When she lifts off, Kenzie Carlstrom experiences something few people ever truly feel — weightlessness.
It lasts for three to six seconds, depending on how high she jumps, and in the moment Carlstrom will sometimes take in her surroundings as though she were flying. She’ll look for fish under the waves, or observe the landscape like she would from an airplane window.
“It’s like you’re in a drone or in some sort of helicopter if you get high enough,” she says. “It’s definitely a cool sensation.”
And when she returns to the surface she goes up again because Carlstrom, who just won the Canadian Freestyle Kiteboarding Championship last month, is only still discovering the thrill of flying.
Carlstrom, 19, was born in Hood River, Ore., but considers Nelson her home after living here for a decade. She went to L.V. Rogers for a time and returned to Hood River four years ago. Her parents owned a windsurfing business in Nelson, and Carlstrom competed at Glacier Gymnastics, which she credits with laying the foundation for her kiteboarding success.
After graduating from high school, Carlstrom quit gymnastics and started looking for something new. She tried windsurfing, but admits she isn’t good at it. Friends nagged her to take a kiteboarding lesson, which she finally did two years ago. Then she moved to Perth, Australia to become a nanny and started kiteboarding more in her free time. “It just kind of all fell into place,” she says.
Consider how likely anyone is to pick up a sport and start winning championships less than two years later. Now consider Carlstrom’s 2016 season: a Western Australia Championship in February, a female amateur title at the annual Bridge of the Gods event in Hood River and, on Aug. 29, a Canadian title in Squamish.
“It’s kind of happened really quickly,” she says. “People have mentioned that, like, ‘Wow this has happened really fast for you.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah I guess it has.’ It’s true. I just set my mind to do something. I was like, I want to be better at this.”
Modern kiteboarding was invented by French brothers Dominique and Bruno Legaignoux in the mid-1980s, and the first kiteboarding event was held in Maui, Hawaii, in 1998. It’s not yet an Olympic sport, although it nearly made its debut at the Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro before being replaced by windsurfing.
“That’s probably a sore spot for kiteboarders. Carlstrom said kiters and windsurfers have a tenuous relationship — her family excluded, of course. “There’s a little animosity between windsurfing and kiters. It’s like skiers and snowboarders.”
For all the appeal kiteboarding holds to Carlstrom, she admits it isn’t the easiest sport to get into. First there’s the cost: a new kite can cost up to $900, depending on the size. Add in the bar that attaches the kite to the harness worn by the kiter, as well as the board, and it can be up to $3,000 to purchase all the base-level equipment needed.
Carlstrom isn’t rich. She was approached by Airush Kiteboarding earlier this year with a sponsorship offer, and she works jobs year-round to be able to afford all the travel required to venues in, for example, Florida, Hawaii, Costa Rica and Australia.
Then there’s the difficulty curve. Carlstrom thinks kiteboarding is the one sport people should be required to get a lesson before trying out themselves. The moment Carlstrom adores, when a kiter becomes weightless, is also the moment most beginners make mistakes.
“I find a lot of people learning to kite, that’s one of their most exciting points and their breakthrough, and it’s also the same time their scariest moment,” she says. “They’re like, ‘What do I do up here? I’m so high up.’ They’re not used to that sensation… As you can imagine, there’s a ton of crashes because people don’t know how to come down.”
She’s only seriously hurt herself once. Carlstrom was trying a new trick that required a flip under the kite followed by a loop, but the kite hit the water before Carlstrom did. Water feels a lot like concrete when a human body hits it at the wrong angle, and Carlstrom suffered a concussion in the fall. “I came down pretty hard and couldn’t remember a little bit of it. That wasn’t ideal.”
Carlstrom’s best trick, the one she says has been helping her win so much, is called an S-Bend. Carlstrom sets her kite at a 45-degree angle from the water, then unhooks the harness from the bar so all the power comes from her arms. She then puts herself mid-air into a horizontal position, spins like a drill and lands.
Kiteboarders in competitions are judged on style, angle of the kite, height of the jump and how clean a trick was at it’s landed. Like other sports that use a board, tricks can be strung together. Unlike those sports, however, the height kiteboarders reach on each jump means they have more time to add wrinkles to tricks mid-air.
“Kiteboarding tricks you can take to the next level,” says Carlstrom. “So you can do an S-Bend and then the blind, [which means] land backwards … Each trick is kind of like the beginning and then you can keep adding onto it. It’s not like this is the end point of that trick. You can continue the trick as long as you want with adding more spins, more grabs.”
The only variable kiters can’t control is the thing a kite needs the most: wind.
“You definitely need wind, and that’s what I love and is also frustrating,” she says. “It’s such a variable. The wind can not be there for the competition and you just have to wait on the beach. It drives me crazy.”
Carlstrom next trip will be a return to Australia in December. There are several world kiteboarding tours, but Carlstrom doubts she can afford to take part. For now she’s just happy to go where the wind takes her.
“It’s been really exciting. It’s like I’m living on a high.”