This article featured in Kiteworld multimedia issue #109. First published: March 2021
Liam Whaley is insanely good. Colin Colin Carroll argues, however, that the Spaniard hasn’t yet peaked and perhaps his greatest success is consistently bringing out the best in others
Don’t follow Liam Whaley online. Spare yourself. His knee rehab progress, in combination with his apparently relentless commitment to recovery, will have you considering your own lack of determination and self worth. It seems as though he saw his ripped tendons and ligaments as a challenge. Eurgh. Why can’t he be like the rest of us for once and ignore the tedious physio exercises of lifting your leg up and down on a yoga mat. No, it looks as though he is more determined with more than ever to prove.
The thing is, Liam hasn’t peaked. Not yet. Read on for the evidence.
You get the impression that Liam could have done anything; been anyone and mastered any sport. I can imagine him taking corners for Spain or keeping up with Nadal on the cross-courts. We should be so lucky that he chose kiteboarding and watching him rise to mastership has been a joy.
He already claimed a freestyle world championship in 2015 and his reputation precedes him; his 2020 video from Greece is probably the most technically impressive freestyle edit, ever. At the time of writing this Liam is twenty four and has achieved a lot, but I bet that he feels as though there’s still work to be done. I’d bet my life on it, because everything about him screams that he’s got enough firepower to make a siege on the palace. To quit being a prince and make another lunge for the throne.
I know what’s driving him. I know why he attacks the tour, his rehab and KOTA like he does. It’s because his biggest achievement to date is in the form of another person. Someone else: Bebe.
Without Liam, would Bebe (Carlos Mario, 3 x Freestyle World Champion) have reached the heady heights that he did without Liam’s rivalry? A rivalry as big and as important to the sport as Hadlow Vs. Langeree. Whaley Vs. Bebe fostered a competitive environment that squeezed every ounce of brilliance out of the Brazilian and created what was to become the greatest freestyler the sport has ever seen.
Let’s take it back to 2017. It’s mid-feud at this point. Liam and Bebe are 1-1 in world championships. We’re at the final in Leucate, France, at the very start of the season. Bebe crashes his first two tricks, so Liam pounces, ratcheting up the pressure with the highest score of the heat so far: an 8.53 for a backside 315. Bebe sees this for what it is: insurrection. He responds by adding an additional 180 to the 315. Liam then matches it and still leads the heat.
Bebe now has to do something that Liam cannot match. It’s now or never: Bebe lands the first 10.00 scoring trick ever at the WKL, a double heart attack 7 (a front roll and then two handle-passes) with perfect kite handling.
Everyone on the beach, including Liam, is stunned. Liam could still win though if he replaced one of his scores, which he does with a 9.67 Slim7 that puts him in the lead by 0.13.
Liam has effectively chest-passed the figurative ball straight back into Bebe’s face. The ball hurts and Bebe crashes his last trick, crowning Liam the winner in Leucate.
The thing is, everyone remembers that 10.00. The 10 lives forever and it sent a very clear message to Liam: back Bebe into a corner and he’ll bite.
There’s a moment when the jaws of Bebe snapped shut: it’s the other end of the 2017 season and Liam is leading the championship as the finals commence in El Gouna, Egypt. Bebe’s heat begins with the same trick that scored a perfect 10 back in Leucate. It’s clear that Bebe is here to take a chunk out of Liam. To give some context, Luis Alberto Cruz is forced to put everything on the line to keep up and subsequently smashes his ribcage to pieces.
Halfway through the heat, Liam is holding his own but Bebe manages to find another gear. A gear that has been unused until now. What ensues is a terrifying rampage of back-to-back stomps, which puts everyone in the heat, and everyone that has ever competed in freestyle kiteboarding, in their place.
Bebe breaks every boundary with a string of: KGB7, frontside 319, hinterberger-mobe 9. He then catches his breath. Liam is hanging on for dear life with a heart attack 5, the equivalent of a double barrelled shotgun; powerful enough to shut everyone up at your local spot but probably not enough to take control of a country.
Bebe, on the other hand, seems to have acquired the firepower of a nuclear warship, landing a backside 319 (a triple handle-pass, landing blind). It scores a 10. His next trick also scores a 10: hinter-mobe 7 and this is the first time it’s been landed in a competition. Bebe has dismantled the rest of the fleet, asserting his dominance over the history of freestyle kiteboarding. But, Liam was there, both in the heat and at the top of the championship leaderboards. Once again, it was Liam who backed Bebe into a corner.
Since then, we’ve witnessed freestyle kiteboarding climb to ridiculous levels. Levels that put the likes of Youri Zoon’s generation into retirement. They couldn’t keep up. Bebe made 9s commonplace, introduced triple handle passes and, for a few years, was untouchable. Liam admits this. Bebe was God-like, and yet to be equaled by the upcoming generation of Valentin Rodriguez and Adeuri Corniel. Don’t get me wrong, those two are riding with more height and power than ever before, but they lack the finesse and execution of Bebe and Whaley when they were at each other’s throats. Bebe made 9s look easy. The new generation make them look hard.
Another thing that defines Liam Whaley and sets him apart from the big names that have gone before him is his online presence. In particular, the amount of sh*t he is given. He gets more than any of the other big names, by a mile, for very little reason. The countless topless pictures do nothing to quell the flames, but what is most infuriating for Liam’s dedicated pack of people that would rather he kept his top on is his skill and hard work.
Take Liam’s mid-2020 Brazil post on Instagram, for example. His caption implied that he’s pleased to be out of Spain and away from the overt government control due to the coronavirus crisis. His audience immediately see the red mist, commenting that Liam should be more courteous to those who don’t have the luxury to leave their homes, let alone travel to the world’s best freestyle lagoons mid-pandemic. Then the comments section turned political. Liam’s words came across as anti-government. A hot-headed debate ensues, resulting in Liam having to apologize for stoking an already burning fire.
In a world brimming with insecurity, the vanity that social media propels means that people often confuse admiration for jealousy. Liam is who many would rather be. And that stings, especially when he’s gracious about it. Meet Liam in the flesh and you’ll find someone who is fantastic with a kite and has the sport’s best intentions. Who isn’t spoilt. Who knows how lucky he is. That’s the last thing the nay-sayers needed. At least be obnoxious, Liam.
The topless persona and Hugo Boss endorsements don’t help in this department, but if we’re being fair, they are just part of his job. He looks cool and young. Hugo Boss sells cool and young to rich old men. Maybe the nay-sayers would feel better if they got a pinstripe suit and walked about pretending to be Liam. That’s their dream come true.
Kung fu’s in Cape Town. King of the Air 2019 / Photo: Ydwer van der Heide / Red Bull Content Pool
Anyway, that online persona is how Liam garners his follower-ship and commercial ventures. He’s conformed to the rules of social media in order to maximise his opportunities. Can you blame him? That’s how that world works, leaving Liam in the awkward position of being both very privileged and vulnerable to jealous ridicule. He’s unluckily fortunate.
Back to the real world. Liam may have the 2015 freestyle world championship under his belt, but that isn’t enough to put him on the legends list, alongside those whose kiteboarding legacy will live forever: Hadlow, Zoon, Pulido, Bebe. What unifies those riders? They all won kiteboarding’s biggest competition multiple times when it mattered.
Times have however changed and in 2021 one competition shines so bright that it has changed the competitive landscape of the sport. Liam needs to win the Red Bull King Of The Air. He knows it. We know it. Everyone knows it.
Liam has publicly stated that he thinks a second freestyle championship victory would be a greater accolade, however, he’s discounting the fact that a KOTA trophy is one that alludes him. One that has taunted him for the past three years. One that is perhaps is too painful to admit that he desires.
When Liam made his KOTA debut in 2018, it was the loudest entrance into the big-air arena to date. Despite having never competed in big-air on that scale, his competition experience, more recent and more in-tune than anyone else in the fleet, meant he didn’t choke on kiteboarding’s biggest stage. He thrived in front of the 10,000 strong crowds on the beach, with zero pressure and expectation on his shoulders due to the fact that it’s not his discipline. After two days of competition, he finished in second place, using a strategy of kung-fus-to-wrapped in combination with the most fashionable rotations of the moment.
Finishing third, KOTA 2019 / Photo: Craig Kolesky / Red Bull Content Pool
2019 arrives. Liam has experienced the thrill of KOTA and has been in touching distance of the throne. He’s more committed than ever, demolishing Jerrie Van Der Kop, Ross Dillon-Player and Lasse Walker in his path to the final, where he attempts and lands his first ever megaloop KGB. But Liam is out paced, out jumped and out board-offed by Kevin Langeree, who looks as though he has perfected the KOTA formula. Liam finishes third.
2020 comes and brings a stampede of board-offs with it. Liam switches to straps and in the days leading up to the event, he sends panic around the pro circles of Cape Town. Important people are picking Liam for the win. Nay sayers are silenced within the first few rounds. Liam rides a brand new F-One Bullit, specifically made to put him on the throne. He appears to be on fire and is there to do one thing only: dominate.
Oswald Smith falls prey. So does Stuart Downey. The semi-finals come around and Nick Jacobsen is to be the next scalp.
Nick knows Liam will win KOTA if he doesn’t do something about it. The green flag is raised and the wind suddenly picks up another six knots – what ensues might be the best KOTA heat of all time.
Liam sets the tone with a 7.88 boogie loop with an additional rotation on the way down. This was the first sign that this heat was going to be different to the rest. That boogie was the biggest of the event so far.
KOTA crowd fave / Photo: Tyrone Bradley / Red Bull Content Pool
Nick sees it and immediately one-ups him, utilising his bigger kite size (Nick is on a 10m North Orbit, as opposed to Liam’s 9m Bullit) to go bigger. We’re only a minute in and already the crowd can sense that this heat could scratch their itch for extremity and drama, as two of the biggest names in the sport go head to head.
Liam then lands a big late backroll, before the board-offs begin. Again, Liam is first to lunge. It’s in the 7 point range – a good score if it wasn’t in the windiest heat of the day against kiteboarding’s loosest cannon. Nick responds with a bigger board-off, coming in at 8.06. That’s two 8s. Liam lands a kung-fu, it’s small, but something that Nick won’t attempt, so a good point of difference for the judges.
Then, in the final minute, sensing that their fate is in the hands of their last trick attempts, both riders rise to the occasion. Liam nails another gigantic boogie loop which was bigger than Nick’s, the biggest of the day in fact: 8.58. Liam could take the win if his overall impression score is awarded highly at the end of the heat.
Forty seconds left. Nick is searching for a big kicker. Thirty seconds left. He tacks and bides his time, knowing now that he only has one more shot. Twenty seconds left, Nick skips over numerous smaller kickers to find a ramp worthy of access to one of those four-legged elephant tank things in star wars. You know the ones. Anyway, Nick is twenty metres high when he goes for another board-off. It turns out to be the highest scoring trick in KOTA history: 9.02. A fair score for a trick that the videographers struggled to frame. The 10m Orbit catching a gust that just kept on giving while Nick reached for the fin to extend through the board off when the kite was looping at its lowest. The landing is questionable but the judges are decided: Nick takes the win.
Greece / Photo: Christopher Poole
I imagine that reading this, it would feel as though Liam hasn’t had his time yet. That’d be right. He’s been blocked by the biggest names in each discipline but, rest assured, his time will come. Deemed the ‘best rider on the planet at the moment’ by the likes of freestyle boy-genius Tom Bridge, when he does rise to legend status, Liam will have earned it the hard way.
He’s spent a long time in second place, learning how to knock on the door of greatness whilst the hunger has slowly built, year after year. His legacy, when complete, will include making Bebe the greatest freestyler to have flown a kite, multiple multi-discipline trophies of his own, and a reputation for bringing an air of unparalleled professionalism to the sport.
Liam is born to kite. Born to win. Be patient Liam, for great fortune awaits you. And maybe the struggle is the way it’s meant to be. Maybe it’s better that the responsibility of being king fall on your shoulders at the right time, rather than too early, where weaker men would crumble.
When he peaks, his level of skill and competition experience will have equipped him to defend his position. This is something that many world champions have struggled to do. It’s a different game once you’re at the top. All of a sudden you’re the favourite. There’s no one to chase and the only way is down, but I feel that Liam will suit the top spot. He’ll know he’s earned it and know how lucky he is to have the opportunity to be there and, more importantly, keep it. It could well squeeze the best out of him.
In essence, Liam would make a fantastic king. He won’t lord it over the common man in his man-tights while getting bloated on pork crackling and mead. He’ll be out there in the courtyard with his entourage of topless vegans, sharpening his sword and organising jousting competitions for us all to enjoy. It’s a bright future. I hope to be in the courtyard. Better to be there than in a pinstripe suit next door.