently at “The Fire in the Core,” event on Lake Wylie on June 24, where he not only took second-place, but had students Gunnar Andrews, Tyler Toberman, Kiko Williams and Jordan Wolfe earn first-place finishes in their respective event/age groups.
“I’ve been teaching (wakeboarding) since before I could drive, and I’ve always loved it,” Pierce said. “But now to own my own business and to make a living teaching a dream come true.
“To able to give back just some of what I was given by my instructors and the sport in general is what it’s all about.”
Pierce also hopes to pass along his wakeboarding knowledge to his son, Brecken, who is 15 months old.
Pierce admits they have practiced with Stephen “pulling him on a little board in the grass,” as his wife, Faith, looks on at their home in Denver.
While it will be awhile before Brecken Pierce actually hits the water, it’s exactly that passion that his father brings to his profession every day that allows him to be successful.
Lessons for life
Pierce says wakeboarding offers a lot of life lessons that people don’t realize from the obvious: “If you fall, you have to get back up,” to “learning something every time you fall,” to the more deep, “You make goals and you want to achieve them, you have to make the jump.”
That jump is easier said than done as a professional wakeboarder often hits the water at 25 mph and “it definitely hurts when you fall,” according to McClure.
“In wakeboarding and in life, you are going to fail a lot, but you have to stick with it and keep trying,” McClure said. “There’s no better feeling that when you finally land that trick that you’ve been working on.”
His longtime student has learned the same things over time.
“I didn’t realize that I was learning a lot of the life lessons that wakeboarding teaches until I got older,” Pierce said. “Basically, the most important lesson is that you get back up and try again, no matter what happens in the water or in life.”
Jay Edwards is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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