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KTA Thailand: Wednesday-Thursday

Light breezes washed over the Pak Nam Pran beach Wednesday morning, slowly building until the sweet spot was reached and the AP flag went down. Today marked the first day we have seen the future Youth Olympic course in action, and it was indeed a sight to see. The downwind slalom course was raced in 8 man fleets, with rider’s zig zagging back and forth from the beach right in front of a crowd of impressed onlookers.

Sailing races of any kind, and that includes kiteboarding in this case, can at times be rather detached from the spectators on the beach- by nature many courses will be set far out to sea, or designed in such a way that the fleet often splits direction right at the start of the race making it near impossible to tell who is where if you should take your eyes off the race for more than a second.

However, a downwind slalom course brings the action right to the shore break, meaning spectators get treated to an up close look at riders taking hard corners, fighting for position, and sometimes getting into some gnarly tangles! Indeed such a course is a smart choice from the IOC, who have already set out to use the IKA TTR format at the Youth Olympic Games in Argentina in 2018, where kiteboarding will makes its Olympic debut.

Back to the action however, in the men’s fleet, Sweden’s Atte Kappel was unable to hang onto his race dominance from the qualifying series, as Asian Champion Yo Narapichit Pudla (Thailand) took control. Closely on his heels however was the young Filipino Christian Tio, who looks set to chase Yo down for the rest of the week. There will be some interesting battles ahead for certain.

On the women’s side of things China’s Jingle Chen pushed ahead of Germany’s Kathrin Borgwardt, in some very closely fought races. While Japan’s Aya Oshima and Thailand’s Fon Benyapa Jantawan battled it out for third and fourth positions respectively.

Bearing this in mind this event was a test for the Youth Olympics, it is important to draw attention to the rather impressive fleet of 9 youths competing today – with rider ages ranging from 12-16. All eyes are on these guys as everyone’s attention turns towards the Olympic arena for YOG in 2018, and anticipation rises in lieu of the Olympic decision to be made in May, which will decide if kiting makes it to Tokyo in 2020.

But for now our eyes were firmly focused on the beach in Pranburi, as mid-afternoon racing came to a close and a full afternoon of KTA Freestyle X opened up, ensuring the excitement of the morning didn’t drop for a second. With a total of 15 heats completed on Wednesday, the freestyle riders were drawing that little closer to their final podium goals.

For the women it was a four way battle between Aya Oshima from Japan, Thailand’s Fon Benyap Jantawan, Kathrin Borgwardt of Germany and Lee Young Eun (S. Korea). Following a super session for the girls, it would be Oshima coming out on top, riding powerfully throughout the day, with Borgwardt this time settling for second place. 

The men were also throwing it down and the assembled spectators cheered on their favourites as a powerful display of old and new school moves were blended together by these highly skilled athletes. And while everything is still there to be played for as the men’s heats still need to be fully completed, certain riders are moving ahead of the pack. Philippines Christian Tio is again a rider to be watched as is Kite Park Leagues Eric Rienstra from the USA. Both will be progressing onto the final stages of the competition later this week, along with Sylvanine Seynaeve and Alex Cargarin.

Winds began early on Thursday morning in Pranburi, and the crew made short time of pumping kites and getting the first rounds of racing underway, fearing that a strange forecasted weather front would move in early in the afternoon and kill the wind.

Riders took to the water to continue what was started in Wednesday’s downwind slalom course, but Thursday’s racing brought a new challenge: the introduction of Boarder X. 2 sets of Boarder X jumps were laid out within the slalom course, where riders were required to make successful jumps over the obstacles or face disqualification from the race. It certainly made for quite the show beachside, with plenty of thrills and spills, and a couple more tangles.

The battle for first place was hotly contested, with Yo Narapichit Pudla (Thailand) predictably at the front of the pack in a number of heats. Christian Tio (Philippines), sponsored rider of North and Red Bull proved himself as quite the racer, a nice addition to his already hefty collection of freestyle accolades.

For the women the battles continued afresh, with Jingle Chen (China) and long-time women’s KTA race champion Kathrin Borgwardt (Germany) taking the jumping addition in their stride. It was clear though that with the addition of jumps, there was much higher potential of position changes as the race unfolds. This is not just with the potential of not clearing the obstacle clearly as you might imagine, but also with the tactics needed to make the right approach and exit from the jump in the first place.

‘With just the plain slalom course yesterday is the winner of each race was the person who made the first mark first’ Borgwardt mentions, ‘but with the jumps you could easily lose speed if you got in wrong and be overtaken’

In our youth fleet the upfront action was all taking place between the Philippines, Thailand and Japan, as Christian Tio, Sarun Rupchom and Hiro Karamon also took eagerly to the Boarder X component. All though are equally at home in freestyle, so its perhaps not surprising that they felt at home and with this group in particular it was certainly showing the validity of the format for YOG.

Early in the afternoon racing turned over to Freestyle X, although for a short time the judges were questioning whether it should go ahead due to the questionable wind conditions. Thankfully the winds blew right back onto the beach just in time for us to begin what was to become a full afternoon of freestyle heaven.

Freestyle X is a competition format originally coined by the KTA. The rules are you will be marked 50% on new school tricks and 50% old school- the idea is that the best overall rider will win, not just the wake style expert or big air junky. From what we saw today, the format definitely pushed a lot of riders out of their comfort zones.

Three different divisions competed- men’s, women’s and youth. The men’s were conducted in a very traditional timed heat format, 10 minutes per heat for 8 trick attempts, with 2 riders on the water at a time. Riders are marked on their best 4 tricks- 2 old school, 2 new school.

The women’s division was predictably small compared with the men’s, so instead of a timed heat with 2 riders each, the 4 competing girls were out on the water together with an unlimited time to complete their allocated 8 attempts each. As the wind continued to blow throughout the afternoon we were graced with conditions to compete through to the finals. In the end it was Aya Oshima of Japan who walked away with this year’s freestyle title, with Kathrin Borgwardt of Germany in second place, Young Eun Lee of Korea in third, and Fon Benyapa Jantawan in fourth.

The men’s division split at the semi-finals, with an A and B level of final heats. In the B level it was Eric Rienstra (USA), who nabbed the first spot over local Thai rider Praphan Thongnak, securing himself a spot on the podium. Eric is a regular on the Kite Park League tour, so has an impressive repertoire of tricks up his sleeve.

In the A final, to nobody’s surprise, was Yo Narapichit Pudla and Christian Tio. Taking on 5 times Asian Champion is certainly not an easy task, but one that 15 year old Christian took into his stride nevertheless. Both riders fought hard, clearly pushing their abilities to the absolute limit.

Yo, riding on a race kite, seemed to have the upper hand slightly in keeping upwind in relation to the competition box, whereas Christian on his North Vegas quickly lost distance, costing him valuable trick pulling time. The word from the judge’s tower is that in terms of their new school performances it was a tie, but when it came to their old school, well there’s just no beating the master Yo it seems, as he stole the show and nabbed his number one spot on the podium.