It’s no secret that kiteboarding is a male-dominated sport. Data suggests that as many as 90% of the kiteboarders in the US are men. At some beaches female riders are so rare that it can be a complete novelty when a woman does show up. Among many male kiteboarders there seems to be a perception that kiteboarding is not a well-suited sport for women and that’s why there are so few of them out on the water. They’re not strong enough. They’re afraid of the power. It takes them too long to learn. It’s been my experience that those perceptions are completely untrue and women who get into kiting do just as well if not better than men. Even so it’s easy to notice that female kiteboarders can be subjected to an additional set of challenges that most men never think about including unwanted over-attention on the beach and a pervasive lack of respect for their skills.
In Hood River I sat down with a group of female kiteboarders and talked about the status of women within kiteboarding and what can be done to bring more women into the sport. The first question I had was whether they felt women are treated differently when they show up to the beach. “I feel like there’s no confidence in girls at the beach,” said Laura Maher, a long time pro kiter. “Choosing a kite size is a good example. If the guys are rigging 12s that’s usually what I’ll rig too, but there are always some people who think I should be on a 7.” All of the girls felt there was a difference between how men and women are treated when they show up to a beach. “If a new girl shows up it’s like, ‘Oh, we better keep an eye on her,’” said Ella Johnson. “There’s an automatic assumption that she either doesn’t know what she’s doing or will do something stupid and someone will have to save her even though all the kitemares I’ve seen have been guys getting into trouble.” Jess Salcido lives in Ventura, California, where she grew up surfing and described that her reception at the beach as a female kiter usually goes one of two ways. “The first is, ‘Hey, let’s go out. What are you doing Friday?’” she said with a laugh. “The opposite end is, ‘Oh, she’s a chick, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. This is how you launch your kite. Let me show you how to do that better.’ It’s been the same with surfing. I think some guys are afraid to have their ego bruised by a girl and this is how they deal with it. When I’m surfing I have to get at least a couple of really good waves right off the bat. If I screw up on my first wave, then I’m done. They won’t let me get any more waves. The vibe definitely changes from place to place and I really didn’t notice it at all in Hood River compared to at home.”
Sensi Graves also pointed out that this type of behavior is not limited to kiteboarding. “It’s something you see across all action sports. The guys don’t expect much from the girls and want to coddle us,” she said. “It’s really up to us to push ourselves out of that shell.” As an instructor at Cascade Kiteboarding Colleen Carroll feels she has built a reputation as a very knowledgeable and skilled kiteboarder, but even she encounters this attitude at the beach. “As an instructor in Hood River I’ve taught a lot of people here so I’m recognized as a proficient kiter,” Colleen said. “Even still I run into the ‘Oh, you sure you got that?’ comments from some guys. I think there is a little bit of an attitude at the beach that girls don’t necessarily know what they are doing. We’ve always been told that we’re not as good as the guys, and it’s true that we are physically different. We’re not going to be able to do all the same tricks as the guys, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do our own tricks.” Colleen was also quick to point out that this attitude can be different from beach to beach. “In Hood River we have more women kiting than in most places and I think that is changing a lot of people’s perceptions around here,” she said. “There are so many self-sufficient woman kiters coming out of the Gorge that men are getting used to them being just as proficient.”
Lindsay McClure added, “I was at a launch the other day where everyone was hot launching because it was the only way to do it there. I started setting up and the older guys that were around decided I shouldn’t launch that way. They singled me out because I’m a girl even though there were some guys there with really questionable skills.” Rachel Callahan has experienced similar issues but feels they can be overcome. “There are times when I’ll ask someone if they need a land or suggest that they sheet their bar out and they’ll look at me like I have no idea what I’m talking about,” she said. “I’ve even experienced a guy coming in and giving the signal to land his kite, but then wave me off and point to a guy standing near me. As long as you show confidence that you know what you are doing, then eventually you’ll be seen in a different light.”
I met up with most of the girls in this story on a rare east wind day in the Gorge. Looking for a good spot away from the crowds we met at a small, rocky point outside of Hood River. Calling this little pile of rocks a sketchy launch would be putting it mildly and I was feeling genuinely nervous about how everyone was going to get into the water. I stepped back and watched as the group of six girls calmly set up their gear, talked about the kite launching options, and settled on a plan of launching from the water. Colleen volunteered to swim out the kites and everyone got off the beach with no problems. Unfortunately the wind didn’t last for long and soon the entire crew was back on land. After watching how calmly the group handled the difficult launch situation I asked some of the women if they noticed a difference between the way men and women approach kiteboarding.
As an instructor Colleen has taught a lot of men and women how to kiteboard and she feels there are differences. “If I had to pick one difference between teaching men and women it’s that women tend to listen better,” she said. “Kiteboarding is a sport of finesse and women tend to have a little more grace and finesse. Usually they want to see it, feel it, think about it, and then do it. A lot of guys have the attitude of ‘I’ve got this. Just let me try it.’” Lindsay is an instructor as well and feels that “girls are less likely to do something like go out on kites that are way too large for the conditions. They pay more attention to the details and they’re better at anything involving finesse.” Laura added that fear tends to play a larger role for women than it does men. “As a coach I’ve noticed that progression with women is always about getting past fear,” she said. “Guys tend to push right through the fear where a woman might freeze or slow down because of it.” Ella has also been an instructor and noticed the same trend. “Women usually come in more humble,” she said. “They want to take is slow, be safe, and be ready before moving to the next step while guys usually want to get in the water right away.”
The conversation moved on to talking about why they thought there are so many fewer women in kiteboarding. “It looks super intimidating,” Sensi said. “If you don’t happen to have easy access to it it’s tough to take that first step of learning how to kiteboard. In snowboarding anybody can grab a board and try to get down the hill. With kiting it’s more challenging. I have friends who are interested, but they’re also very intimidated and say stuff like, ‘I can’t believe you do that.’” Ella said, “They think it’s scarier than it is. When I talk to women who are interested in kiting they usually say something like, ‘It must be so exhausting on your arms.’ It’s just a big misconception. There are completely non-athletic men and women who are kiteboarding. Also a lot of the girls you see kiting are really physically fit and that can be intimidating to girls who don’t feel athletic.” Rachel agreed when she added, “Women often think they’re not strong enough. Maybe their boyfriend or husband has encouraged that idea by talking about how hard it is and how long it took them to learn. Actually, it’s not a problem of strength. It’s a problem of fear. This sport requires finesse, not upper body strength like a lot of people assume. You’re basically riding in a hammock and women learn fast because they tend to be better at things requiring finesse than men. It’s not about how strong you can be. It’s about how gentle and delicate you can be. It’s kind of like art in that way.”
Julia Lieberman was the youngest woman in the group at just 14 years old and hopes to become a professional kiteboarder. However, she didn’t feel that way when she first started learning to kite. “When I was in the fifth grade I took my first lessons and didn’t like it at all,” she said. “I wasn’t athletic and didn’t really like doing anything other than sitting around. I was also scared and felt a little pressured because my dad really wanted me to learn. As I took more lessons I began to feel really independent and I started to have a lot more confidence in myself. Then I met Gisela Pulido and Youri Zoon and watched them ride. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before and at that moment I decided I really wanted to be like them.”
The consensus among all of the women I talked to is that they feel kiteboarding looks intimidating to a lot of women (and men too) who are interested in learning and there is a big misconception that it requires a lot of strength. “It’s not a sport you can grunt and strong-arm your way through,” said Jess. “You almost have to have a rapport with your kite. There is the perception that it is a strength thing, but it really doesn’t take much upper body strength at all.” Colleen feels one reason that more women are learning to kiteboard in Hood River is that there is already a community of women riding together there. “A woman surrounded by other women saying, ‘You’ve got this, trust yourself, you can do it’ will learn a lot faster than a woman surrounded by guys who are always trying to do everything for her,” she said. “I hear it all the time from other girls. We’re most motivated when there are other girls on the water. If I see another girl about my size doing tricks it inspires me way more than watching some of the guys doing stuff I know I can’t do.” Sensi added, “It’s way more fun to be out riding and trying to push myself with the girls because when I see another girl do something I recognize that I can do it too.”
As we started talking about how women are portrayed in kiteboarding magazines and videos, all of the girls wished they could see more women in action. “Seeing girls in magazines and in videos who aren’t just standing there in their bikini always motivates me,” said Colleen. Ella added that often it’s women portraying themselves in that way. “For example on Instagram I see a lot of girls posting photos of themselves half naked with their kite,” she said. “It would be awesome to see more photos of girls ripping, and they just happen to look good as opposed to good-looking girls who happen to be holding a kite.”
Laura added that she feels it’s important to reach out to women who may not be attracted to a sport obsessed with featuring cute, young girls. “It seems like there’s always a group of dudes in a video with one token girl who is basically just the pretty one on the beach,” she said. “I don’t think that trying to show the cutest girls in the magazines is helping inspire women who might have insecurities about their bodies. Women are very visual. If they see someone like themselves doing it, they can see themselves doing it. I know sex sells, but it does hold some women back. It pushes on insecurities. There’s a small group of girls that will be inspired by the really cute girls who get shown in magazines and videos, but there’s a way larger mass of women that don’t tune into that because that’s not how they see themselves. It’s good to be fashion forward, but being a kiteboarder shouldn’t be about showing your body. That’s not always what is going to drive a sport. Kiteboarding is a family sport. There are moms here in Hood River who have four kids and the whole family is out kiteboarding. It’s an amazing thing to see.”
All of the women I talked to didn’t want to come across as complaining and whining about the status of girls in kiteboarding. “It’s a fact that there are a lot more guys in the sport and it’s going to stay that way for a long time,” said Colleen. “There are a lot of girls who feel like things aren’t fair in kiteboarding; that they don’t get the same recognition as the guys. I’m not trying to take that stance. The reality is that most of the readers of a magazine don’t see a 120-pound girl and decide the board they are riding in the advertisement is for them. I just wish some of the guys had a little more faith in the women kiters at their beach. Know that if she says she’s got this, she’s got this. She knows what she’s doing and doesn’t need to be babied.”
I’m sure many people will read this article and think, “OK, so what? Why is it a problem that there aren’t more women in kiteboarding?” It shows that kiteboarding as a sport is not living up to its potential if it ignores half of its potential participants. Kiteboarding’s greatest power is its ability to affect people’s lives in a positive way, an idea best summed up by 14-year-old Julia. “I’d never done anything like an extreme sport before,” she said. “Kiteboarding is a very independent sport. Once you’re out there it’s just you, the wind, and the water. Once I felt like I was in control it was like I could do things that seemed completely impossible just a few weeks before. It made me feel smarter, stronger, more confident in myself, and more independent. I feel like I can do something that most people can’t.” That’s a positivity that kiteboarding cannot go without.
Words and Photos by Paul Lang