The Kids Are Alright
The Kids Are Alright
Christian Tio and Gab Mejia aren’t just young, restless, and full of enthusiasm—they’re paving the way for the next wave of Filipino outdoorsmen. Christian, 16, has been bagging championship titles across the country and is preparing to become Asia’s lone qualifier for this year’s Youth Olympic Games in Argentina. Gab, 21, is fresh oﬀ the peaks of Patagonia after winning the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands’ 2017 Youth Photo Contest. Both are extremely dedicated to their craft, on a mission to raze their field and prove that it’s never too early to start.
Interview by Claudine Lanzona
Images courtesy of Christian Tio and Gab Mejia
Christian Tio, professional kiteboard champion
GRID: Can you tell us about where you’re from and what the kiteboarding culture is like there?
CHRISTIAN: I’m based in Boracay Island and I kite in Bulabog beach. That’s just the opposite side of White Beach. Quite a lot of kiteboarding happens there. There’s a lot of wind and it’s a good place to kite.
So, your parents started teaching you about kiteboarding from a really young age?
I started when I was seven years old. We all started together. At first, I wasn’t really interested in kiting… I thought it was a bit boring because it wasn’t really [about being] on the board yet. It was just about ﬂying the kite. You have to learn to maneuver it before you go on the board.
What made you pursue kiteboarding?
When I got on the board, I started to really like it. It was more fun.
Have you tried other boardsports?
I [also] do wakeboarding. With kiting, you’re controlling the kite and in wakeboarding you’re getting pulled by the cable. Kiting is a bit more complicated ’cause you have to control the kite while you’re doing the trick. I’ve tried surfing… I’m not so good.
How did you become the Philippines’ first Red Bull athlete?
You know Marc Nelson, right? He was talking to them about me. Red Bull checked it out and at first they said I was too young because their [minimum age for athletes] is fifteen years old before they can sponsor them. And then when I turned fifteen, we signed the contract.
How does it feel to be younger than most of the competitors?
It’s just the same, I guess. If I think that [they’re all older], it stresses me out. So, you shouldn’t really think [like] that.
You’re currently on tour?
The PKA [Philippine Kiteboarding Association Tour], yeah. There’s four stops. We just did two, and a couple of days ago we did one in Bantayan—
Oh, you just won that one, right?
Yeah. And there’s two more left. There’s one in Boracay, in February. And in March there’s one in Cagbalete.
Kiteboarding must take you to a lot of places around the world. Do you have any favorites?
My favorite at the moment is probably Brazil. There’s wind every day and there’s lots of spots to train in. It’s always windy.
Was there ever a time you’ve felt demotivated?
I guess when my level started to go up in Boracay. It’s really hard to motivate myself ’cause I’m like the only one pushing myself. The levels [of difficulty per rider] are different. Like, I do freestyle [at my current level] and the others do freestyle but at a lower level.
Oh, so it’s just you at that level out there so there’s a tendency to be complacent?
Yeah. So, sometimes I don’t really feel like going out [to train] ’cause of no motivation.
How do you overcome that?
Um… Just train myself to go out. (laughs) If I don’t go out for a couple of days, there’s like this thing where you miss it and you wanna go do it [again].
What’s a training session like for you?
I’m in the water for four hours. I do four hours of school in the morning, then I train in the water after. I also have strength training, weights, to prevent injuries.
In Bulabog, do you have friends your age who kiteboard, too? Are they also homeschooled?
Yes, I have friends my age that kite too and most of the time we kite together. But they all attend normal schooling. I’m the only one who is homeschooled.
If that’s the case, what are the differences of your experiences compared to your friends’?
Compared to my friends, I started a couple of years before them which helped my level become higher today. I encourage them to do more and try my best to push them to become better. I’ve experienced a lot and I’m grateful to have opportunities to travel both here in the Philippines and internationally.
How do you think being homeschooled has affected your kiteboarding life?
I started homeschooling when I was 11 years old because I was already joining competitions during that time. The reason for being homeschooled is because of my love for kiteboarding and it has helped me a lot in terms of time management. I can train longer hours and travel more for competitions without worrying about my absences.
What’s the worst part of kiteboarding for you?
When I don’t nail a trick and let go of the kite, then I fall in the water. I’m strapped to my board, so it really hurts. It’s like hitting a wall. Some people have broken their ribs after falling.
When are the kiteboarding seasons and where do you go when there isn’t any wind?
In Boracay, it’s Amihan. That’s from November to around March and the winds are good. The rest is Habagat, so you can’t kite. My coach takes me elsewhere. Last time it was in Sri Lanka.
Now you’ll be qualifying for this year’s Youth Olympic Games?
Yeah, the qualifier is in March in Thailand. And the Youth Olympic Games will be in September. It’s the first time kiteboarding will be included. It’ll be racing, not freestyle. But there should be freestyle because it’s more fun!
Yeah! More fun to watch, too. Why is it racing instead of freestyle?
Racing is easier for a non-kiteboarding audience to know who’s winning, I guess. In freestyle you don’t know. It’s based on the judges.
What’s your ultimate kiteboarding goal?
To be number one in the World Kiteboarding League this year. That’s our goal. Last year, I finished 21st out of 30. I have to join more competitions to get more points and move up the rankings. I didn’t join enough yet. My main hope in my career is to become a world champion and I do see it as a big adventure. But I’m also balancing the fun and the seriousness of it all in order to enjoy every adventure.
How’s the kiteboarding community in the Philippines?
Mmmmm… Not so big… Getting there. Because everyone wants to play basketball! Basketball is so popular here. Kiteboarding should be like that. We’re surrounded by water but basketball is more popular.
Yeah, someday. People just have to know about it more, and see that it’s a lot of fun. What’s the best part of kiteboarding for you?
Just being in the ocean. You’re free. Peaceful. There’s nothing else to think or worry about when you’re in the water. It feels good.
What lessons have you learned from kiteboarding and being a professional athlete?
Eyes on the sky, feet on the ground.
Gab Mejia; photographer, mountaineer, conservationist
GRID: Where did you just come from?
GAB MEJIA: So, I just came from South America on assignment for Ramsar and National Geographic. It was a seven-week expedition from the southernmost city of this planet, Ushuaia. I was hiking [every day], documenting wetlands, glaciers, valleys, rivers, going all up north for about 500-700 km to El Calafate in Patagonia. Imagine, your backyard was just [Mount] Fitz Roy, the glaciers, surrounded by mountains wherever you go, and wherever you look it’s desert plains, mountains—then out of nowhere, you’re in the city surrounded by traffic, cars, and pollution, it’s crazy.
What is Ramsar?
Ramsar is an international convention that unifies all wetlands. They’re the ones that make the list and do environmental work for preserving the wetlands in the world. In the Philippines, we have six wetlands and Ramsar manages and protects these areas: Agusan Marshlands, Tubbataha Reef, etc.
How did all this happen, how did you get to work with Ramsar and go on that trip?
It all started when I was 12; it was my dad who showed me nature and the mountains. My dad invited me to my first [major] climb. It happened to be the tallest mountain in Malaysia: Kota Kinabalu. It was raining the whole time, but I loved it! After being exposed to that, I was so inspired. I told myself, “When I turn 18, I wanna travel the world.” In college, I joined organizations that helped me travel; I joined Marine Biological Society, applied for UP Mountaineers, joined diving organizations. Then I wanted to capture and preserve these moments. So I asked my dad for a camera when I turned 18 and I’ve been using that camera ever since. Photography became my passport to the world.
[When I found out] I won this international competition for Ramsar and National Geographic, I was just so surprised. They gave me a list of all the places I could travel to in the world: every wetland in this planet. I could go to Greenland, Australia, New Zealand, wherever. It was part of the prize and they cover everything. I chose Patagonia because I love climbing. I realized it’s one of the most vulnerable places in this planet because it’s covered by glaciers that constantly melt. There are a lot of things coming in because of photography. I never really expected it, how it just started with that 12-year-old kid’s first time to climb a mountain. My father’s my main inspiration through all the things that happened.
What’s the toughest part of this whole thing for you?
Climbing is the toughest part. There are times where you’re going to be so, so tired of climbing and traveling. Traveling is honestly really tiring, if you come to think of it. You’ll be so tired while climbing but you just have to keep pushing. ‘Cause if you don’t, then you’re the one who’s gonna suffer. I always say that life is like a mountain, you just have to keep on climbing. We all have these little summits and it’s never gonna be easy. The slopes will just get harder. Sometimes you have to go down, sometimes you have to go higher. It’s all just a climb. Keep the mentality that, even if it’s hard you just have to push on.
Is there a competitive aspect to what you do? Or is it more for spreading awareness?
I think it’s more for conservation of mountains, especially, and wetlands. A lot of people climb mountains, but then what? There’s no action to help the mountain, to promote awareness of protection of the mountains like what other countries have. I’m trying to push that advocacy here in the Philippines. Mount Pulag just got burned. I came back from the [Patagonia] climb and that’s the first thing that I saw like, “Damn. It’s so avoidable.” You don’t cook in an open area! These are the things people forget about when they’re climbing a mountain.
How can we make conservation a mainstream thing? How can we make people care about the mountain?
That’s why I use photography and storytelling to connect them. When people see nice photos, they want to know more about it. They’re already interested. You have to trust them to care sometimes. But it always has to have that extra push. When people post on Instagram and they use Leave No Trace principles as captions, that’s a good thing. They’re pushing it further, [rather] than just posting a random quote on the photo where the essence is gone; there’s no substance. We have so many conservation principles but there’s no actual policy for actions to be done. That’s why we have petitions and everything.
Do you have a favorite place in the world you’ve visited?
Babuyan Islands was the place that moved me so much. Being there, I really saw how amazing the Philippines is. You see pitcher plants, volcanoes, ﬂying fish, dolphins, whales. How amazing could this place get? Considering how hard it was to get there and everything, it just all adds up. You meet the indigenous people living there, the Ibatan, and they have this environmental awareness on their own. The municipality is in Calayan Island but when you go to the Babuyan Islands, they have their own local government [policies] like, “we can only hunt this number at this time of year because we have to allow time for the birds to reproduce.” It just moved me that, for our katutubo, our culture was really environmentally-inclined.