Carlos Mario feared his battle with anxiety would force him to quit and end his glittering career
Humble athlete hopes only that 2023 Freestyle crown will be inspiration for kiteboarding’s future stars
In a revealing interview, 2023 Qatar Airways GKA Freestyle Kite World Champion Carlos Mario talks frankly about his mental health struggles after suffering a panic attack on a flight. The Brazilian five-times world champion feared it would end his career and only felt able travel to the tour’s third stop in France accompanied by his doctor after treatment in São Paulo. Mario, 25, tells Diogo Cardoso of his faith, his gratitude for the title, and his hope of being a beacon for young athletes.
Question: How do you feel now after winning your fifth Freestyle world title?
Carlos Mario: It’s a kind of happiness that’s hard to explain. It’s a very emotional moment for me because my dream was to become world champion again after my injury. So, it was a big goal, to come back from my injury, train a lot and get one more title. I’ve finished two years in a row in second place in the world tour and this year was a really complicated year: a very hard year for me; a new format and I’ve gone through a hard moment in my personal life.
But the goal remained the same: to try to become world champion and keep my head high. In such a crazy year, with the tour starting so early and finishing only now at the end of the year. Becoming world champion is all I needed to open my mind and say: “This is the life I chose.” So let’s keep it up—strong and steady. I have no words for what I’m feeling right now. It’s the kind of joy only God can explain.
Q: Can you tell us about your difficulties?
CM: The beginning of the year was hard for me. I’ve started the year a bit above my normal weight, so that already caused me some trouble but I ended up doing good at the competitions. Halfway through the year, I went through an anxiety crisis. On my way to a Slingshot photoshoot I had a panic attack during the flight to São Paulo.
I had to stay in São Paulo to take care of myself and understand what was happening. In that moment I thought that it would be the end of my dream, the end of being able to compete again, to travel. I thought that it was all over, that I would go back home, start a job around kiting and forget about competitions.
So, I got to São Paulo, I tried to take care of myself and understand what was happening. I stayed eight days in São Paulo being treated. I managed to go back to Fortaleza and my doctor told me: “Let’s take care of it, it’s going to be OK”.
‘Chase it down’
I have an amazing family, my wife and my son keep me very motivated. I knew it was not the moment to surrender, to give up. So I raised my head and told myself: “I will try to train and accomplish my dream. My dream is to keep competing, to keep travelling, my job is kiting. So it’s not the moment to give up and stop. I have to chase it down.”
I really believe that if God put these obstacles in my way—or in anyone’s way—He knows we’re ready to overcome that obstacle. So that’s what I thought: “I’m ready, let’s face this, I know I will manage it.” Leading up to the tour stop in France, I was feeling really stressed and I talked to my sponsors about the situation and told them that I needed help, that I wasn’t feeling 100 percent and couldn’t travel alone. I needed to bring my doctor with me.
Thanks for my sponsors, I managed to bring my doctor along and that made the trip possible. At the end of the event I thought: “This is possible to do, I will overcome this.” So, going back to Fortaleza, I went back to training in Cauípe and in the moment of travelling to Qatar I said to myself: “Man, I will travel alone, but I know that God has something very good waiting for me”.
It was a shame not having wind here [in Qatar] but we respect nature a lot and it was just not God’s will. So we respect, we thank and we need to take care of nature because we chose a sport that is dependent on nature.
So, super happy with my world title here and I want to thank my sponsors for everything. It was a very hard phase. It’s time to go back home and celebrate one more title. Next year I’ll be here again, strong and steady and looking for another title.
Q: Looking back, can you identify what caused that anxiety attack?
CM: There’s was lot of things at play. A bit of life’s pressure. It was a lot of different things coming together at the same moment. I’m not the kind of person who has a friend to whom I tell everything. I’m the kind of person who keeps a lot of things inside. So, that became an obstacle regarding my feelings and led to the crisis.
‘First tour stop complicated’
So, I say that was bad but good at the same time because these processes bring lessons. It made me believe that I can trust in a lot of people in this world and that I can open up and talk about things that I normally keep to myself.
The advice I can give is: when you start feeling a pressure inside of you, a fear about something, immediately look for a friend or a doctor to whom you can open up and explain the situation right from the start.
If you already feel a bit of anxiety and need to talk to someone, immediately open up because that brings a huge feeling of relief.. It was something I didn’t do at the beginning and I should have done.
We are subjected to a great deal of pressure due to a lot of competitions, a lot of trips; we need to take care of family. There’s a lot of things involved. I think that was what brought me a lot of anxiety. That brought me a bit of fear as well.
Q: How did you approach the year?
CM: The first stop in Qatar in January was a bit complicated for me because of the change of [competition] format. I knew I needed to train, so I set my mind to start everything from scratch. I had to improve the toe-side tricks, work on the Combos, because I was very focused on the doubles. I started training doubles, often left, and invested more time on toe-side tricks and Combos.
I started everything from zero. After Qatar [the opening round] we went to Colombia, where I said to myself: “This is going to work; my mindset, my training, I’ve got this”. I’ve shown that starting from zero would allow me to become champion. Colombia showed me that, I won the event there.
When we went to the event in France, my expectations were higher, I hoped I could win the event there as well. The conditions were not as good but I got a pretty good result there as well. The event in Brazil was on my home turf. Competing at home always adds an extra pressure.
But I knew I was ready and beyond the pressure of competing, with all my friends and family looking at me I could achieve a great result. It wasn’t really the result I expected for an event at home, but it was a good result. I’ve finished fifth and was really happy about it. I thought: “I will keep training this new format. I need to be 100 percent prepared for the last stop”.
Coming to Qatar, I knew how high the level of all riders would be. Our scores were really close between [Gianmaria] Coccoluto, Maxime [Chabloz]. They have been riding a lot. They stayed longer in Brazil, training hard. So I knew they would be coming to Qatar focused on getting the title as well. So all I had was to focus on training, full focus on hard training because I knew the battle at Qatar is going to be huge and I needed to be ready. A lot of other riders have a very high level, everyone has been training a lot.
But that’s it, my main focus was to come to Qatar prepared. I managed to arrive here prepared. It’s a shame we didn’t have wind but it’s part of the game. I think we can’t complain, we just need to thank and respect nature.
I really hope that through this title I can motivate the new generation or other athletes by thinking: ‘“Bebé’ came from such a humble and simple background, from a fishermen’s village, and managed to change his life 100 percent through sport. So I can change my life as well.”
My main goal is not to be a champion or bigger than anyone else; it’s to be an inspiration for the new generation and enable them to look at me and think: “I can also achieve what he achieved, or even go further”.
edit: Ian MacKinnon
images: Svetlana Romantsova / Andre Magarao