Hours after turning 20 years old, professional kiteboarder Aaron Hadlow was crowned champion of PKRA’s World Tour for the fifth successive season. Afterward the Brit took a hiatus from competing, exploring a more prominent role on the R&D side of the sport. Two years later he tried to return, but tore his ACL; recovery took another year. When Hadlow finally got back on the board, he was no longer kiteboarding‘s apex predator, as he was in 2008.

But at this year’s Think Blue Kitesurf World Cup in Germany, the Red Bull athlete finally returned to the podium’s top spot. It was the first time he’d won a PKRA event in nearly five years — and now that he’s finally back to full health, Hadlow is gunning for a sixth world championship. We talked with the kiteboarder between sessions about his return, the future of kiteboarding and how he could’ve been balling next to Wayne Rooney.

MORE GP INTERVIEWS: Jozy Altidore, World Cup Striker | Parker Liautaud, Arctic Explorer | Alastair Humphreys, British Author/Adventurer

Q.
What’s one thing every man should know?
A.
That kiteboarding is a healthy and fun sport that everyone should enjoy.

Q.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A.
The hardest thing — I think the hardest thing for me was — is related to kiting and my injury, the comeback from the injury, or the rehabilitation and getting my knee strong again from obviously being so weak in the past.

Q.
What are you working on right now?
A.
I’ve been working on the consistency of my tricks. I want to be able to land all my best tricks in each heat of the competition. For a long time, when I was at the top, I was inventing new tricks. There has been a lot of progression in the sport and I’ve been catching up. So now that I am starting to get there, I’ll be working on some new tricks as well, if I can.

I would like to be remembered for being the most dominant and progressive kiteboarder.

Q.
Name one thing you can’t live without.
A.
I can’t live without my kiteboarding equipment, for sure.

Q:
Who or what influences you?
A:
I have had a lot of influence from my family for sure. My mom and dad have played a massive part in what I’ve done and achieved. I guess I take influence from different athletes in different sports a little bit. I kind of can relate to Kelly Slater, for instance — just being able to dominate such a difficult sport for so long. So people like that, those are the people for sure I look up to.

Q.
What are you reading right now?
A.
The last book I was reading was actually the Steve Jobs biography.

Q.
Name one thing no one knows about you.
A.
That I had the chance to go to Manchester United Soccer Academy before I started kiteboarding.

Q.
It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A.
I think I would have a classic English Sunday roast dinner. It’s turkey with, like, vegetables, potato — yeah, I guess like a Thanksgiving kind of dinner.

Hadlow’s Competition Set-Up

When we spoke to Aaron, he was in Spain preparing for the next PKRA competition: the Tarifa Pro Kite Tour 2014. Unlike recreational riders, professional kiteboarders’ competitive gear set needs to accommodate all sorts of conditions. Each rider has multiple sets of kites, boards, harnesses and other gear. Straight out of the water, here is the setup Hadlow’s using right now.

Kite-Sidebar-Gear-Patrol
Kite: North Kiteboarding — Vegas (Hadlow Edition)
This is a freestyle/wakestyle-orientated kite. Hadlow worked with the design team to create this at the start of the 2015 season. He personally travels with 7-, 8-, 9-, 11-, 13- and 14.5-meter kites.
northkiteboarding.com

Board-Sidebar-Gear-Patrol
Board: North Kiteboarding — Team Series (Hadlow Edition)
A Freestyle/Wakestyle-orientated board, Hadlow was intimately involved in making this board flexible enough to ride rails yet dynamic in the air. The Hadlow Edition is 140cm long, 42.5cm wide.
northkiteboarding.com

Harness-Sidebar-Gear-Patrol-
Harness: ION — Hummer
This harness maximizes movement and all-around freedom so Hadlow can do all the required handle bar tricks and spins.
ion-products.com

Q.
If you could go back and tell your 16-year-old self something, what would you say?
A.
Probably just to stick with it and not give up.

Q.
How do you want to be remembered?
A.
I would like to remembered for being the most dominant and progressive kiteboarder.

Q.
What’s your diet and workout routine like? Do you anything to train besides kiteboarding?
A.
We spend some time in the gym in between kiteboarding. I always feel the best way of training is to practice the sport, but you can overdo it. It’s important to rest and eat the right things. For me, I do a little bit of mountain biking and cycling to build my knees up. Your knees and shoulder are the most important for kiteboarding because of the force it takes to land. And then doing handle bar strips where you’re taking all the pressure through your arms and shoulders.

Q.
Has your training regimen changed since your injury? How?
A.
Yeah, actually — before, I didn’t train as much off the water. You kind of learn a lot from having something bad happen to you. At the time I was very fit, but was training so hard to get back onto the world tour that I was just doing too much. When I got hurt, those muscles were weakened, and I didn’t have the same knowledge that I have now. It’s important to replenish in between training sessions because once you get too fatigued, then it goes; you lose strength in your muscles. I think that’s what’s actually what caused my injury. So yeah, you just learn with the time; it’s a factor that has definitely helped me learn more about my body.

Q.
Kiteboarding looks similar to wakeboarding, skateboarding, windsurfing and snowboarding. Is that true?
A.
Yeah, kiteboarding is quite a mishmash of different sports, but I don’t personally do many of them. In freestyle, there’s another niche where it’s more rails and kicker-specific riding. But that’s the thing about kiteboarding: there are so many disciplines that cross over to other sports. I think if you come from different sports you can get on quite well with kiteboarding. The only thing I would say is in kiteboarding you initiate your momentum by holding on to the handle and moving your body around your hands. So although snowboarding looks quite similar, it’s actually a really different sport because of the way you initiate your spin without any pull.

Q.
What’s the most challenging part about being a professional kiteboarder?
A.
It’s quite demanding being on the road all the time. Often we don’t always go into the most beautiful and perfect places for competition. I would say it’s a good time going around and competing if you have a competitive nature. For me, I have flights every few weeks off to the next competition. Or if it’s not a competition, it’s a photo shoot, or a demo day, or something like that. So you’re living out of your suitcase quite often. I ended up having that little break for a couple of years because I needed to kind of take time away from the crazy schedule. But actually, after a while, you sort of realize what you were missing and it motivates you to come back.

Q.
How has professional kiteboarding — in terms of popularity and competitions — changed since you started over a decade ago?
A.
It’s been quite up and down actually. I think in different areas of the world it has changed at different times. There were some years where we had four events. Some years where we’ve had five or six. Lately, it’s stabled out and we’ve had about 10 per year. It hasn’t necessarily grown huge. Some events are much bigger than they used to be, and some are kind of similar in terms of prize money and stuff like that. For sure the sport is growing, and for sure we’re getting a lot of recognition for what we’re doing.

Q.
Commercially, how will kiteboarding continue to grow?
A.
I actually think there’s going to be a new takeover of the tour for 2015. There’s some new investors coming aboard that plan to really grow the sport. It’s quite a pivotal moment right now. There’s a really good structure coming and it’s giving kiteboarding a good direction for the future with a lot more media and a lot more awareness.

Q.
What about other competitors? Are there more good riders than before?
A.
The level’s increased since the few years I have been off the tour. It’s pretty dramatic — a younger generation of kids is coming through. Before, a few guys would dominate and it would kind of be between a few of us. Now, there’s a handful of riders that can win an event at any point during the year and take a world championship.

Q.
What are some of your career’s high points?
A.
I would say to have so much success when I was younger and achieve what I did. Obviously the first championship was a massive one, and every time until the fifth one was just kind of more and more unbelievable. And actually, it’s halfway through the season this year and finally I’ve got my first win at the last event, the sixth event of this year, and that’s probably one of the best moments just because of how hard it has been to come back from injury and get back to the top.

Q.
What about the low points?
A.
For sure when I first got injured and found out that I tore my ACL, and that it would be seven months to a year recovery. A few months down the line, you wonder if you’re going to ever get back to the level you were at, or you wonder if you’ll be walking the same and even be able to kiteboard again. But luckily I had a lot of support from Red Bull. Psychologically and obviously physically they helped out with the whole operation — the whole procedure — and then the fitness program, and the rehabilitation to get me back to where I was.

Q.
After you won your fifth world tour you took a hiatus, and took more of an R&D role. Why?
A.
I’d been on tour for seven years. I kind of had the intention of coming back, but I needed some time to try something else. I had the opportunity with my sponsor at the time to create kind of a sister brand. I quite liked the idea of taking something that you believe in and making it grow — having that control to design the kite with designers, make it look how you like with graphic designers, and get the whole package together. But in those two years I was also doing a lot of videos, working on other things and competing in smaller, niche events.

Q.
In terms of gear and innovation, how much more room for improvement is there in the sport?
A.
We’ve kind of plateaued over the last few years and it’s a much safer sport now. When I first learned, we had no de-power in the kite. It could drag you all over the place. Now, they’re easy to learn on, easy to relaunch off the water, and that’s bringing new people into the sport. On the other side, we can get more performance out of the racing kites or the hardcore freestyle kites that I’m using. I’ve recently signed with North Kiteboarding, which is I believe the biggest brand in kiteboarding at the minute. I’ve spoken quite closely with the designer about the future and I still think there’s potential in enhancing the performance over time.

Q.
Is there pressure on kiteboarders to promote their sport? Part of me thinks that if I were a professional kiteboarder, I’d want to keep it like a “best kept secret” kind of thing.
A.
Yeah, I guess there are people like that. For me, I want to share the sport and grow it. Obviously, it’s something I’m passionate about, love to do and would love to keep on doing as long as I possibly can. So to help grow the sport, bring more money into it, grow it more publicly — all these interest me. You want to grow yourself as an athlete and the sport as well, get more well known and show people what you really do.

Q.
What would you say the pinnacle of kiteboarding is right now? Is there one event that all kiteboarders would love to win?
A.
There are a few other disciplines in the world tour, but freestyle is the biggest. The pinnacle would be the world champion of the PKRA Tour; that’s what the top riders are striving for. On the other side, there are a couple of events which are more niche. One of those events is the Red Bull King of the Air. It’s an older style of riding, with the big jumps and taking the board off your feet, but still quite spectacular. A lot of people want to bring this back to the public because it’s what attracts the crowds, but it’s a bit more dangerous. On the final side of freestyle, there’s a competition called the Triple S in Cape Hatteras. It’s got big prize money, the best features, the best rails, the best format and the best riders from this side of the sport.

Q.
How much longer do you think you’ll be doing this?
A.
That’s really hard to say. There’s definitely a younger generation and, having been there myself, I know once you get on a roll how far you can take it being young with lots of energy and kind of go for it. So for me it’s difficult to tell. I’m 25 now, and I guess I can see myself definitely competing for the next couple of years. Then depending on how they go, I guess we’ll see.