Multiple world champion Airton Cozzolino got back on top of the podium in 2023 when he landed the Qatar Airways GKA Kite-Surf World Championship title. The Cape Verde-based Italian explained to Ian MacKinnon how he regained his mental focus that he is sure was a key element in his renewed success. At 29, Cozzolino is hungry for more in 2024 and believes he is in a good place to do it.
Question: Obviously in 2023, you got your Kite-Surf world title back. It was quite a year of ups and downs. How do you look at it now?
Airton Cozzolino: I’m super-happy I didn’t quit, because it was all a bit too much. Mentally I wasn’t prepared because of things that happened in the past. And I was saying I don’t want to give up. I want to keep trying because I’ve been winning since 2011. In the past years, I was winning every event—every single event. But then I said, I did it in the past, why can I not do it now? So let’s keep trying. But I was mentally out of place.
Before [the last event] in Brazil I was working a lot in my mental focus. I was thinking about the training, but I was over-training. Then I stopped training and focused more on my mental health. Then everything fell into place and I understood I don’t need so much training. After Covid and then when James [Carew] won his for the first world championship, after that, I was training like crazy. Every week I was booking tickets to go training. So, now I’m super happy.
Q: But you didn’t really get to defend your Big Air world title because of because you got injured. Was that a tough one for you?
AC: In Tarifa before the Big Air comp I went to a spot in Africa for training because there wasn’t wind [in Spain]. We’d been one week waiting for the wind. Then I booked this magic place and for sure that was the best Big Air trip of my entire life. But on the last day an unexpected gust came and I did a big jump and the kite stalled. I came down like crazy and I fell so hard on my ribs. I broke two ribs. I had some tests and they showed I had nothing wrong.
I booked the ticket back to Tarifa and then the day after I started my heat. And as soon as I put my kite up, I said it’s impossible. I started to feel a lot of pain. I tried to do one jump, but it was impossible. I didn’t compete because I was in too much pain. For sure, that was a tough one. Then James [Carew] won what I wanted to win. But he deserved that for sure. Next one, then we’re gonna see who’s the real Big Air world champion.
‘Me against me’
Q: Is one title or the other more important to you? The Kite-Surf or the Big Air, and or are they both the same to you?
AC: For me Big Air is like another thing. It gives you extra power back, a lot of adrenaline, a lot of emotion. When you win it, it’s something special. Something hits you really hard because with all that adrenaline, and you’re winning—happiness. It’s something crazy when I go to Big Air I feel something different from wave riding or strapless freestyle. Most of my air tickets are for Big Air. But I enjoy them both, as soon as I’m in the water, whatever the discipline, I go for it.
Q: You were in South Africa, in Cape Town in Red Bull Kota last year, how was that for you?
AC: It’s really difficult to get into [the comp]. For me to be there with the strapless, against all the Twin-Tips is tough. I was a bit unlucky with the conditions. In my heat I got tangled with the with Edgar [Ulrich] and that was three minutes gone.
Then, when I started again, there were no kickers. All the emotions came, all the time. You need a perfect state of mind, perfect conditions, all at once. It’s not easy, but it’s not impossible.
Q: During the year it seemed you were struggling to get in the right frame of mind in during the Kite-Surf season. You felt that you’ve been struggling with it for a couple of years?
AC: It’s my personal life. I had a few things in the past, that I wouldn’t talk about. But when you’re winning every year and then you start to lose, then you are trying to find the problem. I thought my problem was the training and I started to train more. I put more pressure on myself.
Then after Morocco I sat down and I said I don’t want to keep going like this, something is going wrong. If I keep going like this, maybe it’s better to quit because it’s not healthy for my state of mind. Then I travelled somewhere, with no kiting, nothing. I remembered those days in the past, with no pressure, and winning every event. So I said I’m gonna go Brazil not caring about the world championship, but I still wanted to win one event. So, I won one event with no pressure. It was just me against me. Thanks to Brazil, I understood enough to keep going.
‘Feel so calm’
Q: And do you think you’ve got it figured out now?
AC: Yeah, I’ve got it. I had a lot of stuff that I was doing wrong: little things, little problems, like arguments. Any bad news can make you lose all the focus. Then, I learnt to ignore the social media. When I was in Brazil, I checked the interview with me, Matchu [Lopes], and Pedro [Matos]. I heard stuff that I didn’t like. My mind was so focused on that, I almost lost my mental focus. Then I closed all the media. I put my phone down after that, and I didn’t touch it again.
Q: So looking at the coming year, you suggested somewhere that you were having difficulty finding motivation. You’re going to compete this year?
AC: Definitely. Yeah. Something has changed in me. For sure, I will compete. I’m feeling I’m at my strongest. Now, my mental state is there. I feel so calm. I got my motivation back. For anyone to win the world championship, they’ll have to beat me. I won’t make it easy. I would love to win again because it might be my last one, you never know. So, now that I’m at my strongest, I have to keep going. It’s not about more training but it’s about being happy in life. I feel more than ready for next year, to tell you the truth. I can’t wait for it.
Q: At 29, do you still have the competitive fire?
AC: When you feel good, you’re ready. You want to go as long as possible. But now it wouldn’t be bad to have like a full year off, to travel or whatever, and completely disconnect from everything. Because all my life has been pressure, since my first competition in 2007. Since then I was under pressure until this day. But now I’m calm, I’m good. I think I can go for it again. But one year off— one of those years—would be good. Maybe take one year off and then come back.
images: Svetlana Romantsova