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Handling fear in extreme sports: a kiteboarder’s perspective

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Pro kiteboarder Sensi Graves talks fear, contests, and her exciting and growing sport; photo courtesy of Graves

If you thought entrepreneurship was a scary prospect, imagine balancing a start-up with training to compete in the most prestigious kiteboarding contest in the country. It’s a daily reality for 25-year-old Sensi Graves, a Hood River, Oregon, native in the midst of designing an eponymous swimwear brand while simultaneously preparing for this summer’s Triple S Invitational in Hatteras, North Carolina—arguably the toughest contest for freestyle kiteboarders, in which Graves has placed third overall for the past two years. Short for “surf, slicks, and sliders,” the contest is a three-part event wherein kiteboarders battle it out on a series of obstacles like rails and kickers to score points, all set against the famously windy backdrop of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.

In theory, kiteboarding is one of the most dangerous sailing sports: An athlete’s set-up can’t function in wind weaker than 10 knots (about 11 miles per hour), and unpredictable off-shore gusts can quickly overpower all but the most skilled of athletes, picking them up and dragging them far off shore before they can regain control over their kites (kiteboarders must be strong swimmers with solid core, leg, and arm strength). Launching and landing a kite with lines that stretch to 30 meters long requires a lot of room and virtually no obstacles that could ensnare a kiteboarder’s set-up, and nearly every kiteboarder has experienced what’s known as a “Kite Mare”—a dangerous situation related to getting started or wrapping up a session, including being launched 20 to 30 feet in the air, slammed into shallow water, and then dragged by the kite.

Yet the thrill of reaching impressive speeds and landing jumps far above the surf is enticing, helping to grow the sport and draw interest to the big-time contests, such as the June headliner Graves is prepping for. Here, Graves recounts the thrill of placing high in a male-dominated contest and how she overcomes the fear of trying new obstacles.

What does winning feel like for you?

Winning can be triumphant and exhilarating. It feels good to work hard for something and come out on top.

What are some things you do to get psyched up before a big competition?

To get psyched up for a competition, I try to focus on the results that I want to achieve. I visualize to build confidence and project positivity. Being in a good mood helps you on the water, so for me, amping myself up by listening to upbeat music and being happy yields better results. If the nerves get to be too much, taking a few deep breaths always helps to center and calm.

How do you overcome the fear aspect of your sport?

For me in kiteboarding, fear comes from being in big surf or hitting challenging rails. These are just two facets of kiteboarding and not everyone chooses to participate in these disciplines, but when I'm afraid, it's usually because I'm trying to hit an intimidating feature. Starting small to build up confidence is a must. But in the end, sometimes you just have to go for it. The first time is always the hardest. Once that's out of the way, you've got it!

Do you have any rituals you always do in the moments before you compete?

Stretching!

How do you deal with the prospect of failure in competition?

Failure is competition is inevitable. I get the most disappointed when I feel like I've tried my hardest and done my best but didn't get the results I'd hoped for or expected. This is frustrating. I'm still learning how to lose gracefully! But it helps to be grateful for being in the competition at all.

Does your sport still get your adrenaline going?

Of course! Kiteboarding is so phenomenal because there are so many things you can do with it. It's such a limitless sport. Simply riding in a place I've never been before is exhilarating.

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Pro kiteboarder Sensi Graves is set to compete at the 2014 Triple S Invitational; photo courtesy of Graves

When you realize you've won a contest, what goes through your head?

Wow!

What's your favorite part about competing? Your least favorite part?

My favorite part about competing is pushing my fellow competitors and feeling the rush of adrenaline and camaraderie. It's awesome to see girls on the water, really throwing down and progressing the sport. I love the encouragement that it facilitates. My least favorite aspect is a different side of the same coin: feeling disappointed with your performance and having to watch someone else smash a great run or trick in your face. It's hard to be encouraging when you are personally discouraged.

Which other athlete do you admire most?

I really admire Karoline Winkowska and Bruna Kajiya on the PKRA [Professional Kiteboard Riders Association] competitive kiteboarding circuit. They are awesome—feminine, powerful, graceful, each with their own unique style. They are truly pushing women's freestyle kiteboarding.

What other competitive sports do you like to watch?

I've gotten really into watching surfing. I love the tranquility and simultaneous exaltation that combine to make the sport.

What's your favorite way to celebrate a big win?

With a fantastic meal with friends and family. Relish in the moment!

What's the best way to get over a loss?

To realize that it is in the past and to focus on the present, be grateful for your accomplishments, and congratulate the other person.

Most surreal moment for you since you started competing?

The most surreal moment for me was in 2012 at my first Triple S Invitational. I was a last-minute addition and ended up placing third overall! I was stunned. It was an amazing feeling to get something that I wasn't expecting.

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