DREAMS OF FLYING

Photographer: Michael Williams
Fashion Designer: 
Jennifer Zuccarini
Writer: Rachel L. Bergman
Ambassador: Joel Smernoff
Retouching: Becky Siegel
Athlete: Susi Mai

(Interview follows photo series)

SUSI MAI

The girl in the pictures has “absolutely no idea” how many worldwide locales she visited throughout the course of 2013. She blames her inability to stay put on this motto: “To any cool opportunity, I say yes.” She’s not a lingerie model, despite the above photographic evidence to the contrary. We at Imagista just thought she might do well at it. So we dressed her—sort of—in Jennifer Zuccarini’s brand of intimates, Fleur du Mal, figuring that she more than met Jennifer’s criteria for the ideal ambassador: someone strong and powerful, but not afraid to be feminine. An ungovernable woman, rebellious, with confidence to spare. A bad flower.

Meet Susi Mai. She’s a professional kiteboarder, co-founder and president of the technology and extreme sporting conference MaiTai Global, and designer of her own women’s kite gear line, Siren. She was Maui King of the Air three years in a row and placed in the PKRA kite world tour’s top five for six years. But Susi is not one for labels, nor for resting on her laurels. That would be missing the point.

Susi Mai is the child of German hoteliers who moved to the Dominican Republic for its vibrant windsurfing scene when she was five. She entered her first kiting competition as a teenager figuring that at worst, she could be last. It was eight months since she’d first begun kiteboarding, it was the kiting equivalent of the world series, and Susi placed second, right next to the reigning global champion. “I didn’t ever expect to be a professional athlete,” she says. “But everyone has dreams of flying through the air, right?” Asked if she considers herself to be a daredevil, Susi immediately responds: “Absolutely. I try everything. That’s my jam.”

Nine years ago, mutual friends introduced her to venture capitalist Bill Tai, who shared her love of the sport. He was on Maui kiting with a few friends and invited her to come out. Technology was a burgeoning frontier for entrepreneurs like Bill’s friends, and Susi found that their attraction to kitesurfing was no coincidence. “These are young, dynamic people who take risks in life; they’re all daredevils, too, pushing their limits in their own way,” she says. “They quit their jobs or take loans right out of school to start a company. It takes a certain kind of person to do that, and a certain kind of person to get into extreme sports, and there’s a lot of synergy between the personality types. Anyone that can learn to kitesurf is pretty good at dealing with failure, which is one of the basics of being an entrepreneur.”

As word spread, the group on Maui grew to 75. “That’s when we were like, ‘okay, now we need to formalize this,'” Susi recalls. “I cannot stress enough what an accident this was from day one.” And so, in the most organic way possible, MaiTai Global, its name just another fortuitous, cosmic coincidence, was born.

The weeklong program of panels, Silicon Valley speakers and sport clinics led by pro athletes is held in varying locations around the world, with charitable donations toward environmental conservation and volunteer activities like educational outreach as its tenets. It brags high-profile members like Richard Branson, who hosts the event on his island, Necker, twice a year.

While Susi is consistently fascinated by the amount of partnerships and new companies conceived on the retreats, the most fulfilling part for her is seeing fellow athletes explore opportunities for their futures. “Day in and day out I see athletes who dedicate themselves to a sport from the age of five and then suddenly they’re 30 and they’re out of a paycheck. Extreme sports are not like football, where players are making millions of dollars,” she says. “Similar to what I’ve done for myself, I can help other people step in, take ownership and figure out what’s next for them through events like this. They can start something on the side that can help them make a living later on. And the fun part about this is that we can do something together. I believe that shared experiences are better.”

With that philosophy in mind, MaiTai has, as of 2014, broadened from a kiting event into other extreme sports like downhill mountain biking and skiing and exploded to eleven events per year. Still, spaces are limited to about 120 per trip and applicants usually outnumber them by about 10 times. Despite the competition, Susi insists that one’s ability to nail a spot is directly correlated to said applicant’s ability to chill.

Her one disappointment with MaiTai’s enrollment is that it tends to be disproportionately male. While she’s more than comfortable in a male-dominated environment, she’s the female kiter’s greatest champion. After all, it was seeing “hot chicks kiting” that inspired her to try it out for herself. “I’ve made it a big mission to try and inspire other girls to get into the sport,” she says. “Usually girls are pretty nervous about trying extreme sports, especially younger girls. There are very few girls aged 16 and 17 with self esteem that’s not all over the place. I think that girls need to be coaxed out of their shells a little bit more.” That certainly didn’t seem to be the case for Susi when she took her first stage right next to the kiting elite.

There’s a lesson to be learned from her carpe diem approach to life. Asked about her future plans, she responds, “Wide open. I tend not to plan too far ahead. Everything I’ve ever done has been an opportunity that I just recognized and was able to seize. If I make too many plans, I might get in the way of that. Everything falls into place.”