Men (with nerves) of steel

2020-02-11 06:00
Ross-Dillon Player, a kiteboard specialist, competed in last week’s Red Bull King of The Air.

Ross-Dillon Player, a kiteboard specialist, competed in last week’s Red Bull King of The Air.

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For the second year in a row, the world’s best kiteboard specialists converged at Kite Beach, Blouberg, to draw their lines in the sand.

Thursday 6 February brought the perfect wind conditions and huge waves needed to execute their heart-stopping tricks. 

Thirty-four heats and seven hours later, American kiteboarder Jesse Richman, 27, was crowned Red Bull King of the Air champion.

Flying Cape Town’s flag, or should it be “kite”, high was Ross-Dillon (Ross) Player, from Claremont.

Ross, 20, is the reigning champion of the prestigious Red Bull Megaloop Challenge held annually in the Netherlands. 

He first got involved in the sport at age 12 and started competing as a professional when he was 16.

The fact that he now shares a contestants’ name list with his childhood (super) heroes, he says, is mind-blowing.

“It was quite daunting at first. Suddenly you find yourself in the same room as your idols,” he says.

The King Of The Air and the Megaloop Challenge are the two biggest annual big air events in the world for specialist kiteboarders.

Not only do they draw huge crowds but their online live views run into millions. 

Ross says the crowds motivate you to perform at your best but, he says it can take some getting used to.

Usually, you train in relative silence, then, when you compete, there are thousands of people shouting and cheering.

And they don’t always like you. 

Luckily, he says, his father, Brad Player (a former professional cricket player and a sports psychologist) prepared him for this.

“My dad shared his experiences with me, so I knew what to expect,” says Ross. 

What makes these contests so popular are, of course, the gravity-defying tricks. 

A megaloop runs on a clock. You move your kite, starting at 12, all the way round in a clockwise direction.

The movement of the kite generates a lot of power, causing your body to zoom up at tremendous speeds.

“It is like getting shot out of a cannon,” he explains.

The idea is to go as high as possible (often higher than 20 metres) while doing as many rotations, backflips, front flips and jumps as possible (and taking your feet off the board).

Although there are standard trick combinations, kiteboarders are constantly pushing the limits. Ross, who did his first megaloop at age 15 (and got it right on his first try), says you have to tread carefully. 

“When you’re a kid, you just do it. But now I take a few days to think a new trick through. You have to think out of the box, but you don’t want to end up in hospital.”

But his life isn’t all about sun, sea and sand. It also requires wind – ­preferably the lean-into-it-without-falling-over kind. And that means a lot of travelling. South Africa’s “windy” season stretches from November to April.

The rest of the time, pro kiteboarders travel the world, chasing storms. 

Ross, who has followed this travel circuit for the past two years, will soon take three months off.

He will spend that time in George, completing his aviation training. But, first, he is jetting off to wow the crowds at the Kitefest Argentina 2020.

The display festival, which starts on Friday 21 February, runs over five days. He will be the only South African participant.

He says winning the Megaloop Challenge last year was a career game-changer. Shortly afterwards he signed his biggest sponsor yet, Naish Kiteboarding. He is also sponsored by Mystic Kiteboarding and Surfears.

Ross, who attended Rondebosch Boys’ High School, says when he first got into the sport, it wasn’t all that popular among his peers.

But that is changing.

“There are quite a few Rondebosch, Sacs and Bishops boys coming up in the ranks. It’s nice for me to see,” he says. 

His advice to up-and-coming kiteboarders is to stay calm and level-headed. 

“I’ve seen some extremely talented people get caught up in the party scene. You don’t want to end up wasting your talent,” Ross says. 

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