Normally found behind the camera, Andre Magarao has taken some seminal shots of kiting pros over the years. Here he turns journalist, and chats to kiting legend and close friend Youri Zoon about the good old days, when board offs were still in fashion. Oh, hang on, Big Air has actually made a stratospheric come-back, much like injury-prone Youri Zoon on numerous occasions…
Youri and I met early on in my involvement with kiting. I was shooting a lot with Reno Romeu at the time – he was quite good friends with Youri and he introduced us. I ended up working with Youri on a couple of video projects and we’ve been good friends ever since. Youri is one of the nicest guys you will ever meet – super friendly, always happy, full of energy and incredibly humble. Recently he became a father, and has got into triathlon which is a sport I also enjoy. For now, I can give him a hard time on a road bike, but I don’t think that will be for long! He always gives 100% to everything he does. I sat down with Youri to talk about his career as one of the most successful kiters of all time.
How did you get into freestyle kiting?
In everything I did, I always tried to push myself – with kiting it was no different. I had the ambition to ride in the competitions, and ride at the highest level possible. Back in 2004 when I started doing competitions, freestyle was the biggest contest circuit, so that was where I had to be to match myself against the big names. Back in those days it was Aaron, Ruben… Johnny was still there, Alvaro… that was my first competition.
Was that still in the board off era?
I started kiting when it was still board offs, and I did them for the first year I was kiting, from around 2002 to 2003. But then I started with handle passes, and in my first competition kiters were already doing them. It was the year that we made the switch. There were some kiters still doing board offs, but they weren’t scoring very well. I still know board offs because of that first year and still do a board off from time to time!
So you started kiting in 2002, and by 2004 you were already competing?
In 2004 I won the European Junior Championships, and then I went to my first PKRA in Brazil. For me it was a big trip – I was only 14, going overseas to compete in the world cup. Back then there were over 90 people in the event, so there were really big trials. To get into the main event was a huge thing – I made it and got through one round. I think I came 17th, which for me, a 14-year-old kid who had never been on a plane, was quite a big thing.
That’s sick man, congrats. Was the format already a seven-minute heat?
Yeah, seven minutes and you basically did all your tricks. They scored more based on the overall impression I would say. Then slowly it started to change to quality over quantity.
It seems like everyone in the Netherlands likes to go big, even the new generation (Pippa van Iersel for example). Why do you think that happens – is it the water, the beer, the stroopwaffles?!
I don’t know, it must be something! Over the years the Netherlands has produced a lot of good riders for such a small country with poor conditions. It’s not like Greece or Brazil – it is choppy, gusty and cold – but I guess that if you’re able to ride here, you’re able to ride anywhere. Maybe that is what makes us strong riders in the competitions – whatever conditions they throw at us, we are able to ride, and I guess for competition riding it is one of the biggest advantages you could have. In a competition you don’t need to be the best rider out there (obviously it helps), but the important thing is you have to ride smart.
Yeah true. I remember when we met, I was really impressed by the combo tricks you were doing. You were basically the only one doing them, and you could do them well and consistently. How did they come about? How did you decide to push yourself to learn them?
Honestly… I have no idea, it just happened. I was always riding with a lot of speed, and my kite, the RPM, worked perfectly for it – it had some slack, but still quite a lot of power, and I could maintain my speed to pop into the next trick. In the beginning they were small, but then I started getting two good tricks straight after each other, and then I managed three, then four. In the competitions this scored big time, because I was doing four tricks in the first minute, and the other guy was only just making his way into the box. Quickly I would have eight decent tricks while the other guy was still on his first or second trick – it was a good way to start the heat. I would put on a good show, and people enjoyed it for a while until they decided they didn’t want to see it anymore.
So when you started doing them, it wasn’t because you thought it would score high? It wasn’t like a planned thing?
I have always ridden the way I want to ride – maybe it wasn’t the smartest way but it was my way. As you know, my grabs are so good, haha! I have always wanted to go big, fast and far – that’s what makes me stoked to ride, and that’s what I would do in the competitions as well. Sometimes I could have gone for a small trick and won the heat, but instead I went for a really big trick, and it didn’t always work out. But that was the style I wanted to show. Now when I look back, I feel like it did actually play out well, because of the image it created of my riding. To be honest I wasn’t thinking how it would score, I was doing it because it was what I wanted to do it. And I still do combos from time to time.
When the judging system changed and you had to adapt, how gnarly was it for you to adjust?
It was hard – as I said, I wanted to show my style, but I also wanted to win. So I was pretty upset when the judging changed. I knew combos were something the average person liked to see, but I understand that we needed to push the sport in a different direction – a direction we could grow, that would work for live streaming and live scoring. My combos didn’t really work for that – the cameras would struggle to film them, and the judges found it hard to score them. The voting to decide the format change was something like 31 to one – I was the only person that wanted to keep the combos! That was a decision I couldn’t win and I changed my training accordingly.
How did you adapt your competition tactics?
From the combo days, I learnt you can put a lot of pressure on the other rider with your first trick. So I tried to keep that tactic and always open the heat with a big trick – I changed the tricks but kept the strategy the same. I started opening the heats with a backside 317: a ballsy move, but if it worked out it was a statement, and it gave me a lot of confidence for the rest of the heat. If I didn’t land it, I would take 15 seconds to refocus and try again. Because I had that strategy so clear in my head, I was able to work with it successfully for a long time. Nowadays most of the guys open the heats with doubles.
In Uruau in Brazil, in 2013, a lot of people could do doubles but it would take them a few tries. Then I filmed you, landing everything in this tiny lagoon. I remember on the first day you did a really impressive KGB7, with such speed. Everyone was riding fast and smooth, but then there was ‘Youri fast’! You were riding faster than anyone into the tricks.
Yeah, I wanted to show something, to show my riding style – that was the way I wanted to ride. It’s not something I did on purpose to brag about it. I didn’t wake up one morning and decide to ride really fast. It was just a natural thing – it was my feeling. That year was probably my best riding and the easiest riding as well. It was going strong, was working well. I’m pretty happy with the tricks I was landing back then.
You’re probably pretty proud when you see kiters riding nowadays right? I feel like nowadays everyone rides ‘Youri fast’.
I wouldn’t say I’m proud, but I like to see that style. When I see someone going fast, kite low, doing sick tricks, I think “yeah, that’s how it should be.” I don’t know if it’s because of me, but when I see it, I’m happy. I hope they keep doing it, the more aggressive the better!
It’s hard to pinpoint why board sports evolve. Would you say it was important to you to have that competition with Alex Pastor to evolve your riding?
Of course – you need somebody to compete against. You see it with Kevin and Aaron, Alex and me, and now Adeuri and Bebe, or maybe Bebe and Liam. There is always somebody you meet many times in the finals, and I feel like that time with Alex was good for competition. I was in this mindset where you just want to beat the other guy. I get along really well with Alex and there are no hard feelings, but once the heat was on, he was the guy I wanted to beat. I could lose to anybody else and not really care, but if I lost to that one guy, I was like NOOOO! I think it happens in every sport and is a good thing – seeing the other person push themselves motivates you to do the same. We had a pretty good and healthy competition going on. It was a good run!
I think it was really cool because you guys were so different. Alex has his style and you have yours and, aside from both of you being really good, you guys showed two different ways of doing the same sport.
Yeah, Alex is way more technical and smoother. My style was just more powerful, more aggressive, sometimes balls to the wall and whatever happens, happens! But yeah, two very different styles. I could always appreciate his style too because it was so smooth and well planned out. But even though I could appreciate it, it was never the style I wanted to ride.
When the format changed to a longer heat with six tricks, would you say that helped you in a way or not?
I don’t think it helped me at all; I kind of lost my way… Back in the seven-minute format days it was full energy, full power, and then it changed into a more ponderous 45-minute heat where you do six or seven tricks. I knew it was necessary for the live streaming and live scoring, but it wasn’t something I enjoyed much – because you do your trick, ride back out, and wait a few minutes before you do another trick, the hype I used to have in the seven minute heats wasn’t there. I still did well and won a few competitions, but it wasn’t my style. But at the end of the day, if a change is better for the general benefit of the sport, you have to go with it and adapt to the new format. Sometimes it is not what you want, but it’s what you have to do.
Combos are difficult technically, but also fitness-wise. It must be hard to do trick after trick. Did you train for the fitness side of it?
No, I was young! In 2009 I was 19, that makes a big difference – back then everything was going my way. I wasn’t training in the gym, I was just kiting, kiting and kiting… I wasn’t really fit. Now looking back, I should have trained in the gym a lot more to avoid injuries. But when you are 19… who cares, you know! I have been injured way too many times – shoulder, knee a couple of times, the other knee, the other shoulder, yeah, way too much. I had surgery on my left knee and shoulder, I tore my ACL, and last year in Brazil I nearly dislocated my shoulder. I basically broke everything on the left side and then started on the right side!
How was it coming back from all these injuries? It seems like you came back stronger each time.
It wasn’t my priority at first, but after the injuries I started training. I was determined to come back fighting. For months after an injury, you would find me inside the gym six or seven days a week, before I could kite again. This helped massively – after my shoulder injury for example, I was able to do a back mobe on the first session. My shoulder still hurt a bit, but I was fortunate to build a good relationship with my doctors and physio. I could trust them 100% and they told me to go for it as I had put the work in. I did come back stronger after every injury, but let’s not make this a habit! Luckily, I don’t have to do competitions anymore which should reduce my chances of injury.
So you only started going to the gym after the injuries?
Yes, and that was the biggest mistake I’ve made in my career – I wish I had started going to the gym before all the injuries. I try to tell the new generation this – you don’t have to be massive or bulky, lifting 200kg, but you need to work out and take care of yourself. There aren’t that many people that get to the top of their sport after an injury, so make sure you get yourself really fit and strong to avoid the injuries in the first place. Some of the young kids take the advice, others are like me back in the day – “whatever… nothing can happen to me”. When you are 16 you will probably get away with it, but as you get older, things get more challenging.
And what’s next for papa Youri?
This year I had one or two trips planned nearly every month, but of course Covid came and ruined that party! However, I’ve been able to spend way more time with my little boy which is worth all the trips in the world. Luckily we are now able to do some traveling again, so I will soon be back in the iron bird. Next up is Italy for coaching and then Greece. After that I hope more countries will open up and we get to travel more. ■
This feature originally appeared in TheKiteMag #38. To subscribe, head here.