Family flying high on kitesurfing adventure


Story highlights

Team Bridge are family of five high-flying kitesurfers from Devon, England

Mum Steph is five-time world kitesurf racing champion

Olly, 18, is former European and world youth champion

Kitesurfing aiming for Tokyo 2020 Olympics

CNN —  

She juggles being a mum to three high-flying kitesurfers with maintaining her own world No.1 ranking, and running several businesses. But Steph Bridge craves added complications.

It’s not that she’s a masochist, but the five-time kitesurf racing world champion has an eye on the sport’s possible inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics – either for herself, her eldest son Olly, or both.

The 43-year-old Briton is at the helm of Team Bridge – a kitesurfing powerhouse of a family based in Exmouth on England’s south west coast.

All grew up with sand between their toes, salt water in their veins and wind in their hair – and when kitesurfing took off, so did they.

Steph has dominated the racing side of the sport for almost a decade, while Olly, 18, is the men’s world No. 2 racer and a former youth world and men’s three-time European champion.

Guy, 16, is a former British champion and European junior freestyle champion, and 15-year-old Tom has been a multiple European and world youth freestyle champion. Husband Eric helps keep it all together out of their kitesurfing and windsurfing school.

When they are not haring around the world competing, they are haring around the world taking guests on kitesurfing safaris or other adventures – such as setting the record for crossing the English Channel with Richard Branson.

So as well as the logistics for travel, equipment, training and competition, there are the stresses and strains of normal family life, like school and work.

If life sounds complicated, that’s because it is, but for Team Bridge it works.

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“If they weren’t enjoying it and they weren’t happy it would be more of a strain, but the fact is they are driven by it and motivated by it – and generally that comes because they are doing well,” Steph told CNN Mainsail.

Steph and Eric come from a traditional sailing and racing background – Steph’s father “Spud” is a boatbuilder in Devon – and got into kitesurfing in the early days.

They saw what Hawaiian pioneers such as big-wave surfer and windsurfer Laird Hamilton were doing with kites in the late 1990s and began experimenting with their own kit, flying rudimentary kites on short windsurfing boards at home in Exmouth.

The resultant thrills – and spills – as they explored the new sport were “huge amounts of fun and danger,” says Steph.

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With her knowledge of the wind and sail-racing tactics, plus her athlete’s mentality, Steph progressed quickly.

After her fourth world title she was named on the final three-person shortlist for the ISAF Rolex Sailor of the Year award in 2014, ultimately losing out to Brazilians Martine Grael and Kahena Kunze.

For a few months back in 2012 it looked as if Team Bridge could supply the bulk of the British kitesurf team at the Rio Olympics, when kitesurf racing was announced as a new discipline to replace windsurfing.

Steph even texted Spud – who at 68 had recently had a heart bypass operation – to say he had better hang on for four more years as she was going to the Olympics.

What a story that would have been – a mother and son winning medals in the same discipline, at the same Games.

But an outcry from the windsurfing community over its exclusion helped persuade the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) – now known as World Sailing – to reverse the decision.

However, in June 2015 kitesurfing was added to the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, which could pave the way for a belated debut at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo in 2020.

’Crazy not to’

Steph concedes that might be an Olympic cycle too far for her, but she can’t quite let it go.

“I’m very much a now person,” she says. “So right at this moment in time if you told me it was in I’d definitely try. It would be crazy to not want to have a go at seeing whether I could be competitive.

“My only concern would be the amount of time needed to commit and be particularly selfish to my training, and to give up a lot of the other bits of my life – a family and a mother and someone that runs a few businesses. So that would be a big thing. But it wouldn’t necessarily have to be for that long.

“It’s probably a driving factor that I am getting older, because I wouldn’t be able to do it in another eight years’ time.”

Olly is also a man on a mission. At the recent Euros in Sardinia, he was second in the men’s division and won the U-21 section. Without an Olympic pathway, and hence the backing and infrastructure of a national governing body, all the support functions – kit, maintenance, training, advice, motivation – are provided by mom or dad, depending on who is at the event.

“All he’s ever wanted to do is to get an Olympic medal,” says Steph, who incidentally came second at the Euros while playing mum for “50% of the time.”

“The other two don’t really get it quite yet, whereas Olly really does get it. It would be quite an emotional experience.”

Steph’s not one for fretting – “worrying is no good for anything” – but she is wary that if kitesurfing gets Olympic status the intensity and pressure of competition would ramp up even more.

Enjoyment the key

There may even be sibling rivalry to test the family’s “tidy relationship”.

“Maybe it’s like the Murray brothers in tennis. Guy steps up a gear and realizes competition is for him and the two of them are fighting for a place,” she says.

“But I don’t really think that’s likely, Guy is more like Andy Murray’s brother, a bit more relaxed, a bit more ‘teamy’.”

On the other hand, she says, the boys are getting older and things will inevitably change in life anyway.

“Maybe they will have done so much kitesurfing, maybe by the time that comes around they’re done with it and they want to do something else,” she adds.

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“I wouldn’t be upset about that…other than they’ve got talent so potentially could do quite well.”

“The ambition for them is to keep enjoying it, that’s the key isn’t it? Of course you want them to be coming home with a medal, that would be amazing, but it’s to continue with that same enthusiasm and passion. Once you lose that it’s time to stop and do something different.”

But different, for this kitesurfing dynasty, is a spot of freestyle to break up the racing routine, or a new trick to keep them amused.

For now, at least, kitesurfing is king for Team Bridge.