Weekend Warriors: Kiteboarder Hope LeVin has finally found the perfect balance of sport and life
Hope LeVin has just completed her media rounds at a MaiTai Kiteboarding Event on the private Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands. She and fellow kiteboarders Susi Mai and Bruna Kajiya sit down to have breakfast, when the owner of the island, Richard Branson -- also the founder of Virgin Group -- approaches them to introduce himself.
LeVin thinks, "How does that happen to a girl from a little island in the Atlantic?"
She plays it cool. She jokes with him about their accents -- his English, hers Caribbean. "But which island?" she asks him in jest.
He never guessed she was from Turks and Caicos -- and LeVin never could have guessed that kiteboarding would put her in front of some of the world's most influential people.
At eight years old, LeVin saw her sport for the first time and instantly fell in love. "It's hard to see kiteboarding and not be intrigued," she recalls. She used to go for long beach walks with her father as a kid -- and remembers watching a family friend, Randy Hall, learning to kite on Grace Bay Beach near their home in Providenciales, Turks and Caicos.
It was a couple years later that LeVin saw another family friend, Terri Tapper, take on the sport. It was the first time she'd seen a woman kiteboarder. "I knew then I was ready. I got a super tiny kite and both of them, but particularly Terri, were instrumental in my learning the sport."
LeVin became obsessed with kiteboarding -- and was lucky to be on the water as often as she wanted because she was home-schooled. "For a very long time I was the only non-adult kiter in the country," she says. When she became a teen, she'd often train and compete with boys. "I'd have a competitive advantage [because I was] smaller and more lightweight in lighter wind conditions!" she laughs.
Then at 17, LeVin went to boarding school in the United Kingdom. "I realized how much I loved and missed kiteing. When I completed the course, I knew it was now or never to really go after kiting." She also liked one of the major perks of the sport: travel.
"My first event was when I wanted to go to the Punta Cana Kite Fest in the Dominican Republic and the organizer told me I would receive free accommodation if I competed in the event." Thrilled about the free hotel room, she headed to Punta Cana -- and placed second. That's when she knew she could take her skills on the road in a competitive way.
"After that I really put all my energy into that and for the next year I made podium in every event I entered." LeVin had already been a shop-level sponsored rider for a few years, but she then officially turned pro, joining Naish Kiteboarding's top international team when she was 20 years old.
While training for competitions, LeVin would kite twice a day -- in the early morning and afternoon -- six days a week. She'd train, then take a break to eat and rest, all the while visualizing how to improve on her tricks. In the afternoon session, LeVin would go back to the water again, taking the mental training she'd done over lunch and fine-tuning her skills.
It wasn't long before her wins started to get her noticed. One of her biggest came in 2014, when she placed third overall in the Triple S Invitational, the largest kiteboarding event in North America.
In 2015, LeVin was nominated for Female Kiteboarder of the Year by the American Wind Sport Industry. "Unfortunately I didn't get the award, but just being nominated was incredible!" recalls LeVin.
Not long after, she hit a crossroads. At age 23, LeVin came to a point where the nonstop solo traveling was wearing on her. She loved the sport, but wanted to be in control of her own schedule. "Funding and overworking myself have been the biggest challenges of kiting for me. Kiteboarding is still in its infancy so finding sponsorship and funding was a big challenge."
The schedule in 2015 had been grueling, to say the least. During one stretch, LeVin flew to a photo shoot for her sponsor Naish in Maui, Hawaii, then went back to Turks and Caicos for 14 hours. From there she flew to London for final exams for online courses she was taking. She took the tests, then headed straight to North Carolina for another competition.
So LeVin decided to retire from the competitive circuit in 2015, feeling like she had achieved what she wanted to competition-wise -- but she didn't leave the kiting world.
Ten years ago, as a 13-year-old, LeVin had founded an event she dubbed Windvibes -- a fun family day held each year to build interest in kiteboarding on Turks and Caicos. In the last decade the event has grown into the country's largest water sports day -- and the money raised during it goes to 10 local Turks and Caicos charities. This year, LeVin helped raise $37,000.
Today LeVin believes she's finally found the perfect balance: She's doing exhibitions in the sport she loves, and is also involved in a more meaningful and satisfying way.
"I've never been a competitive person by nature, and getting into competitions was really an accident. I was very fortunate to have success in competitions, but the traveling and stress caught up to me and I knew I needed to change my ways when I started to lose my passion for the sport."
Less than a year after she switched gears, she feels like a different person. "I'm finding myself right back where I was -- with full love for this incredible sport and endless excitement for the future!"