Max Maeder is not your normal 16-year-old. Anyone, of any age, who is capable of winning a Formula Kite World Championship is, by definition, not normal. If you can keep your head at 40 knots while all around you are losing theirs, that’s a special kind of talent.
It would be easy to put the Singaporean’s success down to plain talent, but his abilities go way deeper than that. He’s a deep thinker and a relentless worker in pursuit of kitefoiling perfection.
Maeder was just 11 years old when he was interviewed on video about his future kiting hopes and dreams. He said he wanted to become world champion. Little more than five years later, he has achieved the feat. It’s hard for him to take in the fact that he has just become the youngest winner of a world championship in any Olympic sailing class.
On medal series day, Maeder was sitting alone, headphones on, getting his head in the right space. His music ranged from the classical – Rimsky-Korsakov’s ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ and Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ – to songs by 1970s punk band The Clash, such as ‘I Fought the Law.’
As his arch rival, last year’s world champion Toni Vodisek, made that shock move to the beach to change kites mid-race, perhaps Maeder was thinking ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’, although he denies it. “I have an appreciation for classic. It’s soothing. But I like all kinds of music.
“The only music that has gone through my mind on the water is the ‘Four Seasons’. It was a nice moment because I can remember everyone was lined up on the start and ready to go, then the violin riff came in and it was a really epic moment as we launched out of the line. But my obligatory go-to soundtrack before I go racing is ‘Stardust Crusaders’,” says Maeder, referring to the theme music from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Hirohiko Araki.
Maeder comes across as humble yet very determined. He doesn’t try to hide the fact that he has grown up in very unusual and privileged circumstances. With a Singaporean mother and Swiss father, he and his two younger brothers enjoy a very itinerant lifestyle. Asked where home is, it’s a complicated answer.
“I was born in Singapore, and I have lots of family there. My father stays in Switzerland and we have lots of family there. I also grew up in Wakatobi, which is a dive resort that my family built up, and that’s in Indonesia.
“Any of those places could feel like home at different points of the year, and I also spend a lot of time in Croatia, with my training partner and his father, who is coach to both of us.”
The training partner is Martin Dolenc, another top kitefoil racer who finished 8th in the worlds and has qualified Croatia for Paris 2024.
Martin’s father, Jonny, has been an integral part of getting both riders up to world-class performance.
“Of all the time I’ve spent on a board I reckon I have spent more than 50 per cent of that time training with Martin,” says Maeder who does a quick estimate of average hours per year on the board.
“I do at least 200 days on the water and probably average about two hours per session, so we’re looking easily at 400 hours in a year.”
Around this, he also has to fit his homeschooling, doing most of his study via online sessions. In the past year, British kiteboarder Jemima Crathorne has been his tutor for STEM subjects. It sounds like they could get far too distracted chit-chatting about their shared passion for the kite and foil, but Maeder promises he’s a diligent student.
Next up on his never-ending world tour are the Asian Games, which Maeder says is considered by many Asian nations as “possibly more important than a world championship but not quite as important as an Olympics”. Due to take place at the end of September in Hangzhou, China, Maeder will be doing his best to win another major title for Singapore.
The big goal on the horizon is of course, next year’s Olympic Games. While Slovenia’s Vodisek has promised that he is “going to take the Olympic title”, Maeder is more circumspect.
“I hope to make it on to the podium, but I’m not putting everything on gold.
“Do you define yourself from the result of one single event over your entire career? Because I could very well hit a plastic bag, catch some bad luck, have a competitor, run into me, you know? All those things are well within the realm of possibility, and you could just run out of luck that week.
“There’s a very nice quote from Jackie Stewart, the Formula One world champion, and he said: ‘It’s only those who have won with consistency and integrity over a long period of time that have become regarded as universally successful.’
“I would be way more happy if I totally bumped the Olympics but had had a crushingly consistent career.”
Asked where the next gains are most likely to come from in a young and ever-developing sport like kitefoiling, Maeder smiles and says: “That’s the million dollar question, isn’t it! I think as the sport reaches a higher level, many of the top riders are operating at the highest technical performance but it’s who can bring the best of it at the moment when it matters the most.
“It happens more and more in the head, making sure you’re in the best mental state, that’s what will make the difference.”
Maeder admits he is a perfectionist, although doubts if he can claim to have achieved mastery of his sport. “It’s more the pursuit of mastery, and my pursuit happens to be in kiteboarding. I think if you ask any artist or craftsman, that pursuit doesn’t ever truly stop. But the journey can be very rewarding