| Words: Hugh Miller
Adam Koch is growing up. When I join him at a café in Paia on Maui’s north shore, the Naish ripper is drinking green tea, fielding calls on his phone, and talking about his upcoming wedding plans with his fiancée.
It’s a world away from the wide-eyed kiteboarding kid we were first introduced to in Fluid Revolution, the DVD of 2001. Fluid Revolution exposed Adam as an impoverished young rider set on the road of turning pro. The film showed Adam travelling around in his battered van, which he lived in year-round to save his pennies for food and the essentials he needed to continue his commitment to kiteboarding. In it, Robby Naish paid Adam the ultimate compliment, saying his smooth, utterly incontrol riding style made him his favourite kiteboarder.
Back in the day, Adam used to ride the cold dark seas of Oregon with Will James (‘we’d neck a Red Bull, burn one, neck another Red Bull, and charge into the ocean for an hour’s session before collapsing in the back of the van’ recalls Will) before moving to Maui.
Greg Dexler, R and D manager for Naish, remembers the time Adam landed on the island.
‘This 22-year-old kid turned up on the beach with booties, a four-line bar and chicken loop,’ says Greg.
‘He was very much an outsider – the rest of Maui was riding two line kites with bindings, and here was this kid with his own designed chicken loop and sailing shackle who’d never ride without booties because he was so afraid of the reef!’
Adam pursued an even more frugal lifestyle, living in a tent behind Kite Beach and taking free showers with the homeless. Legend has it he’d sometimes swap kite lines for sandwiches with other riders. But his dedication paid off with a series of top three places in the world tour over the past two years and full sponsorship packages from Red Bull and Naish.
Now, after seven years of nomadic lifestyle, Adam is settling down. He’s moved to Los Angeles with his fiancée, Red Bull marketing manager Amy Knuckles, and is now set on carving out a new role for himself in kiteboarding outside of contest riding. The one thing that hasn’t changed is Adam’s unlimited capacity for enthusiasm. He lights up the room like a 100-watt bulb in a way that borders on the unnerving. Try and drop in an ironic comment and it’ll likely sail right over Adam’s head, he’s so set on keeping positive.
Family break-ups, living in a tent to moving to LA, winning and losing contests… it’s all made for a grounded but utterly positive Adam. Tape roll.
So what’s this about you jumping off 100 ft high cliffs with your kites in Barbados?
The first was 25 ft high. I would have jumped off it without a kite. But the wind was kind of funky and we were standing on lava rock with bare feet, and if you fall on your face you’re all messed up. My kite was being funny – I was getting pulled and then not pulled – and I wasn’t sure if I could do it or if it was worth it. I put my kite down and then Mark (Shinn) put his up. He felt better pressure and went for it. After that I was so excited, at first my heart was pounding, but after I saw Mark go I knew it was possible and all that disappeared. Then there was an even bigger cliff that was 60 ft. After we did that I’m like, ‘Ok, we gotta go bigger.’ We needed to go twice as big because it’s totally possible. You don’t need a lot of wind, you don’t need super steady wind, you just need the right set up. When you guys see the video, its silly. It’s like getting the hang time jump that I got in Germany – it looks like it’s been edited funny. I like that stuff in kiting.
You were just running off the cliff with the kite?
Yeah, with my board tucked under my arm, putting it on before landing in the ocean. I rode away from both of them.
How fast were you falling?
It took me about seven seconds to land. I was going at a consistent angle all the way out. On the 25ft cliff it was super shallow in certain spots when a wave came in. We were a little nervous about that. But these cliff jumps have sparked a whole new thing for me. I have some ideas that I’m gonna try and pursue with Red Bull. Who knows what kind of high-rise buildings and bridges we might be able to launch from in cities before riding away in the water.
Let’s talk about contests, as you’re now talking about quitting them after a very successful career.
When I entered the sport, I never had a vision of winning all over the world and doing every event I possibly could. That was never my idea – I was pushed that way by Don Montague. He was right. If I’d never done competitions in the early days, I’d never have got sponsored. That’s the way you had to do it then.
My sponsors were like, ‘well if you’re not winning, then you’re not really that useful.’ They decided that with Mark Shinn being world champion in 2002 they had to have someone up there all the time. That was the Naish mindset. They didn’t care who it was from the team. Then, the year after Mark won, none of us got on the podium – except for my third place in PKRA Austria – but even then I got totally shoved out of the way because I wasn’t part of Martin, Will and Jaime’s little group when they were doing their video, so I wasn’t fitting in. Those guys all fitted together and had grown together because of what they’d worked on.
Looking at the big picture, I thought, ‘why am I spending three grand to be over here and not be appreciated when I’m on the podium?’ There’s a lot of pressure in having your sponsors on your back during a world tour – and I just don’t ride good when I’m under pressure. We’re now just realising that you don’t have to do that. You can just go out and ride with locals and create a good video with an awesome feeling, or just let people know its OK to have a good time in kiteboarding.
I can imagine that when you’re winning it all feels right, and when you’re not you suddenly start questioning the whole process.
Exactly. The cool thing about freeriding with your friends or doing photo shoots is that you can have that winning feeling without ever trying to compete. In contests, you spend so much time sitting around and waiting for your eight minutes of making it in your heat. Now I just want to pick up on that first initial push I had when I made Fluid Revolution with my friends. All we did was hang out, be ourselves, and ride because we wanted to. I wasn’t trying to do moves where people would go, ‘Oh my God that guy’s the best rider in the world’. I did it because I had fun. Now Naish have told me ‘Ok, you don’t have to compete if you don’t want to. We just want that stoke on your face that you used to have every time you came into the sail loft.’
Also I’ve now realised that the majority of the kiteboarders aren’t 18-year-olds. I mean 18-year-olds don’t go out and buy a $2000 kite set-up. It’s more people my age and older who are in the sport. You don’t need the badass attitude I used to think you had to have. I think I’ve got a lot of positive influence especially from Fluid Revolution. People have said, ‘Hey man, I love your style, I’d be disappointed if you changed and started doing what everyone else is doing. That would ruin what you have because I like your style.’
Even talking to Robby – he tells me that his dream isn’t collecting contest trophies. His dream is to have a motor home and drive all around America, hanging out in the middle of cow pastures and random places, places that might not be that good all the time, but you can be there when it’s windy and go out kiteboarding. I’ve always shared that dream, to just drive round at my own will and just have a schedule of hooking up with guys around the country.
How’s the move from Maui to California been?
Everyday I wake up in the morning, and where ever I am in the world – if I’m in LA, or going snowboarding, or whatever – I’m interested in what’s going on in Maui. It’s just a habit. It’s like somebody watching a football game, except it’s more interactive – because it’s something I do. It’s about me. But moving to California has been refreshing. I really appreciate a good session now, whereas before I was a little bit more jaded about it.
What’s LA like?
LA is a big city, man. Smoggy, crowded, no parking spots, crowded restaurants, expensive everything. It’s kind of a nightmare but I’ve grown to love it. At first moving from Maui I didn’t like it, but I can at least surf every day in California. You can always get out on a shortboard in the shore-pound. I’m starting to get the place dialled now – I’ve only been there six months, and it took me two years to find all the different spots to go to in Maui and the Gorge when the wind changes. As soon as you learn the spots, you start to pick and choose your battles and learn where the fun is. The cool thing about California is, with so much coastline, you can find good wind and good wind angles because there’s so much curvature to the shore. I’m not gonna live in LA the rest of my life, but it’s a good switch for me right now. Plus with all the events that I’m doing for Red Bull around the US, it’s super-easy to fly out of. It’s an advantage in that aspect, but for learning new tricks and everything it’s obviously not a patch on Maui. In my eyes I’ve been all over the world, and even after our Naish team trip to Barbados, we’ve come to realise we should just stay in Hawaii. There are so many islands and spots here that we haven’t gone to yet that I know would be just sick.
Over the last few years it seems like your whole life has come to this point, where it’s all worked out nicely. Is there anything that you’ve learnt and can look back on that helped get you to where you are now?
I don’t want to get all touchy-feely and sound like Flash Austin or something, but I’ve followed my heart and my intuition. I’ve met a lot of cool friends along the way who’ve accepted me for who I am. When I was younger I’d always try and be like someone else, I was too inspired by people and I didn’t know who I was. But the way that my life has gone, especially with meeting Amy, I’m super motivated just to be myself and say how I feel. I don’t feel like I have to follow all the trends in kiteboarding anymore.
So you’re secure enough in your own position?
Way more secure than I’ve ever been in my life. I’m really confident. If my sponsors ditched me tomorrow, I wouldn’t cry about it or feel like my life is over. I’m actually happy that I’m not world champion and that I don’t have all those trophies and possessions and pressures. I’ve been through the top of my game phase, as well as feeling like the worst kiteboarder in the world.
You were definitely secure enough to turn your back on the whole handle-pass deal last year.
Yeah, it hasn’t really interested me.
I watched you at PKRA Cabarete last year and you were just completely doing your own thing, continuing with super smooth board-offs and totally ignoring what your competitors were doing.
I’ve always been a little stubborn. I mean, it took me a year to figure out the board-off stuff. I’m a slow learner, but once I get it it’s really hard for me to lose it.
What makes you sit back and watch for so long before considering getting involved – do you have a strong independent streak?
Could be. I’ve always been a really independent person, that’s for sure. I don’t like people to teach me things. I like to learn on my own, from trial and error. My Dad would always tell me to do it this way or that way. I know there are several ways to do one thing, and I want to find my own way. Even though it may be slower, eventually its gonna be better for me to do it that way. My Mom wasn’t around to raise us, she had four boys and she always wanted girls, and we’d trash the house. I don’t really deal with my Mom too much, I have my Dad and my Stepmom who’ve supported me more in my life. I don’t really hold a grudge against my Mom. She’s just never been proactive in my life. I’ve accepted that, she never really supported any of us, but it’s been cool because we had to support each other and learn from our mistakes, and I think that’s why I’m the way I am: I’ve never had someone to teach me how to tie my shoelaces.
I guess if you don’t have so much back up then it forces you out on your own path.
My parents split up when I was very young, and I lived with my Mom for several years as she went in and out of relationships, then I moved to be with my Dad. He was really over-controlling, checking up on my homework and stuff. He’d get really frustrated because I wasn’t doing things his way, and I was frustrated because someone was trying to tell me what to do. Then one day when I was 17, I just explained to him that I have to do stuff on my own and that I’m not used to someone being there. From then on we became best friends and all of a sudden he wasn’t like my Dad anymore. Now I get along well with all my family, except my Mom – I don’t really talk to her at all. I’m fine with that. She was never really there so I don’t really miss her. But I talk to the rest of them all the time. Things are nicely balanced in my life.
When are you getting married?
May 28th, here in Maui.
Can you see marriage affecting your kiting life in any way?
Nowadays, I don’t need to ride every single day all day long. So I think marriage will be a good fill in my life. Amy is a very organised person, and a lot of that rubs off on me, so we balance each other out very well. She’s also in sports marketing, so she understands my career and vice versa. She’s basically my best friend, and we understand each other’s lives so well that if I’m ever gonna marry anyone she’s the one. I’m very happy with the way my life has turned out. If you asked me even a year ago what I was gonna do, I’d be like, ‘I don’t know, move into a tent maybe on the beach and hide from the police because I don’t have any car insurance, or figure out how to get my Playstation working on the beach or something.’
The focus of kiteboarding at the moment is on freestyle, equipment and competition really. What do you think are some of the understated areas that don’t get talked about in magazines and the media?
I think there’s a lot of basic things that are going on underground that don’t look as impressive as a kiteloop or big inverted handlepass. Like simple little board switches and varial flips that are actually really hard to do. The directional thing is totally overlooked. I’ve been away from it for a year and now I’m back into it because of the similarities to my sailing and windsurfing background.
Many aspects in directional riding haven’t yet been captured. I’ve been doing these little simple tacks where I flip the board in the air, get light on the board for a second, switch my feet in the straps and then shoot out the other way. I did it on a reef point in Barbados where everyone was standing, and they were like, ‘Wow, that’s the sickest thing I’ve seen!’ I’ve been doing it for a year; it’s no big deal. A lot of it seems to be super hard to capture, and this year I’d really like to focus on the little things. Also, I’ve been working on some new boards in development that have these three huge fins. They’re mutants with full on surfboard rockers and fin set ups and they don’t really do anything well except turn. Regular kiteboards slow down for your turn, which allows the kite to go forward for better control. This board doesn’t necessarily ride as good behind the kite, but in the waves when you have no pressure in your kite, you can actually surf and use the energy of the wave better. When you turn, you generate more speed and power so you can do a 90 degree smack and turn and come down on the same track and you don’t slow down, you come out of it as fast as you went into it. It’s radical.
In Barbados, Robby also let me borrow his surfboard and I was like, ‘This is really fun.’ It may not look that cool, but it’s unreal how much freedom you have, every movement you make with the kite affects how you stay on the board and how you move – so it makes you more sensitive to kiting. But the smaller strapped surfboard makes you feel more aggressive in the waves. After riding my regular board and then jumping on a wave board, the difference is like night and day, man. Instead of doing two turns on a wave I can do four or five. There’s a lot of wave moves that I want to do like a shortboard surfer and I haven’t been able to do them yet because the kite’s getting in the way. Having a board with more momentum and speed that doesn’t need so much pull from the kite all the time will change that. My wave riding confidence has gone through the roof since I’ve been developing these wave boards.
Do you have any strong memories of good days kiteboarding that jump out at you?
The best session I’ve had lately was on the north east side of Barbados, at a spot called Mushroom Rock. Apparently it never really gets clean wind conditions, but always has good surf. We had randomly big surf and then small surf – disorganised and kind of gusty on 12’s – but I just had an awesome time in the waves with Rob. I’d jammed my ankle trying kiteloops the previous day, so I wasn’t jumping, just wave riding. I had a blast man, just going out and not really feeling like I had to do anything too impressive. Just smacking lips when I wanted to, and funny stuff like dropping in on a wave, jumping off my board, landing right in the pit and trying to bodysurf. I’d turn around, my board would be surfing along just behind me, and I’d grab it and scoot off again. I was like ‘maybe I’ve been taking the sport too seriously over the past couple of years.’
Do you ever have days in kiteboarding where you feel like you’re just not getting anywhere?
Oh sure, everybody goes through that. Even now looking at the handlepass stuff, I sometimes think if I just open my mind up and start going for it, I’m sure I might find something in it… or maybe I won’t find anything at all and I’ll break my neck!
Finally, is it pronounced, ‘Cook, ‘Cotch,’ or ‘Cock’?
It’s ‘Cook’, but you can call me ‘Cock’ if you want. I’ve learnt to live with it over the years. It’s actually inspired me to do interesting web pages, like for our wedding, with my fiancée’s last name being ‘Knuckles’, our website is www.kochknuckles.com
No double-barrelled name in the pipeline?
We were thinking about it because it’d be good for the kids. Like if we had a son I’d call him Harry. Harry Koch-Knuckles.
13.2 SECONDS OF HANGTIME
Not a lot of people know this, but last August Adam Koch smashed the world hangtime record at the PKRA World Tour’s stop in Germany. Until the last day it had been a pretty windless affair. Enter Adam for the first round of the men’s freestyle heats, who boosted 35 m, with 13.2 seconds of hangtime, almost double the official world record. Adam quickly recovered from his altitude sickness and here describes the experience.
“The heat was actually so windless at times, I was sure they were gonna cancel it. I was on my 18 metre Aero 2, not looking to go big at all but I guess the thermal was bigger than I expected ‘cos it yanked me up like it was 20 knots! I’ve never felt pressure like that before.
“It started when I went to do an inverted board off - I did the normal movements on the bar for a big jump. Instead of being able to pull the kite forward, it somehow went further round my shoulders straight upwind. I expected to fall quickly but there was still so much pressure in the kite I just continued the counter-clockwise spin the kite was doing around me, eventually doing a complete loop. By the time it came back over my head another bubble of air had sucked me up another ten feet or so.
“All I know is it was really high. I felt like I was dreaming and it took me about six seconds just to realise what was going on. I totally bailed out of doing a move as I was freaking out over the waist deep water below, and the fact that I was drifting downwind into another kiter... who hadn’t seen me! At this point I just wanted down, without the slam. The gust let me down to about 20 feet before releasing me to free fall. I then waterstarted away.
It was too much like a dream to believe it happened. If no one had seen it, I probably wouldn’t have told anyone. Who would believe it? I barely do and I did it!”