First published in The Record, November 25, 2017
New Jersey's best kite runner dominates her sport worldwide
Lisa Willoughby can see the wind. Not only that, she can see the wind before it becomes the wind.
Willoughby will be flying a kite somewhere — near her home on the Jersey Shore, say, or inside a church in Kazakhstan or Grand Central Terminal — when she notices a subtle shift. Maybe her kite’s zooming flight stalls in a still pocket of air. Maybe the salt smell of the ocean fades, replaced by scents from the mainland of dirt and diesel smoke.
“You can sense the wind before it happens. The change of it,” said Willoughby, a Surf City resident, professional kiter and one of the best kite fliers in the world. “You can smell it. You can feel the little intricacies of its movement.”
These highly specific skills have proved remarkably useful. Willoughby once flew a kite inside a banquet hall, directly over the heads of Kuwait’s royal family as they were eating dinner. She has flown kites in Vietnam and Indonesia and in a puppet musical on Broadway. She helped write the rule book governing kite competitions worldwide, and she advised the International Olympic Committee on whether kite flying might become an Olympic sport. (It won’t, she thinks.)
"In terms of international competitions, she’s definitely No. 1 in the country," said Kurtis Jones, a Hackensack resident who has flown sport kites since the 1980s. "There’s not even a doubt about that."
This spring, she will travel to the World Stunt Kite Championship in Berck-Sur-Mer, France, where she will serve as lead judge.
For decades, Willoughby beat male kite fliers at their own game, always pushing her kites to fly more aggressively. She is a rare female competitor in rokkaku, a male-dominated sport in which fliers slice competitors’ kites out of the sky using lines coated in broken glass. She is one of just a few women to win sponsorships from major kite manufacturers.
Now she’s trying to invent her own style. Rather than pushing her kites faster and faster, she’s experimenting with flying them as slowly as possible and still keeping them aloft, pushing the boundaries of kite aerodynamics and skill.
“It’s extremely easy to fly quick,” she said. “I want to learn how to fly this thing beautifully without doing a lot of crazy movements. That’s my challenge.”
Flying a kite is an act of binding. It requires a person and a kite, tethered together by a length of twine.
But Willoughby never saw it this way. She grew up near Trenton, and her family took summer vacations at Seaside Heights. When she was 7, her parents bought Willoughby her first kite.
She spent the rest of the summer on the beach, flying.
“My mother said, ‘If I can see your kite flying, you can go wherever you want,’ ” Willoughby said. “I love flying because it lets me be free.”
A few years later, her family switched vacation spots to Chincoteague Island, Virginia, where she discovered a store called the Kite Koop. Willoughby got a job at the store when she was 11, helping customers pick the right kite for that day’s weather conditions and fixing kites when they broke.
“My parents were shocked” when she started working at such a young age, she said.
Willoughby stayed in the wind. She studied to become a speech pathologist at Stockton University, close to Atlantic City and the beach, where she left class most days to surf and fly kites. She earned a master’s degree at Howard University in Washington, D.C., where she met a group of fellow fliers on the National Mall.
They introduced her to stunt kites. In 1989, Willoughby entered her first competition.
“I won it,” she said. “Within six months I got a sponsorship, because very few women fly and I was flying at a very high level.”
Many top fliers specialize in one type of kite. But Willoughby always dabbled. She flew two-line kites, which are fast and unstable like fighter jets, and she flew quad-lines that can stop, spin and fly sideways, like helicopters. She learned to fly indoors, where she supplies the only wind (by walking backwards). She also learned to fly in gales.
“I was at an event in France where we had 45-mile-an-hour winds. Most people would pack up and go have a beer,” she said. “But I’m there to fly. I’m being paid to fly. I flew for eight hours. At the end of the day I felt like a truck had rolled over me five times.”
Finding her own way
Kiting is dominated by men, and Willoughby found the sport’s sexist traditions tricky to navigate. When she first experimented with a new kind of kite, often she found men willing to share their secrets.
“I was the only woman there,” she said. “For the most part they wanted to show me their skills. They’d be really kind with me.”
Inevitably she got better, often coming to beat her male tutors. Some men walked off the field, refusing to fly alongside a woman. Others responded with insults. Willoughby had a busy career as a speech pathologist, and she was raising two children. She found that the slights grew harshest when she brought her kids to competitions.
“I’ve had a top kite flier say, ‘You have kids here. Why are you doing this?’ ” she said. “Another kite flier said, ‘If you just did one thing, you’d actually be good at it.' ”
Sexist attitudes persist. This weekend, Saudi Arabia is hosting a major international kite competition. Women who are married to competitive kiters were allowed to fly, but Willoughby was not invited because she is a woman who flies by herself.
"She was pretty angry about that," said Jones, the sport-kite flier from Hackensack.
She also struggled with the physical demands of the sport, which reward men's longer arms and stronger upper bodies, she said. Often she was too busy to practice the sport's hardest tricks long enough to nail them, and too competitive to risk attempting them in competition.
“I don’t know if I was always the best flier, because I was busy having children and working full time, and I also learned how to fly all different kinds of kites,” she said. “If you’re going to do a trick in a competition, you have to be able to do it perfectly 90 percent of the time. If you can’t pull off all the tricks because of the [weather] conditions, you shouldn’t be doing them.”
Willoughby’s focus on tricks she can land perfectly, plus her dabbling, won her invitations to fly kites all over. She flew in a rokkaku battle in Vietnam, and she flew against Khaled Hosseini, whose novel "The Kite Runner" later became the first, and perhaps the only, successful movie about kites. Willoughby also flew kites in a traveling show produced by Heather Henson, a puppeteer and a daughter of Muppets creator Jim Henson, which took her from Broadway to Detroit to China.
“Without kiting, I never in a million years would have been in Kazakhstan or Kuwait,” she said.
A day at the beach
On a windy day this month, Willoughby stood beside a group of fishermen on the beach at Surf City, two blocks from her house. The wind flowed 8 mph from the northwest, she said. With a soft tug of her wrists, she jerked a custom-made, two-line kite into the air. She practiced a series of tricks, each with its own wonderful name and subtle technique. First came a Cascade, then a Flik-Flak, a Curly-Q, a 540, a Rolling Susan and a Jacob’s Ladder.
“In a Jacob’s Ladder you dump out the air, spin it, put it into a fade, move the air across its belly, and then spin it onto its back,” she said. “I use my thumbs to balance it on the wind.”
Willoughby handed the controls to a pair of visitors, who succeeded primarily in ramming the kite into the sand. Willoughby reclaimed the reins, landed the kite gently, and then brought out her quad-line kite. Unlike the first one, which darts and swoops aggressively, the quad kite is more in line with the slower, gentler style Willoughby is working now to master.
“It’s like a dance routine. This kite allows you to be more maneuverable, slower, more precise,” she said. “If you’re a good flier you’ll never crash.”
After a few minutes of flying, Willoughby’s head spun around. Then she started walking, keeping her back to the wind.
“Now, see? The wind just shifted,” she said, looking to the west and the air’s new direction. “Feel it?”
Willoughby’s two visitors felt nothing. The fishermen, not noticing any change, kept their baited lines in the ocean.