Remember when a true test of endurance was measured by the ability to maintain hand contact on the prized car door longer than anyone else standing in the Ford parking lot? Now, replace the car with a gigantic kite and implode the asphalt parking lot into the expansive Pacific Ocean. Instead of your biggest concern being not trying to pee within the next 24 hours, it’s struggling to complete two marathons every day. Add winds faster than those on Ho‘okipa, currents more stubborn than the myna birds loitering the roads and shadowy figures that literally want to eat you. Now, you must perform under all these conditions. For 10 days straight. Nonstop.
This may sound like an extravagant stunt sequence out of The Avengers, but it’s a challenge about to become a reality for a group of hardy athletes. On Thursday, Aug. 13 (assuming the winds were there), a group of 10 kitesurfers began trying to earn their golden entry into the Guinness Book of World Records by undergoing a 1,000-kilometer voyage across Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
As impressive as the amount of physical exertion this endeavor demands, Kite The Reef is not a mere publicity stunt to showcase the athletes’ prowess on the waves. The biggest feat for the athletes participating in the Kite The Reef expedition won’t even be topping the current kitesurfing world record, which stands at a current 826 kilometers. All of the money raised to accelerate the search for a cure for Motor Neuron Disease will be the star accomplishment of this expedition, the purpose for which Kite The Reef was founded.
Motor Neuron Disease (MND) is the Australian counterpart of ALS, the illness that sparked a viral slew of Instagram and Facebook videos starring people dumping ice water over their heads. Same villain, just wearing two name badges. Just like the evil characters in horror flicks and Marvel comics, MND springs on its victims without any clear reason.
“Thinking of all the people in the world that wake up one day to find out they have ALS or Parkinson’s for no apparent reason and there is nothing they can do hits me hard,” Maui kitesurfer Jesse Richman told me last week. He’s a world renowned competitor who’s taking on the Great Barrier Reef with the nine others.
Richman is right about the victims’ lack of options. While he was referring to the nonexistent cures and effective treatments for MND, sufferers literally can’t do anything. Imagine not being able to walk from your living room to the kitchen or swallow a spoonful of soup. You can’t even inhale oxygen, the body’s most basic function. All you’re maybe left with is a fighting spirit, which is hard to maintain when even the world’s top doctors are shrugging in confusion.
The ambiguity of the disease doesn’t mean people have to succumb to circumstance. Dr. Nick Cole, a founder of Kite The Reef, is allowing a beam of light to reflect on his research and bounce back optimism into the public’s eyes. Richman’s own were affected.
“Visiting the research lab here in Sydney has given me hope for those people with these ruthless diseases,” he said.
For a disease that inspires so much cynicism, you’d think the components of a mad scientist’s laboratory such as life-size incubators or assistants infused with artificial intelligence are to credit for Dr. Cole’s success. In fact, it’s not even bigger than your thumb. The possible savior of a growing epidemic bears the closest resemblance to the guppies at your local pet shop. It’s a tiny creature known as the Zebra Fish.
“The biology of a Zebra Fish is surprisingly similar to a human’s,” said Alex Unsworth, a kitesurfing friend of Cole’s and co-founder of Kite The Reef.
This may be the only time that statement will sound comforting. Unsworth claimed that it’s much more likely to find a cure in a shorter amount of time with the Zebra Fish, which are expediting the speed of the science project a “hundred times faster.” The transparency of the genetically modified Zebra Fish contributes to the ease of the research. Unlike traditional test subjects like mice, which are often killed in the research, the see-through characteristic of Zebra Fish allows Cole to “poke and prod” and examine their insides without harming them.
Zebra Fish may be hustling the research, but that doesn’t mean they pushed back the minute hand of MND’s ominous ticking clock. After diagnosis, the disease has a startling average remaining life expectancy of just 27 months. That’s just a little over two years, a length of time which may sound long to a prisoner beginning his sentence or a high school junior counting down each second to graduation. When it’s your allotted time left on Earth and you suddenly feel pressured to experience every single “normal” pinpoint on the society-constructed timeline of life, twenty-seven months feels like a nanosecond. That’s why the extreme measures taken to raise more funds; every dollar gathered helps buy additional equipment and push the project forward. That’s what the expedition members of Kite The Reef are motivating people to do.
Richman said he’s devoted to reaching the tip of his 1,000 kilometer journey, a sense of perseverance that’s rubbed off on others as $70,000 in donations demonstrates. The sport motivates Richman to endure for the sake of the expedition’s cause.
“Getting through this expedition is going to be hard,” Richman said. “I’m going to need to channel every bit of my determination and love for the sport, but I do feel like I have what it takes to make it.”
While Richman’s list of achievements might span longer than the Road to Hana, his confidence for the expedition doesn’t come from the knowledge that he’s a household name. It’s derived from a sense of fulfillment earned from completing many personal goals he deemed challenging. An experience that especially struck Richman as memorable was riding Jaws, one of his “biggest childhood goals.”
“That feeling is one of which I can’t get from any amount of money or fame,” he said. “Following through and doing what you love is one of the biggest things in life.”
Richman isn’t the only Maui native supporting the MND cause through this water sport. Kitesurfing photographer John Bilderback enlisted as support crew. He’s also a member of the Mai Tai kitesurfing group, which periodically meets throughout the world, including right here on Maui. Cole is another regular attendee, as well as Susi Mai, co-founder of the group and the sole woman participating in the Australian voyage.
It’s also interesting to note that the man whose record the expedition team is trying to outdo is on the trip himself, Dr. Nick Levi.
“I feel like everyone is prepared and knows what they are getting into,” Richman said. “We are going to have many challenges ahead; team work, perseverance and a bit of luck will hopefully get us through.”
Although the 10-day tour calls for a strong team mentality, each individual will cross 1,000 kilometers of the Pacific Ocean if successful. This isn’t a relay. The kitesurfers will be there to push each other, but only mentally. It’s up to each expedition member to summon their individual will and imprint their names on that Guinness Book of World Records page.
Of course, “It is nothing compared to the hardship that MND patients face,” Cole said in regards to the expedition’s physical demand.
To soften the toll the trip will have on the athlete’s bodies, increased training was imperative. Richman said his main focus was turning the knob up on endurance training. He continued to share that he and his crewmates dedicated a generous amount of their time towards selecting the most comfortable set of gear for “the long haul.” Richman detailed exactly what will be getting him through until Aug. 20.
“In the end I’ve decided to ride my favorite kite, the Naish Pivot, and then switch between two boards: the Naish Dub 134cm and the Naish Skater 4’10”,” he said. “The gear that I take out there has to be extremely comfortable because 10 straight days is a long time on the water.”
Days and hours spent prepping physiologies to peak performance and choosing gear that can best withstand the water’s impact will be exposed either as a success or a failure when the Great Barrier Reef, one of the most formidable territories on Earth, becomes the testing ground for the ten kitesurfers.
Why was a place attached to an adjective like “formidable” designated as the location of a feat already so arduous that almost no inhabitant on Earth save Olympians could actually consider attempting it? That’s because beauty always overrules logic. Unsworth’s reasoning sounded his agreement with that sentiment.
“The Great Barrier Reef is iconic locally,” he said. “The location is unspoiled and unchartered. About three years ago, we flew over that section and it’s just so incredible. We thought that one day we got to come back to it.”
But now the unavoidable question pops up in your mind after you dig deep enough into a story: Why? This is all an incredible act of kindness and the reef is gorgeous and maybe one day all this will make for an inspiring account about raw courage and perseverance. But really, why are these athletes willing to collide into a deadly set of waves or the mouth of a Great White Shark? For Richman, the expedition was not just a charitable act attractive to the thrill seeker in him. It was something he had to do.
“If you have the power to do something and make the difference, I think of it not as an option but more so an obligation,” Richman said. “I’m doing this for all the people who can’t.”
The rest of the crew apparently felt the same after witnessing family members suffer from Motor Neuron Disease. As expected of professional athletes, they weren’t satisfied with being the spectators. They had to be the participants. Richman summed up that intense need to help others in a brief sentence, fit to conclude a motivational TED talk.
“Be the hero in your own story,” he said.
Cover, windsurfing photos: John Bilderback
Cover design: Darris Hurst