December 5, 2023
SINGAPORE – The finest athlete in Singapore right now is a multilingual 17-year-old, who speaks eloquently, wins consistently and will eat your heart for breakfast during competition. Very politely, of course. “This guy,” he told Sail-World of one of his rivals, “is bringing the most out of me and there’s nothing I can do but press on the gas until I explode.”
God bless all teenagers who give such fine quotes.
But there’s a problem and it’s ours and not his. Maximilian Maeder might be master of his world of water and a well-mannered flyer of the Singapore flag, but his sport is a trifle remote. The average fan can recite the 131-year-old history of Liverpool FC but ask him about kitefoiling and he’ll mumble incoherently into his beer. In short, Max is a talent we don’t adequately understand.
One obstacle is simply that land people see water as a foreign element. Tennis and badminton they can expound on for hours, but telling the difference between wakeboarding, wing surfing, kiteboarding and kitefoiling leaves them dizzy. Land folks feel more comfortable on grassy fields and indoor stadiums, but Max’s world is alive, his arena unpredictable, and he flies over it and skates on it sometimes at 70kmh. It’s why he wears a helmet and an impact vest to protect from blunt force.
To truly enjoy Max and appreciate his craft we need to do what he does. Try and be better. By learning his lingo. Checking out the rules of his craft. Figuring out that kitefoiling has bridles and custom-made boards which, as one Instagram video shows, are tested with hammers by the manufacturer. And, yes, it’s also mandatory that he carries a hook knife as he competes. To cut himself free if the lines ever get entangled.
Max won gold at the Asian Games, is world champion and a medal chance at the 2024 Olympics. So be warned. For the next decade there’s a fair chance you’re going to regularly see him grinning on the evening news. So surely we should know what our hero’s skill-set is? Surely when people from overseas ask Singaporeans, and they will, who’s this Maeder guy, we should be able to speak with a little authority? Ah Max, we must say like he’s an old pal, and then casually rattle off some jargon about kitefoiling.
Max is giving us a gift by expanding our repertoire. We’re so stuck to mainstream sports that we’re nervous about anything new. Say break dance to old timers and they shudder in distaste. But like athletes, fans need to stretch their limits.
And so just take a trip to YouTube and watch the kitefoilers, their kites like a dancing flotilla of crescent moons, and even at first glance you can sense their balance, the whip of speed, their nostrils sniffing wind, the strength in their core. As strength and conditioning coach Ranald Joseph says, clarifying that Max is young, competing frequently and thus carefully pushed, “he is squatting 145kg, or 1.5 times his body weight”.
All sports are secret worlds, flecked with their own jargon and demanding their own skills. The closer you get to them, more is revealed. In gymnastics, for instance, like skateboarding, to learn is to fall. Every day. All the time. To witness this is where respect begins.
To burrow into a sport is to find nuance, appreciate technique, figure out peculiarities (swimmers often wear two caps to hold their goggles in place) and discover private languages. On Monday I asked a national swimmer about the terms her tribe might use with each other and she laughingly replied, “Are you shaving?” And both sexes do, “every part of the skin that is exposed to the water hoping that it will reduce as much drag as possible”.
None of this is trivial, for every little piece of information is a key that unlocks another door and lets you further into a sport. And the deeper you go, the harder you can get hooked. For years I saw shooting as a stand-aim-fire activity meant for the slothful and sedentary. Then I spent months with a shooter during a book project and its mysteries began to peel away.
I discovered that stillness requires the precise operation of multiple muscles, that triggering has its perfect moment and that almost no tribe is so pedantic and fussy. No doubt the proximity I enjoyed was a privilege afforded to a writer, but information on sports is easily available now and every extra detail we gather on Max will bring insight and appreciation.
In a land rather light on sporting champions, the kitefoiler has given this nation something to boast about. Except it’s hard to brag if you don’t know what about. So check out kitefoiling websites, listen to the kid speak and one day put aside football and watch this liquid artist at work. This young man speaks four languages fluently and as a sign of respect perhaps we should learn to speak his a little.