After a snowboarding accident at the age of 21, Nico has been following his personal dream of getting back in the water again, so he got involved in a long and sometimes painful process of readapting kitesurfing for disabled people and thus becoming a pioneer in disabled kitesurfing. I met Nico in my hometown and felt totally inspired by his personal story. Too good not to be told so here it goes a little interview I made to him.

Hello Nico. For those who don’t know you, please do a little introduction on yourself
In my birth certificate, I’m Nicolas but I’ve been called more or less every variation of that name in the course of my life – Niki, Nick, Niklas, Nicola etc. – right now I mostly react to Nico. I was born and raised in Austria in a town called Innsbruck. Probably inherited from my father and grandfather I somehow was always attracted to the sea even though living in the Alps. This did not really change after my snowboard accident when I was 21 years old,  and here I am … a couple of years older trying to find my way around in El Medano of Tenerife and following my passion of kitesurfing.

You obviously became a different person after the snowboarding accident, but what are the main differences between the ‘pre’ and ‘post’ accident Nico?
This is not easy to answer because also without the accident I probably wouldn’t be who I used to be 15 years ago.
I’d be lying though if I said that my disability did not change me at all.
In the years after my injury, I had to learn to take more time for myself and listen more to my body. As strange as it might sound, even though I can’t feel my body below my injury level, it indirectly reacts to slightest changes in my physical health or even the weather.
Another important change is that I depend more on other people than I used to before my injury and that there are things I just can’t do at all. This was not easy to accept at the beginning and it still can be a bit frustrating sometimes. On the other hand, it did teach me that it’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help and with the years passing by I noticed that pretty much everybody is limited in one way or the other – my limits are just a little more obvious.

disabled kitesurfer doing a jump in the water

© Sergio Villalba

One thing that really caught my attention is that you were one of the first (if not the first) disabled kitesurfer. Tell us about the process.
Before my accident, I used to windsurf passionately, so it was a logical step for me to try to get back in the water again. It didn’t take long for me to realize that kitesurfing would be the key to getting out surfing again. A year later, in 2003, we already started with the first kitesurfing-attempts at a kitesurfing school of a good friend of mine in northern Germany. Retrospectively our approach was pretty crazy back then. To give an example, we started with a directional board that had so much float-ability that I could not keep my head above the water. Our solution to that problem was one of those classical orange live jackets with a collar to save me from drowning. After all, it’s not a big surprise that we weren’t too successful in that first year.
The following summer we tried it again, this time with a board without float-ability and some Flysurfer kites which had the best-developed safety system back then. Those changes finally led to my first successful ride behind a kite – a moment I won’t forget that easily.
Afterward, it should take another two frustrating years and some technological changes in the kite technology until I could finally go upwind and reach my goal to kite independently.
Since then, apart from one or the other setback, I tried to spend as much time as possible combining two of my biggest passions – kitesurfing and traveling.

A disabled kitesurfer practicing in the water

© Sergio Villalba

Let’s talk a bit more about kitesurfing. What does it mean to you?
I think that ‘passion’ is the best word to describe how I feel about kitesurfing, especially when you consider that it comes from the Latin word ‘passio’ which basically means ‘pain’ or ‘suffering’. What I want to say with this is that I went through a lot to be able to practice this sport and I still have to put up with one or the other complication connected to kitesurfing but for me, it’s literally worth the pain. I’m honestly a little proud of what I have achieved in this sport and I keep enjoying myself a lot in the water. In pretty much every session there are those short moments when I could and sometimes even do scream of joy – and even if there is a price for it to pay, I pay it gladly.

As any other new sport or activity, disabled kitesurfing is still a work in progress. What are the next improvements to be made?
Huh … how to respond to that …
I don’t really know. For me, it’s mainly trying to develop the gear (especially the seat and the board) in small steps.
I’m honestly not too experienced when it comes to technological improvement. All the more I see it as a blessing that our small community of seated kiters has been growing steadily in the last couple of years. It helped me a lot to be able to exchange information and ideas with friends of mine who have a way better understanding of the technological part of this sport. And even though each rider still has his very individual approach to this sport, there is a notable growth of common overlap about the key aspects of seated kitesurfing.

A disabled kitesurfer does a turn in the water

© Sergio Villalba

Here goes a tricky one. Are doctors aware of your kitesurfing addiction? May it have any side effects?
I’ve actually never talked with a doctor about possible ‘side effects’ of kiting. But I do think that it might affect my body in one or the other way.
I do mostly try to avoid bad shocks but it can still happen sometimes. To compensate, it helps to be in good shape which is why started to do physiotherapy on a regular basis about half a year ago. My therapists do challenge me a lot but it definitely helps me quite a bit and anyways, I sometimes need someone with a whip behind me to get started.

Sport is presented often as a life saver. Do you think this is true?
No, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that sport itself is capable of saving lives. Generally speaking, I wouldn’t even say that sports improve the quality of life in any case. I’d rather think that whatever it is that drives you, whatever passion you have, this is the motor that keeps you going; and this most definitely does not have to be sports in particular.

Your story must be told to inspire others, don’t you think?
I’d definitely feel honored if people thought that my story is worth being told but I better let other people decide about that.

I really see a positive person in you, what is it that made you see life like a bunch of possibilities and not limitations?
In fact, I do think that life is full of limitations. How could we appreciate our possibilities if it weren’t for the limitations?

Do you believe there’s a long way to go yet to achieve ‘full inclusion’ of disabled people in society?
Even though the situation for disabled people in so called first world countries is definitely getting better, I’m generally quite pessimistic about a full inclusion of disabled people. In societies where your personal worth is measured by your (economic) productivity, there cannot be full inclusion. Just think of the fact that whenever you meet someone new, one of the first questions is something like: ‘And what do you do for a living?’. As if your job equals your personality.
Maybe I’m mistaken – I surely hope so.

Close up of feet of a disabled kitesurfer on his board

© Sergio Villalba

Everyone has dreams, talk about yours!
Hmmm … I’m a dreamer – if I started to tell you about my dreams, we couldn’t get to an end.
So I’ll just keep them for me!

Tennis is your other passion, isn’t it?
I really like playing tennis a lot. Especially for wheelchair users it’s a great sport as you can play on pretty much every court and your playing partner does not necessarily have to be a wheelchair user either. About wheelchair tennis, in particular, I love the sense of community. Even though it sometimes can get a bit emotional and rough during matches, that whole thing is mostly forgotten as soon as you’re off the court sharing a meal or a beer with your former opponent. Unfortunately, there is no real wheelchair tennis community on Tenerife and I’ve let it slide a lot in the last year. But we’ll see what the future brings as we, the association ‘En Ruedas Tenerife’, are currently trying to organize the first international world ranking wheelchair tennis tournament on Tenerife – the ‘Autonomy Tenerife Open 2017’. Wish us luck.

Good luck!
Well, if you could step back in time and change something from your life, what would it be?
My life probably would have been different if it weren’t what has happened or for what I have done in the past. But at the end of the day that does not really matter because this is why I am who I am. There are things though that I’d like to change about the present me … I’m working on it.

To conclude I want to thank all the people on the beach who help me out all those times I go kiting. I honestly love the sense of community on the beach.
And to everybody who kept reading until here, thank you for your interest.

A disabled athlete sits on his wheelchair

© Sergio Villalba

If you want to see more photos of Nico and other disabled athletes, make sure you check out the project ‘Enabled People’ on my website. If you are interested in licensing photos from this story, here’s a link to my work in Aurora.