(This is PART 1 of a three part interview feature taken from issue 40)
| I remember watching Alvaro Onieva ride for the first time at a PKRA contest in Sardinia in 2005. His unique 'skate style' was unlike anything I'd seen before and is now the only thing I remember about that trip. It wasn't the big tricks that he was doing (Alvaro has been a top five competitor on the tour for years, so he can definitely mix it with the best) but it was all the small things that link up the big money moves that stood out and made me sit down and study him intently. Whether he was hopping over a bit of chop or just doing a transition, his board would always leave the water at the most beautiful angles and his airs were immaculately configured and tweaked. He looked in a completely different state of mind to everyone else on the water who seemed like they were all riding at 100 miles-per-hour. Alvaro looked measured, steady and he flowed.
It was that memory that made him the first on my list to hit up for this Tarifa story.
Alvaro was born in Malaga 22 years ago (and is still based there) but would spend a lot of time in Tarifa as a child at the family apartment, accompanying his father who would go down there windsurfing and later, kiteboarding. Kiteboarding actually came into Alvaro's life before skating, but he says that people would always refer to his style being so close to his concrete surfing brethren. Inspired by its technicality he injects the skills he now learns on the ramps into kiteboarding when he rides his wake-skate.
“It's so much fun, and so different. I think it has a lot of potential in kiting. Even the small tricks are hard and there's always something to learn!”
He's used to the challenge of quick progression and the cut, thrust and exertion of seasonal competition. This year will be the first in seven years that Alvaro will not compete on the world tour though, and he jokes about already starting to develop a 'freeride belly'!
His first competition was the PKRA Fuerteventura event in 2001 alongside Aaron Hadlow. Later that year he went to Watergate Bay in Cornwall and won the European Championships, securing him his first big sponsor, Wipika. He went onto be widely recognised as the most innovative of an insanely progressive pack of freestyle groms, that at the time consisted of Aaron Hadlow, Niccolo Porcella and himself. All the other pro riders were much older, but, as he says, that was all the opportunity he needed to be convinced that being one of the only young pros in a rapidly growing sport would be a huge advantage. The constraints and rigours of competition have, over the years, proved too much for such a deep, confident free thinker and he leaves the tour after his most successful season, ending up in third for 2008.
I had never met Alvaro in person before he picked me up from Malaga airport, but he exudes an hospitable and incredibly warm and friendly attitude. The couple of hours drive to Tarifa passed in no time and it wasn't long until he told me he'd been to the UK again since winning the European championships in Cornwall – to Nottingham to see the Dalai Lama. Nottingham seemed a surprisingly insalubrious venue for such esteemed company, but as I learned a lot more about Buddhism and meditation over the five days I stayed with Alvaro, I realised it wasn't about the setting, it was the journey.
“It's really all about having faith in your own potential. Everyone has the potential to gain enlightenment or to deal with emotions. It's helped me deal with so many emotions and I think it's really important to be able to feel happy wherever you are, any time.”
I have to thank Alvaro for driving me round and looking after me all week, patiently sitting in the van or apartment while I met this or that person for work duties or spent hours wrestling with my email inbox. Each time I'd come back to the van he'd just be sat there, so content.
“Been meditating there again Alvaro.” “Yeah, a little. You know.” he’d reply, calm as you like.
First impressions don't lie with Alvaro. It's impossible not to warm to him. Over the week riders of all ages and experiences stopped their cars or crossed the road to shake his hand or pat him on the back.
The freedom that comes with time now beckons for him to really apply the innovative and creative eye that made him shine in the first place. He's just started a new board brand, Balance, and things are looking good. No sooner had he made the decision to drop off the tour, he was invited out to Antigua to ride and shoot video with the godfather of freeriding Andre Phillip. The increased publicity has started already, it seems.
One long competitive career has ended, but I can't help but feel this is the start of Alvaro's real journey.
When did you first see kiteboarding?
A friend of ours from Malaga brought a kite back from Maui in 1999, but the first people I actually saw doing it were Jaime Herraiz and Eduardo Bellini in Tarifa.
How have you seen Tarifa change in that time?
It used to be just a small windsurfing town. It's changed a lot and is still growing so fast. People either go there to kite, party, or both now!
Do you know how many kite shops there are on the high street now?
It must be 30-something, at least. So many.
You must be looking forward to a summer here in Tarifa without having to spend so much of it in airports?
Yeah, this is the first time I can really chill here. I can do whatever I like and now I feel like spending time with family and friends.
And is this an important place for you to do that?
It's an important place to be because there's so much potential here and so many spots to go and shoot at. There are so many people here, so it's really interesting.
Can you tell us a little bit about the lifestyle in Tarifa and why you keep going back?
It's a small town but at the same time it hasso much variety. You can surf when there is no wind, or there's a skate-park or you can climb or go on insane bike rides. There's so much to do in town too, and you get to know everyone really quickly.
This will probably be the busiest place that most people will have kited, but the beach seems very peaceful. What tips do you have for people when riding in such busy conditions?
If you ride away from the shoreline you'll have all the space you need. The sea is big but everyone wants to ride right next to the shore all the time. There are always lots of people looking for waves, so if you go deep you'll find some space. You just have to ride around, but everyone works it out.
When did the decision crop up for you to stay on or leave school and pursue kiteboarding as a career?
It was six years ago when I was 16. Up to then I'd been doing the world tour and school. Back then all the competitors were older; there was pretty much only Aaron, Niccolo Porcella and I still at school, so I decided to take the chance to train as a professional full time.
Have you ever regretted leaving school?
Some people told me I was crazy, but in the end I took my own way and everything is going well at the moment. Fortunately I've had good support with my two main sponsors, Arnette and Movistar, which has kept me alive. I don't think it's good to regret things. You've got to just follow your path, live in the present, enjoy it for what it is and deal with it as best you can.
This is the first year in eight seasons that you're not competing on the PKRA world tour. Did you miss any rounds over those eight years?
Not one. Last year there were ten events in a seven month season. That's a lot of travelling.
Which were your favourite events?
I've got to say Tarifa. I'd always feel good kiting at home in the conditions that I'm used to. But there were many good contests, especially in the DR when it was at Kite Beach. The atmosphere, the people and the conditions all made it pretty special.
The competition is quite intense in Cabarete isn't it? Don't the local riders all look forward to taking down the pros when they come to town?
Yeah, that's true. They have so much motivation and you can easily get beaten in the first rounds. I actually always had bad results there apart from last year, when I came second. I think I always had a good time though because it's such an inspirational place. You always enjoy your riding there and it's a good place to party and just spend time.
You've managed to work it out with your sponsors that you don't have to compete this year. You finished third overall last year – your best ever end of season result – so it's not like you're stepping down because you're not doing well. What made you make that decision?
Throughout my career I've wanted to express myself in a way that I can't do on the tour, where you're basically following everyone else and just trying to score higher. I kiteboard because I love it and doing my own thing is what keeps me motivated, such as wake-skating and coming up with tricks that no one's done yet. I feel there's a lot of potential in that area. I was getting good results on the tour, but on the other hand I wasn't happy with the way I was kiting.
Did you feel like you were following a trend when you are good enough to be setting the benchmark in other areas?
That's it. Now I can ride in a way that I believe in and help to create an image that I believe is right for the sport. To help us break away from sailing boats and windsurfers. To be more associated with serious boardsports like surfing or skating in people's minds.
How do you see kiteboarding doing that as surely wake-style is just wakeboarding with a kite? Shouldn't the sport be doing its own thing?
Wake-style is just one part of the sport. We cannot close in on just one discipline. We have to take advantage of all the beautiful variety, such as strapless surfing, strapped in big waves, wake-style and also old school.
You've seen off three generations of competitors. There was Flash early on, then the Shinn and Vari years and then you were fully involved in the youth revolution. And arguably, there's a new generation of young, technical riders already coming through. When was the heyday of competition – the best days when it was all so much fun and everyone was earning good money?
There definitely used to be a lot more glamour on the tour with the older characters back in the day. They were popular and well known because they really started everything off. They were earning way more money, but that wasn't the big thing – it was just about being there with the big characters. No matter who you were up against it was fun to ride against them in every heat. They brought more value to the tour. People would follow their achievements and it was all so fresh. Most kiteboarders don't follow freestyle progression now. I think competition has to change a lot and become something that can mix the variety of the sport into an event and it's just not logical for a sport of this size to have two world tours.
Who were your favourite riders when you started kiteboarding?
I always liked Martin Vari's style, but from really early on I looked towards Andre Phillip a lot. The style he has is phenomenal, especially when he started riding bindings, but even when riding in straps you could see he had so much and every trick was good to watch.
Can you describe what it is about his style that makes him so good to watch over another rider?
Normally style is such a subjective thing and everyone sees it in a different way. What I like to see is all the movement as one solid block. The hands and legs shouldn't go everywhere – just very solid and smooth at the same time.
What attracted you to bindings – it's not like you were a wakeboarder already?
Firstly, they feel so good when you land a trick, but they also help you keep that really nice body position. With straps it's so easy to get your body twisted out of shape. Bindings hold you tight and when you land a trick you feel like you're riding really well.
Are you currently riding the gear you want to – I think Best make you your own C kite don't they?
They do. I'm fortunate that Best made a C kite for their team riders. I think there will be a production C kite in 2010.
And can you tell us about your set up and why you like it like that? I rode it the other day and felt like I'd stepped four years back in time!
Ha ha, at the moment I'm riding their Yarga from four years ago actually! I like to keep things simple, using as simple a bar as I can with a big chicken-loop and then I just have four lines going straight up to a pure C shape kite.
Why not use the fifth line – for relaunching etc? What disadvantages do you see it having?
With four lines I get more power. There's no slack and it's just the style that I've been used to riding since 2006. I'm so used to it. You just have solid power and deal with it.
Tell us about the Balance board brand and your involvement in that.
There's always been a lot of board development in Tarifa. It's so easy to test and develop because of the regular and changing conditions. We made shorter twintips here first when everyone was riding big boards and got so much feedback early on from the riders and the culture that was cooking down here. My partner, Carlos Saez and I, used our backgrounds and came up with Balance. He's a PKRA judge as well as a shaper and has great style. He looks carefully at the boards that all the riders are using and we've just used our advantage alongside our experience, got feedback straight from riders and put it into a company. We realised from riding for brands like Wipika that there was so much that needed changing in designs, but they only wanted to sell boards rather than get fully behind the R&D of a quality product.
You're still young at only 22, but have a had a huge amount of experience in and out of the sport. What has all that experience taught you?
Building that experience is one of the reasons why I feel happy about the decision I made when I was 16. I feel like I've learned a lot through travelling around, looking after myself and living for the moment. When you're a kid you put a lot of value on things that aren't really important. You realize that loving each other and developing good ways between everyone gives you more satisfaction. I think about that a lot and appreciate the time I spend learning about life.
Do you think about the future at all, maybe five or ten years from now?
I do. I think it will come and then it will be the present. So now, I'm trying to be able to enjoy the present much more.
What do you think you'd be doing if you weren't kiting?
I would like to get involved in meditation and to run retreats where people could go and relax. I'd like to teach people how to meditate, to cope in their minds and to try and make them happier.
What have been the highlights of your career so far?
They've always been when I'm doing my best – not necessarily finishing in the best position, but just when I've enjoyed myself on the water. Sometimes my best times have been when I look at my opponent and they are throwing the craziest tricks and I get really happy for them. That altruist experience is what's probably provided my biggest highlights. It's not about being the best, just being open and to feel happy with everyone else. It's that thought that keeps me free
Read more features from the Rhythm and Health series:
Part One: Tarifa intro
Part Three: Gisela Pulido
Part Four: Jaime Herraiz
Read issue #40 for free online now here