Kite rider: The girl who fought back from the brink

Story highlights

  • Hannah Whiteley is a three-time British freestyle kitesurfing champion
  • The 21-year-old is one of the most exciting prospects in European competition
  • Started kitesurfing at age of 10 but stopped following near death experience
  • Returned to action at age of 15 and vowed to reach top after finishing last in first ever event

Hannah Whiteley laughs in the face of danger -- at least she does now.

But it wasn't always that way, for this was one kitesurfing tale which almost ended in tragedy.

Rewind 11 years and with her father Pete, a five time British senior champion, watching on in horror. Whiteley came within inches of serious injury -- and maybe even death.

It was a moment which would have forced lesser beings into nightmares and cold sweats -- but not this British-born battler.

"My dad was teaching me and I was going along fine, then all of a sudden then I was out of control and went flying through the sky," Whiteley told CNN's Human to Hero series.

"I was getting dragged down with the kite and heading into the wavebreakers.

"I thought I was going to hit the pier and that was scary, but I hit the ground and was in a daze. Some guy came and helped tame my kite and made sure I stayed still.

"When you crash in the water, the water turns into concrete, it's not soft. You get a lot of whiplash in your neck and it gets flung back.

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"I was in a semiconscious state, a bit shaken up but that put me off for five years. Looking back, I'm just so relieved I gave it a second chance."

Rising star

Kitesurfing is a fusion of some of the most exciting and challenging water sports, taking components of paragliding, surfing, windsurfing and wakeboarding before sprinkling some acrobatics and gymnastics on top for good measure.

Standing on a small board, the rider uses the wind to power the large kite, which propels it across the waves at rapid speed.

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Since returning to action at the age of 15, Whiteley has gone on to establish herself as one of Europe's rising stars -- an outcome which looked unlikely following her first ever event.

On that occasion, the amateur competition ended in disappointment after she finished last, beaten by a considerable distance and defeated by a far more experienced field.

It was to prove the turning point.

"I was so embarrassed," Whiteley recalled. "I couldn't do any freestyle tricks and I came last.

"I just sat there and thought, 'What am I doing here?' But that competition really inspired me and suddenly I said to myself, 'I'm never going to be that bad again.'

"I went out and trained as much as possible after that."

Reaching the top

That chastening experience powered Whiteley through months of training, hitting the waves at every opportunity despite the infamous British weather.

The rest is history.

At just 15, Whiteley became the youngest ever female to win the British Amateur Ladies title, repeating the feat the following year at the professional championship.

Two more title wins followed in consecutive years as did the prestigious Big Air/Board off crown at the 2009 Pro Kite World Tour competition.

Now at the age of 21, and voted as the country's most influential female kitesurfer, Whiteley has her sights set on reaching the very top.

"I'd really like to be European champion," she added.

"At the moment I feel as if I'm not at my peak. I always want to push it and I think I'm going to be going for some time.

"There's plenty of time for me to progress and have fun."

Magical

There's certainly plenty of fun. Whiteley travels across the globe to some of the most exotic places to improve her kitesurfing skills.

Australia, Turkey and Hawaii are just three of her favorite places -- although she retains an affection for her local beach at Lytham St Annes in the north west of England.

But it doesn't matter whether its brown water off the British coast or sharks lurking beneath sunnier climes, nothing puts Whiteley off taking her kite into the deep unknown.

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"It's a pretty magical feeling when you're out kitesurfing," she added.

"You're looking back at the land, you've got the whole ocean, and it's just really special.

"We're using the wind, the sea and the waves. When it's cold and windy you feel like you're really in the elements, it's great, you feel alive.

"When I started to compete at the age of 15 it was a real eye-opener. I got to travel to some amazing places and it was definitely for me.

"You have so much freedom on the water and it takes you to beautiful places you wouldn't normally go to. It's amazing."