BENGALURU (Reuters) - Soaring 30 feet above the waves gives Dutch para kiteboarder Willem Hooft some of the freedom he lost five years ago in a motorcycle accident, as he now travels the world to grow the sport as a professional athlete.
Hooft was part of a Para Development Program (PDP) event exclusively for kiteboarding at Lake Garda, Italy, last weekend as the sport's governing body World Sailing looks to nurture a discipline showing plenty of promise.
But his journey from recreational kiteboarder to a man on a mission to inspire others and promote the sport globally has not always been plain sailing.
"I started building a board myself. When I started 'sit kiteboarding', there were only eight people in the world doing it," Hooft, who is paralysed from the waist down and needs a special board with a seat, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
"I contacted the others to see how they did it and what kind of boards they used and began training as much as I could. After two years, I was at a level where I could make a trip to South Africa, where the waves can be pretty big."
Hooft said returning to the water gave him the motivation to continue his passion and he earned a sponsorship from American company Slingshot.
He is now a professional kiteboarder for the Slingshot Kite team and a team rider for Wind Voyager.
"After having an accident like this, you realise life can end at any moment. So after I did the rehabilitation and learnt how to live independently again, I decided I wanted to learn to surf again," Hooft said.
"In the last three years, I've been kiteboarding as much as I can and pushing the limits. Now there are many people who have started, with 50-100 seated para kiteboarders around the world."
Hooft, who is also a motivational speaker, said his mission is to make the discipline as well known as possible. He also runs a foundation aiming to take it to the Paralympics.
"It's amazing what World Sailing is doing with their PDPs, which is what we want to do with the foundation," Hooft added.
While sailing is part of the Summer Olympics for able-bodied competitors, it was dropped from the Paralympics for the Tokyo Games last year, after being part of the programme from 2000 to 2016.
World Sailing failed to get the sport to return for Paris 2024 and doubts remain over its inclusion for Los Angeles in 2028, but Hooft believes para kiteboarding can help turn the tide in the future.
"It's more a question of when and not if it will make it to the Paralympics," he added. "Look at kiteboarding, it has grown so much that it's only logical para kiteboarding too will grow massively in the coming years."
Hooft's advice for young para kiteboarders is to start early and enjoy competing, as being on the water can help them regain the feeling of freedom and independence.
"Those are the feelings that people miss the most when they're in a wheelchair," he added.
(Reporting by Shrivathsa Sridhar in Bengaluru; Editing by Christian Radnedge)