The thing pro kiteboarder Jesse Richman remembers most about his first jump isn’t the accelerated speed at which he was moving over the surface of the ocean. It isn’t the size of the kite that was billowing 70 feet above him or the force of the wind trying to rip that same kite from his relaxed grip. The thing Richman remembers most about his first jump is the silence.
“You hear the water splashing when you’re riding, and then it just goes silent,” said Richman. “And you’re like, ‘What? I’m in the air! What?’ It’s the most addicting feeling ever. I’ve spent my life kiting just to get that feeling back.”
Richman has literally grown up in the sport. The Haiku-native was introduced to kiteboarding at nine years old when his dad’s friend handed him a kite and told him he would be a world champion one day. He would go to the beach with his dad and older brother Shawn, flying over the water and hoping they “didn’t hit anything too hard.” Twelve years later, kiting is grown from the new fad to Richman’s life. Starting as a total family affair, Shawn and Jesse grew and competed in the sport alongside each other until they both started placing in some big events.
“I was a little kid in elementary school starting to learn how to kite,” he said. “Then out of nowhere, I was 14, I had switched to internet school so I could travel for kite boarding, I was going to world tour events and starting to go from last place to 17th place to 9th place. It just kind of evolved and before I knew it I was on top on and off for a while.”
As someone who’s witnessed that growth, Shelly Franco of Hi-Tech Maui is excited and supportive of what Richman and his brother have done for the kiting community on Maui and for the sport in general.
“I’ve gone out with [Shawn and Jesse] on some gnarly days when everyone else was just sitting on the beach.” said Franco. “They were never afraid to go out and just try it, and they are always happy and super stoked to be out there. It’s been fun to watch them progress. They make a dynamic team, and they’re always trying something new”
Wearing a T-shirt repping Naish, his sponsor, with a pair of sunglasses poking out from his brown shaggy hair, Richman looks like the classic young surfer dude injected with a healthy dose of passion and drive. During our interview, the Starbucks coffee cup he held seemed inconspicuous in a grip that is used to reining in ripping gales. As he described kiting, I could see the excitement light up his eyes. Then as he waved his arms and included sound effects, I could almost feel the rush for myself.
Richman has made a successful career for himself, earning the titles of KPWT World Champion in 2008 and IKA Overall Kitesurfing World Champion in 2009. In February, he competed in the 2013 Red Bull King of the Air kiteboarding event in Cape Town, South Africa, one of the sport’s biggest events that was held at Ho‘okipa from 1999 to 2005 before going on a seven-year hiatus.
Different from other kiting competitions that run on technical judging criteria, King of the Air is all about going as big as you can. Along with 23 other kiters from all over the world and in front of thousands of onlookers, Richman pushed his tricks to greater heights, becoming His Royal Red Bull Highness.
“The last few years I’ve kind of stepped back from the normal world tour and tried to take all the tricks that they do and do them at a high elevation,” said Richman, “and make every trick I do look really intense and hard and fun and exciting and make it appealing to everybody. Because it’s boring to watch somebody do boring tricks.”
The excitement he felt from watching kiting tricks was what got him stoked on kiting in the first place. From the time he was a kid, Richman would hang out with all the surfers, hoping to one day become one of them and be able to kite competitively. Today, as a pro kiter, Richman has not only found great success, but has also fulfilled his childhood dream.
“I kind of set out to do what I wanted to do and nothing changed,” he said. “It was interesting to realize I accomplished one of my goals and I’m not somebody different. Every day it isn’t like life is better, everyday is what you make of it.”
On the world tour, Richman had the opportunity to travel and kite at exotic locations all over the world, including Europe, the Caribbean and South America. With all the travelling, Richman’s love and appreciation for Maui has continued to grow even more. In fact, it’s Maui’s affinity for drawing in top water-sport athletes that’s apparently kept Richman’s own international success from getting to his head.
“I come back here and I look around on the beach and I’m like, ‘There’s the best wind surfer in the world, there’s four of the top surfers,’” said Richman. “You think you’re cool and stuff then you look at everybody else here and you’re just one of the guys out there charging. But it’s really cool; it’s definitely humbled me just growing up here.”
While Richman streaks along the water with ease, making every flip look as effortless as tying your shoelaces, kiteboarding remains shrouded in mystery for many outside viewers. Often regarded as a dangerous sport, Richman thinks it has to do with the fact that for someone who has never tried it before, there is nothing compare it to.
“People can relate to a dirt bike because they’ve probably ridden a bicycle at some point, and they can understand how it works,” said Richman. “People relate to a surfboard probably from a skateboard. Kiteboarding is different. You’re harnessing the wind, and that’s your engine.”
Using all that natural horsepower, Richman reaches anywhere from 30 to over 100 foot elevations on a good trick. Basically, vertigo isn’t an option for this dedicated kiter. As you can imagine, the insane heights paired with the added flips and loops that make up a kiteboarding trick produce equally as gnarly wipeouts.
When I met with Richman, his left hand was braced with a wrist guard from a tweak that he said had caused some ligament issues. That was just the latest entry in a series of injuries. Shrugging it off, he described it as “part of the territory.”
Along with every event Richman competes in come the nerves you would assume he has when performing stunts that have him flying through the air at tremendous speeds. His favorite trick, a kiteloop front-mobe, includes a portion where his kite is actually yanking his body straight towards the water before he somehow pulls it up above his head, hopefully catching him up before he hits the water. No big deal, right? But instead of pushing the fear out of his head, a method he says many of his fellow competitors use, Richman said he craves it.
“That fear definitely gets into my head, and I live for that,” said Richman. “I try to embrace it as much as I can. I try to put myself in the situation that is as scary as it can be without dying. I try and hold that line and sometimes you’ll fall over and that’s when you crash and get injured, but hopefully you walk away from everyone and get back up fighting to go even harder.”
As he continues to compete in kiting events around the world, the self-proclaimed beach bum will always call Maui home, forever remaining his favorite place to kite. But more than competing, Richman’s passion lies in pushing the sport to new heights, broadening its borders and trying to discover all a person hooked up to a kite can really accomplish.
“I want to figure out how high we can go with it, then go higher,” said Richman. “Figure out the biggest waves we can ride, then find a bigger wave. Just try and push the limits of the sport and push my own limits at the same time, and I’ll be stoked.”