August 08, 2002 11:00 pm

By Raenelle Kwock

Observer Staff Writer

Nick Hackney digs water.

The 10-year-old La Grande boy has been water skiing for about three years.

He water skis "because it's fun and I'm in the water," he said quietly. "I like to be in the water. I like swimming."

Nick practices his passion for skiing during weekends on the Snake River, which is about two hours from La Grande.

Nick's father, Dennis, said his son is carrying on his hobby.

Dennis, who lives in Baker City, has tinkered with water skiing for about 15 years.

Dennis recalls meeting Bill Barnes of Island City at the Snake River a while back. Barnes had set up a ski course and Dennis decided to give it a try. He was hooked immediately.

"It's a mixture of a lot of different skills," Dennis said. "And right now we're just trying to get a lot of mileage in on this little guy, you know, so he can compete."

Nick is a member of the International Amateur Tour. There are 10 stops on the tour this season — all of them are in Washington. Nick's eighth and ninth stops are in Winlock on Aug. 24-25. The 10th stop is for wakeboarders only.

Each stop counts for points. The top point winner at the end of the season gets invited to Houston to ski at the national finals.

"You have to stay tuned. We may have someone in the family that would have an opportunity to do that," Dennis said.

Nick attends Central Elementary and will be in fifth grade this fall. He doesn't watch movies or TV for fun. He doesn't have a Nintendo video game.

His passion, he said, is water skiing. Does he have other interests?

"Just fun stuff," he said after a lengthy pause. "A lot of different things."

In the winter he turns his attention to snowboarding.

In water skiing, Dennis said his son practices on pulling across the wake and working on adult turn balls.

Nick competes in the slalom junior novice division. Dennis' division is slalom first class. There are novice and adult courses. The novice course isn't as long as the adult course.

Dennis said Nick can ski around the novice balls very readily. The adult course has six turn balls and Nick can turn around half of them.

"He's starting to have to deal with increased speed and ski angles and a little bit more crashes now, because he's into new terrain," Dennis said. "Things are getting tougher now. It's not just an easy turn."

Turning in water skiing is like a sling shot, meaning a rapid acceleration to the next turn ball.

Nick said he tries to get into the top three positions at every competition, which earns him more points.

Is it hard to get into the top three positions?

"Not really," he said.

Dennis said his son is near the top in his division.

"You see, it was kind of a surprise for us with his consistencies," Dennis said. "He's a very consistent skier. We were pleasantly surprised that all of a sudden we may have the opportunity to extend the season a little bit."

Water skiing is fun for the Hackneys, but it does carry a cost.

An INT membership is $30 a year. Entry fees range from $20 to $40. In order to train, skiers need a tournament water ski boat and slalom course.

Nick's ski cost $400, his vest $100, gloves $50, wet suits $100, and the list goes on and on, Dennis said.

"I try to work a lot of overtime, as much as I can," he said laughing.