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Martin Vari - The Great Pretender

INTRO ? Martin Vari has always had a strong vision for what's possible in kiteboarding. He was the first to introduce the handle-pass into competition on his way to storming to two PKRA world titles and has since pushed big wave surfing with a kite to extreme levels at some of the world's most revered breaks. (Check page 162 in issue #39 for proof.) After taking a year off from kiting in 2007, he found himself with a dangerous amount of spare time on his hands with a personality that craved the daily rush of adrenaline. During a period in which he admits he went off the rails, he reflected on what he'd had in his career and what he could still have if he wanted it. Realising he missed being in the water, he burst back onto the kiteboarding scene, fires burning, and with typical aplomb won the PKRA wave world title in Mexico last year. This year he launched his own brand, Vari kites, and with a little help from ex-Slingshot team mate Jeff Tobias, is now ready to set the world of kiteboarding alight again.

In our first interview with you in issue #09 (June 2004), you were enjoying your best years in kiteboarding as world champion. You said that you really enjoyed riding with your friends, but that in the back of your mind you always knew it was a job and that you were trying to be world champion. Did the work side of it get too much and lead to you taking some time out?
At that time I was totally focussed on being the world champion and winning events everywhere I went. I was young and motivated to get up everyday to go to the beach and train. I think a lot of that changed when I started riding waves. I realised that it wasn't all about competing against other people, but more about enjoyment and riding against yourself. Freestyle and competitions are a whole different concept. Once you get into waves, it's not just about the wind ? you need the right wind with waves... and waves don't come every day. You need to wait, be patient and everything works more slowly. I'd got to the point where I felt I'd accomplished all my goals as a professional rider. I'd lost motivation; life is short and my head wasn't in competition any more.
Did you set out to be two-time world champion?
In the beginning it was all about just having fun and riding. When I started going to contests and winning, I wanted to beat everyone, become number one and get the satisfaction of becoming world champion. Winning a world contest gives you confidence as you know you are the guy pushing the sport, making the new moves and helping shape the competitive element.

That must be really addictive?
Yeah, for sure.

Can you imagine what it must be like for Hadlow now after five world championships and how he'll feel when someone comes up and takes his title?
Being in the magazines and winning money all the time gives you a big high; you feel secure and confident. It's hard to lose that, to go to a contest and not win. Time goes by, new kids come up and I'm sure at some stage Aaron's going to go through the same phase, but for now he's really killing it.

You changed the contest scene from high, floaty jumps and rotations to an unhooked style with handle-passes in 2003. Did you feel that you were having the carpet pulled from underneath you when Aaron came on strong in 2004 and took over?
At that time it was one year to the next. We'd brought about this new style in 2003, and in 2004 expected the same thing to happen, but Aaron and a few others were pushing really hard. They ended up taking us down and pushing us to the side. Our egos were so high and we were trying to push the competition rules. We wanted the sport to go in one direction and then all these new kids came up and took it a different way. The natural evolution is to go with the kids.

Did you have a problem with the way they were taking it - lower and more technical?
I was super against it. It was leaving all the main riders behind, but also we thought that what we were doing was more attractive to the general public and better for the sport. We knew that what they were doing was more difficult, but kiteboarding was growing because people were seeing someone jump and they were going, 'Wow!' Wake-style tricks are harder for people on the beach to understand. I've followed Aaron and Ruben over the years since. They went through a phase where people didn't really get what they were doing, but now they've taken it to the next stage and are doing all the tricks that they used to do with the kite at low altitude, way up in the sky now. It's really amazing what they've done and how they've changed the sport.

I wanted to talk to you about what you said in the short interview we did in issue #39 - about suffering from depression and nightlife excess. I've spoken to people on the beach who were fascinated by the fact that someone who was world champion and had all these good things in their life could slip to that level. How did it happen ? was it because the drop off was so big?
Exactly. Anything that goes up must come down at some point. When you're young and travelling, everything is perfect and you feel on top of the world. But you start to realise that it can't be a long-term situation. New kids will come up and any sportsman only has a limited time to grow and accomplish all that they want. It happens in every sport. I realised that I didn't want to do all the other things that a kiteboarding professional has to do and I found myself at a loose end. You start thinking, 'What's next?' You think about doing this or that but nothing compares to how it was and it's sad to think it's never going to be as good. Then I started to realise that there are different phases in life and now I have a new challenge. It's not going to be the same, but it can be good in a different way.
Was starting up your own brand a lot to do with the challenge of it then?
For sure. When I finished with Slingshot I was really over kiting, but after spending a year away from the sport, I realised that my passion is to be in the water and kiting is a big part of that. It was a project that I'd always had in the back of my mind, but never had the guts, money or initiative to start it.
So it was more about being the right time for you than the right time for the market?
Yeah, it felt like the right time even though we're in a recession and there are so many brands in the market. There is never a right time, but the best time to do anything is when it feels right for you; when you know that you can do something different from the rest and make it stand out.

How did the start up of the brand move forward?
I thought it would be much easier than it has been. Developing a kite is not just about the kite. It's the control bar, the release system the lines and all the bridles ? so there are a lot of components and it took us almost a year-and-a-half to get the product finalised after we'd found a factory that could produce prototypes, which itself was very difficult! Once we'd arrive at one kite that we all felt was the right one, that we all enjoyed riding, we said 'Okay, this is the one we want to sell.' We looked at it through the design stage as a kite that is just like an engine, pulling you into whatever you want to do. It's got medium power and it's up to you whether you take a surfboard and go into waves or a twin-tip and do freestyle.
'Even though the kites are really stable now and can be massively depowered, you still have to think about it and control it. Being able to get on the wave, let go of everything and actually surf the wave before retrieving the control bar will be a huge improvement.'

Looking back, what do you think you learnt from being world champion and having all these things when you were young?
When you really desire something and have the passion and time to spend on it - even when you feel like you're in the worst part of your life and everything seems dark - if you can change your thinking to working out what it is that you really want to, then anything is possible.
Outside of nightclubbing, we heard that you'd got into property and paragliding back home in Argentina. Are you still dabbling?
Argentina went through a big slump, so property was cheap and I'd started buying and selling apartments when I was competing. I had nothing else to do when I went back home, so used my savings to buy properties and wait for the right time to sell them. I'm now putting all my money back into the kiting. I love paragliding, but the last time I did it was five months ago. I'm more of an ocean guy.

When we first met you, you'd literally just moved to RRD from Cabrinha, who were a smaller kite company at the time (although still a huge windsurfing brand). Did you make that move because you wanted another challenge?
(Martin can't help but let a wry grin slip out) I made that move... because they paid me a lot of money. That's the honest answer.
But you weren't there very long ? I thought you'd have harvested that field a little longer in that case!
It was a transitional time for me. I was just starting to try all the wave stuff and was getting into riding surfboards. After a year with RRD, Roberto, the boss, wanted me to keep doing all the competitions and push that side of the sport. I just didn't have my heart in it any more. Then I got an offer from Slingshot who were trying to push surfing with Jeff Tobias and Ben Wilson and after a few meetings and talking to Roberto we agreed that we wanted different things. We shook hands and it was all good.

That move was more about direction than money then?
Yeah, I made less money at Slingshot than I did with Cabrinha in the beginning. I felt I was going in the right direction to do what I wanted to do.

And you have Jeff Tobias on your team at Vari...
Yeah, Jeff is working on our US sales. He's just spent two months in a camper van going around the country visiting every shop and demoing all the kites.
Can you tell us about the journey you went on when you were freed from the constraints of competition and heading into waves?
We were just focussing on riding and I was always kiting in Hawaii where you get waves every now and then. I was just going back and forth between the waves and slowly started to realise that I could actually surf them. Surfing just to surf is an incredible feeling and once we realised that you can actually use the kite to get towed into a wave and then surf, it was amazing. We just wanted to do it more and more. At that time I started travelling a lot with Ben Wilson and Jeff, we ended up doing two years of pure travelling, trying to find places and to find out what was and wasn't possible to do.
Was it all about taking it further and further into more challenging waves as well as developing the style?
I think the three of us had different styles and a different focus on kiting the wave. Ben really pushed how kitesurfing can be done and be fun in any sort of conditions ? big or sloppy ? and riding strapless. He's done an incredible job. As I wasn't a surfer before, for me it was about getting the biggest tubes ever, or trying to find the biggest waves.

It was about the thrill?
Yeah, about getting into a wave that you wouldn't normally go paddle surfing on, but making use of the kite so I could get in and out from really exciting situations. Shipsterns in Tazmania, Teahupoo in Tahiti and a few other spots I got out at where I wouldn't have gone surfing. The kite made it easier and accessible, but no less dangerous.

Were you seeing progress week-after-week in terms of performance and the positions you were able to get into on the wave?
Yes, but I think it was more about the confidence we gained. When you get the right conditions all day you get so many waves with a kite and you can feel yourself progress so much all in one day. You get the feel of the wave and by the end of the day can really push it. It's 100 times quicker than surfing.
Which spot scared you the most during that time?
I think Shipsterns. It was a real mission to get there. We took a boat and had to wait on board for five or six hours for the wind. It was moving around in the ocean a lot and we had no previous experience of the spot and didn't even know if it was possible to kite it or not ? no one had kited it before.

Where was the best spot you found?
I'm a natural footer and most waves that we found were left handers, which meant backside riding for me. But I would say Peru is one of the best places as far as waves and wind are concerned and how often you get good conditions. Other places can produce perfect conditions, but not as regularly as you'll get good conditions in Peru. There are loads of spots too ? if you drive three or four hours you'll find so many.
So you've never been tempted to stick out learning to ride frontside switch rather than backside?
I am tempted. I wish I could do it. I've tried a few times, but I just end up going too straight. As soon as I bottom turn it doesn't work.
In issue #09 you said that your aim was to be able to nail all the moves in the Kelly Slater Pro Surf video game that surfers couldn't yet do. You highlighted the main thing holding kiters back from that was the equipment, especially the kites. How much closer are we getting? Kites have improved a lot since then.
We're still far away, but I have this vision of finding a different concept for really kiting on the wave. It's just a matter of time and one of my main projects for my brand is to really push and explore that side.

So there will be kites other than the Condor soon?
We are bringing a kite out called the Vulcan, which will be released in September and is more aimed at the beginner/intermediate market. We won't have different kites for different styles, but for different prices and abilities. I definitely think there is a way to make real the concept of real 'kite-surfing' which is what every kitesurfer wants ? so that when they are on the wave they can forget about the kite. Even though the kites are really stable now and can be massively depowered, you still have to think about it and control it. Being able to get on the wave, let go of everything and actually surf the wave before retrieving the control bar will be a huge improvement.

So it's not even about being hooked or unhooked ? you're going to be able to let go completely?
You'll have to be attached to something, but not necessarily the bar, so you won't have to steer anything. It should work in all conditions. I bought this book in London in a really old store filled with old, used books. It has the whole history of kites in it, looking back over 2000 years. There are many kites on one line that you can run in any direction that will just sit there. I think it's possible, we just need to think outside the box.

In terms of pushing the sport forward, who is making the most positive contribution?
Ben Wilson has done a lot for the sport, as well as Aaron and Ruben for sure. Andre Phillip too, of course. Those four guys are the real icons right now. Each one has a different style and with the sport being so wide, it's like having different sports in one. What Ben is doing has nothing to do with what Aaron's doing. It's difficult to unite the sport into one because it's so different, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. Once someone gets into the sport, they find all these different disciplines, and I think that's good.

In his interview last issue, Jaime Herraiz said he used to get really annoyed with you because he'd spend ages coming up with a trick and then you'd watch it and nail it really quickly. What's your secret to learning?
I don't have a special technique ? I think that's the trick: don't think about it too much just before you go for it. The less you think about it the easier it becomes. Just keep trying it and it starts to become clear.
You had such a glittering riding career in this sport. People always mention your name when they think of influential riders. Can you pick out some of your own personal highlights and favourite memories?
That period of three or four years when I was living in Hawaii and being in the mindset of going to the beach everyday and pushing our riding with Jeff, Jaime, Will James and a few others. That whole process we went through was amazing. Going to the Austria world cup with our new Space Monkeys video that was so different and showing off something like that was really exciting. For me personally, the first contest I did for the world tour in 2001 was in Cabarete. When I arrived I didn't really know anybody and no one knew me. When I signed up the media were shooting a video and I remember this woman asking me who I was? I said, 'I'm Martin from Argentina.' She asked what my goal was for the contest? To which I replied, 'Oh, I'll pretend to win...' Or something like that. She laughed but I made it all the way to the final, against a legend, Robby Naish. I won some money and made it to the next event in Germany, where Pete Cabrinha was waiting for me with a contract to sign for him there and then.

Vari kites have launched a quest to find the Vari Idol. Send them a video of you shredding and you could be in with a chance of winning some kites. See the videos at: www.kiteworldmag.com or at: www.varikites.com
Wainman Hawaii

Added: 2012-09-18

Category: Features

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