Santa Barbara resident sets sights on Paris Olympic Games
Just off the shores of Santa Barbara, Olympic hopeful Evan Heffernan can be seen zipping through the water on his foil board, propelled by a kite flying high in the air that moves him across the surface of the ocean.
This unique form of sailing is known as formula kiteboarding, and athletes use a large foil kite to harness wind power and move their board across the top of the water.
The sport, which has gained traction and popularity in the last decade, will make its debut appearance in the Paris Olympic Games in 2024. Two upcoming competitions, the Individual World Championships in September and the Team Relay World Championships in October, will determine what countries will qualify for the upcoming Olympic games. Then, in 2023 and 2024, the countries who earned their spot in Paris will hold an athlete qualifier to determine the top male and female competitor who will compete on the world stage at the Olympics.
Entering the Olympics as the top U.S. formula kiteboarding athlete is precisely where Mr. Heffernan hopes to be by 2024.
Mr. Heffernan, a native of Santa Barbara, started sailing as a child, working his way through the Santa Barbara Seashells sailing program before joining the Santa Barbara Youth Sailing Foundation in junior high.
As his skills developed, so did his passion. During high school, he joined the U.S. Sailing Olympic Development program, which further propelled his desire to compete on the world stage in the Olympic games.
“(Making it to the Olympics) has always always been something I’ve been looking to achieve, to be at the top of a sporting career,” Mr. Heffernan told the News-Press.
Before the COVID-19 crisis barred athletes from competing in international events, Mr. Heffernan was the top-ranked American kiteboarder and ranked 5th in the world as of 2019. He and his U.S. teammate, Daniela Moroz, were also the defending Team Relay World Champions before the pandemic hit.
Due to pandemic restrictions, training with the entire U.S. Kite Team in 2020 was a difficult endeavor. Most of the athletes trained separately and communed over Zoom until they could all meet together for a training camp in Santa Barbara in November. Since then, the team has met for two additional training camps in Florida in January and in Mexico in March.
When it comes time for the Olympic qualifier competitions in 2023 and 2024 leading up to the games, the stakes are high for the athletes on the U.S. team. Just one male and one female athlete who achieves the highest combined score in both qualifiers will advance to the Olympic games in Paris.
Though it would seem each athlete would be interested in keeping their training tactics and practices to themselves, Mr. Heffernan said the reality is actually quite the opposite. The members of the U.S. Kite Team actually enjoy practicing together to give the U.S. team the best chance of making it to the top of the podium in Paris.
“Historically, what we’ve seen with sailing is that people who train in a group get better faster,” Mr. Heffernan said. “You’re always competing, you’re always learning from each other when training together, and when you’re training on your own it’s harder to train and learn without the reference of the people around you.”
As he trains with his U.S. teammates and prepares for the upcoming competitions in the fall of this year, Mr. Heffernan has set a clear goal for himself. He aims to not just make it to the 2024 Paris Olympic games, but to take home the highly coveted gold medal.
In his perspective, the best way to achieve this goal is to train alongside teammates and glean knowledge from his fellow athletes to continue improving his technique and skill.
“My ultimate goal is to win a gold medal at the Olympics, and I believe that the best path forward for that is to be working as a group,” Mr. Heffernan said. “I come from a sailing background and some of the group comes from a kiting background. I think that all the different information you can take … adds different perspectives and different information. But definitely the end goal is to be the one that qualifies.”
Depending on where he finishes in the upcoming World Championships in September and October, Mr. Heffernan could qualify for Direct Athlete Support from the Olympic committee, which would provide funds to cover some of his coaching and equipment expenses.
In the meantime, Mr. Heffernan started his Olympic campaign in mid-March, a fundraising effort that he hopes will raise enough support for him to take time off from his job as a mobile application developer to solely focus on Olympic training.
“My goal is to come away from each day with just a little more time in the water than everyone else in the world to get that little extra bit of practice I need to be the best,” he said.
With the debut of Olympic kiteboarding just a few years away now, Mr. Heffernan has the chance to become a trailblazer on the world stage by representing the U.S. for the first time in the inaugural kiteboarding races. But this is not what keeps Mr. Heffernan going — the possibility of taking home the gold is his primary motivation.
“If I’m a trailblazer, great, but I think the primary goal at the end of it is going for gold and really having the best chance to do that,” Mr. Heffernan said.