Young Athletes Help Kiteboarding Take Flight

By Marc Carig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006

The champion with the moppy blond hair isn't used to spending this much time on terra firma, trapped by the limitations of gravity.

So when Ruben Lenten, 18, is asked what he enjoys most about kiteboarding, he jumps at the chance to explain.

"I let go of all my feelings out there, all my stresses," said Lenten, who has been nursing an ankle injury that has kept him off a board since April.

But his biggest reason for spending the last five years in the water -- and in the air above it -- is the same reason that thousands are flocking toward the burgeoning sport.

"You can fly," Lenten said.

Kiteboarding started as the product of efforts by windsurfers and wakeboarders searching for a new thrill. But nearly 10 years since its inception, the sport has gathered a larger following that includes cycling icon Lance Armstrong and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).

Lenten and fellow elite rider Aaron Hadlow, also 18, are at the forefront of the rapid growth as first-generation riders who grew up strictly on kiteboarding.

"We're starting to see the first round of kiteboarders who are just kiteboarders," said Hunter Brown, owner of Blowing in the Wind, a kiteboarding shop and learning center in Wilmington, N.C. "They are really beginning to take over the tour."

Kiteboarding followers credit Lenten's big air improvisational style in helping to transform the obscure sport into one nearing the brink of mass appeal. His riding philosophy is simple: Why get seven feet off the water's surface when you can get 14 feet? Why execute just one midair handle pass when you can pull off two?

Meantime, Hadlow, his top rival, takes on a more straightforward style that he's parlayed into his status as the game's best competitor.

"They almost always wind up in the finals against each other," said Aaron Sales, editor of Kiteboarding Magazine.

The two friends form a seemingly odd couple at the top of the game, with Hadlow reigning as the Professional Kiteboard Riders Association world tour champion and Lenten claiming the prestigious Red Bull King of the Air competition in Maui last October.

"We're balancing each other a little bit," Lenten said.

Nevertheless, once the friends hit the water, the competition becomes intense.

"This is the sport's biggest rivalry," Sales said. "Anytime you see them in the finals, the best freestyle kiteboarding show on the planet is going on right then and there."

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