Soul Surfing, By Vanessa Schnaidt
We are defined in sport as we are in life: by the choices we make, the commitments we keep and the relationships we cultivate. Our “performances” as athletes extend seamlessly into our identities as individuals, and there is no better example of the fluidity of such connections than the life and work of Laurel Eastman. She is a kiteboarder and a conservationist, an athlete and an activist. Body, mind and spirit, Eastman possesses a sense of self that is grounded in nature and shaped by sport.
In order to fully grasp the depths of this “soul surfer,” one must first understand how she fits into the community and culture of kiteboarding. A new sport that is gaining momentum with each passing year, kiteboarding stands as one of the most innovative and exciting of the “extreme” sports. In this sport, the athlete acts as the sole element uniting a parachute-like “kite” and a long surfboard. Using both wind and water to wield these tools, a boarder is not only capable of surfing, but also flying.
At 26 years old and a relative newcomer to the world of kiteboarding, Eastman has already emerged as one of the most accomplished and promising athletes in her sport. She was named the 2002 Woman of the Year by the Kiteriders Professional World Tour, an organization which currently ranks her third in the world, and holds the No. 4 ranking by the Professional Kite Riders Association.
Her technical ability, power on the water and poise in the air have also led her to the title of 2003 North Sea Champion. Additional victories appear to be well within Eastman’s reach as she continues to develop her kiteboarding skills. Although Eastman has already proven herself to be a champion on the board, that which she is most proud of and cares about most deeply does not come with medals or titles.
Her reverence for the earth and commitment to protecting our natural resources are not simply a life philosophy. These convictions are guiding forces for how she approaches her sport and identifies as an athlete. Every training session is an opportunity to discover nature’s beauty, connect to its power and renew a symbiotic relationship in which Woman and Earth must work together.
Inherent in the sport of kiteboarding is an acute awareness of one’s surroundings. The technical complexities of the sport require an athlete to constantly assess all conditions-even those that cannot be seen. According to Eastman, kiteboarding is “a really awesome way to connect with the element of air, which most people don’t get to connect with [on a regular basis]. Earth is really easy, and water is pretty easy, and of course fire is quite powerful, but air is more mysterious. “Flying kites gives us a direct, hands-on connection with the air, and it’s really fun. It’s like a new puzzle.
You have to figure out what the wind is going to do next.” Clearly, Eastman revels in the challenges of listening to the earth, and in doing so, has developed a deep understanding of the forces of nature. “When you’re dealing with these board sports- snowboarding or kiteboarding or windsurfing – you’re dealing with an element that’s stronger than we are. And as strong as we are, it teaches you to really be smart and to use very very good judgment. It teaches awareness. You have to know everything that’s going on [so you can choose a course of action]. “Sometimes you make a decision and then you go out and you get a little spanked and then you realize, ‘Ok, well I’m not going to do that again.’ “So it also teaches you humility. But I think respect, decision making, judgment.these are the most important things [I have learned].”
In this sense kiteboarding is not only a sport and a job for Eastman, but also a teacher and a guide. This “education” and the experiences she has had as a kiteboarder have only strengthened her core values and fostered the development of an ethic of caring when it comes to her sport. Kiteboarding allows Eastman to reaffirm her conservationist spirit, practice her beliefs and explore new ways in which sport and the environment can exist in harmony.
This ethic permeates all aspects of Eastman’s life as an athlete and rests on the forefront of her mind. Even when discussing the challenges of competing in a sport that utilizes both man-made and natural tools, Eastman cites environmental issues: “The most challenging thing for me-which has to do with my values-is the part about flying all over the world on those jet-propelled engine planes, because it’s such a high consumption of resources. So I just try to balance that when I am in places [where] I can walk, carpool, skateboard and ride my bike. I haven’t owned a car for almost ten years.” Other characteristics of the sport also help counteract these environmental effects.
Eastman loves that kiteboarding is a “leave no trace” activity. “When we actually go to the beach we can show up somewhere that’s been totally untouched, rig up our kites, go out, come back, and nobody will ever know that we were there.” Despite this “invisibility,” Eastman does make her presence known in other ways. Her position as a professional athlete provides her with a public outlet for her personal values. “Being an athlete gives me the chance to.communicate the things that I think are important, which are spending time in nature with the people who you love, and then conservation and love for the environment. “I love doing sports, and I see it as a vehicle or a platform for communicating the deeper things that I feel about taking care of nature and each other.”
Eastman’s compassion and the conscious effort she makes to integrate her “environmental and social values” into her sport enable her to pursue her passions without compromising her politics. Achieving this balance of self, spirit and sport only seems to enhance the thrill Eastman experiences each time she gets on her board. “When you’re kiting you’re dealing with two different sensations. When you’re going on the water, you’re going very very fast. A lot of times you’re just moving over the water at incredible speeds, and that’s really exciting. You’re constantly assessing the water conditions and reacting to the wind conditions and your balance; you’re just doing everything you can to focus on where you’re going. “The next part is when you start to jump. When you jump, it actually slows down quite a lot, and it’s really like a floating feeling, where you go slow and you go up, and it becomes very, very quiet. And you’re just looking around, and you see athletes on the water, or like where I train in Hawaii you can see turtles in the water, and the birds are around, and it’s [so] quiet sometimes you just forget to breathe. [The feeling] is just so awesome, and then, once you’ve got that feeling, it’s like an addiction. You just want that feeling all the time. You just want to fly!”
And Eastman isn’t the only one flying. From her private kiteboarding school in the Dominican Republic to the monthly safety column she writes for a popular kiteboarding magazine, Eastman is helping other aspiring boarders experience the exhilaration of her beloved sport.
Although its emphasis on technical skill often demands a high level of commitment, Eastman believes in making kiteboarding accessible to everyone and insists that passion and determination are the only requirements of participation. “Kiteboarding is perceived as a very extreme sport, and certainly it can be a very extreme sport. But there is room for all different types of athletes and non-athletes in kiteboarding, because the base of kiteboarding is flying kites, and this is something that everyone can do. “We have kids who are three years old that fly the kites with me, and I have people who are in their 70s who fly kites with me. So just because you don’t want to be out there and be radical doesn’t mean that you can’t participate in the joy that comes with flying kites. It’s definitely something that-you know, you probably won’t be out there jumping 30 feet in the air, but you can get your hands on the kite and feel that connection with the wind.” Connection.
Perhaps this is what best defines Eastman. From the new boarders she inspires to the internal fulfillment she experiences to the ethical environmentalism she practices, for Eastman kiteboarding is clearly not just about riding that wave and catching big air. By connecting such myriad elements, Eastman is able to achieve a sense of balance in her sport and find her niche in the natural systems of the earth. As the thread that weaves together victories and outreach; adrenaline and serenity; physical activity and spiritual centering; and personal values and professional career; balance becomes a goal and a way of life. And that, for Eastman, is what makes kiteboarding fun. “It’s just a really wonderful feeling.”