Kiteboarder Michaela Pilkenton: Flying High, Out, and Proud

By: Michaela Pilkenton

Twenty feet in the air is probably not the best place to be making split second decisions, yet there I was, suspended in time and space. I had a mere fraction of a second to make a choice between safely floating back to the water like I had done thousands of times, or pulling a kiteloop for the first time. Thoughts raced through my head: women don’t do kiteloops, what if I don’t land it, I could break bones or blow out my knee. In that moment, I made a decision that would forever alter the course of my kiteboarding career –I cranked my bar and watched, terrified, as my kite looped in front of me.

Everything went blank.

I hit the water with blinding speed and bounced across the surface like a ragdoll. At some point in the air I had kicked my board off knowing the risk of blowing out a knee was high. I will never forget that moment when I first made the decision to throw a megaloop. There is nothing quite like being 20 or more feet in the air with your kite upside down and getting yanked horizontally before free falling back down to planet Earth, only to be caught again just before colliding with the water.

I found myself on the beach afterwards, realizing I had fallen even deeper in love with kiteboarding. I had a sinking feeling that I would spend the rest of my life chasing that brief moment where everything goes blank. As a kiter, when you are in mid air, it doesn’t matter where you came from, where you’re going, what the color of your skin is, or who you love. It’s just you, the wind, and a giant piece of fabric that is keeping you from freefalling out of the sky.

Toward the end of college, I found my passion for kiteboarding. I ended up going straight into an internship type job as a kiteboarding instructor on the Southern Oregon Coast. Having been openly out for three years at the time, I thought it would be a breeze to come out to my new community.

I was wrong.

The problem didn’t lie in my feeling of safety or security within my small community at Floras Lake. Rather, the problem was in the kiteboarding world in the greater sense. I found myself in a sport where I didn’t have role models from the LGBTQI+ community. I was afraid that coming out in the kiteboarding world would ruin my chance of becoming a professional kiteboarder. The way I saw it then, the path to sponsorship was through having a partner that was already a professional, ideally of the opposite sex, and marketing myself as the stereotypical bikini clad kiter chic that I was seeing in all of the kiteboarding media.

As fear of my sexuality influencing my path to becoming a professional kiteboarder turned into frustration and determination, I decided that coming out to the kiteboarding community and working my way toward becoming a pro kiter would only feel legitimate if I was not only true to myself, but authentic to the community as a whole. I couldn’t continue living a double life and pursuing my dream when I knew there must be others feeling the same way and wishing they had a role model. As an instructor who is working on the front lines of bringing in the next generation of kiteboarders, I felt it was important to show my students that it doesn’t matter who you love — you can aspire to greatness in kiteboarding. I am now proud to be an openly gay kiter in pursuit of becoming the first and only openly gay professional kiteboarder, and one of the few but growing number of female athletes riding in big air.

Kiteboarding is still a young sport, is relatively accepting, and doesn’t have any rules specifically targeting and discriminating against the LGBTQI+ community. I worry that if we don’t start to see representation now, early in the development of the sport, that narrative might change for the worse. By being out and proud in the kiteboarding community, I hope to start the path of writing the rules as inclusive from the get go. I also hope to be the role model for others in the kiteboarding world that I wish I’d had.

All photos courtesy of Michaela Pilkenton. Follow Michaela on Instagram at @micpilk.