Issue 45: ProFile – Stephanie Hiebert

As one of the true “workhorses” in modern sport kiting, Stephanie Hiebert is seemingly always on the run and notoriously hard to get a photo of, for that very reason. Whether she’s working with the Eastern League, field directing, helping with scoring, organizing a competition or whatever else it may be, Stephanie lends a definite sense of sensibility to whatever she’s involved in… Now, as one half of the Tricks Party USA movement (along with spouse Ron Graziano), she’s playing a decidedly active role in exploring this new and exciting venue for sport kite competition.

With a deep personal appreciation for her style and overall influence on the kiting arena, I really wanted to have her share some of her experiences with us here at Kitelife… That being said, we’ll let her handle it from here.

How did you get into kiting originally? Was it something you and Ron took up together or was it more gradual?

Believe it or not, I’m the one who got Ron into kiteflying, not the other way around. I had an old, orange Skynasaur stunt kite from the early ‘80s that hadn’t been flown in years, although it had obviously been flown a bit at one time, as its leather(!) nose repair attested. One day, when Ron and his then 7-year-old daughter went out to the local elementary school playground to launch her new single-line shark kite (harbinger of things to come?), I decided to dust off the Skynasaur and give it a whirl. It had been so long that I didn’t remember much about it, except I was confident that I still knew how to fly it. Of course, flying it means being able to get it off the ground, which I couldn’t do at all, no matter how hard I tried. So finally I gave up and stowed the kite away again.

Then a couple months later, in September 1997, Ron and I went to the Jersey shore for a week’s vacation, and I decided to take the Skynasaur along. I brought it out to the beach, but it was not until I had been struggling again to get it off the ground for quite a while that Ron finally took enough interest to look at the kite and say, “Hey, shouldn’t this piece here go around the back instead?” Sure enough, that was the problem — a spreader in the wrong position. With that corrected, I had the thing in the air in no time, and Ron and his father stood with me on the beach in awe of my incredible ability to fly loops. I could do, like, 20 of them! That was the last time I could fly a kite better than Ron. Within hours he was flying his own stunt kite purchased at the local kite shop, and that was all she wrote.

When you’re not off at Kiting events, hanging around flying fields, or sitting at your computer acting as Eastern League Commissioner, what do you like to do with your spare time (if any)? What do you like to do when there are no kites around?

Spare time — what’s that? 🙂

I have lots of interests, none them cultivated to a high degree, but all of them satisfying on some level. Some of these dabblings include gardening, sewing, cooking, origami, crossword and other word puzzles, sudoku, camping, travel, music, walking/hiking and just being outdoors, swimming, and, of course, organizing stuff. Yoga became a big interest when I turned 40, and it is a staple of my existence now. Another big source of pleasure for me is games. Dominoes? Boggle? Ping-Pong? Pool? Frisbee? Mini-golf? I’m there!

As we were checking the AKA database, we notice you competed individually as Novice in 2001 and 2002… Was competition originally an aim for you, or were you more content to simply enjoy the various festivals and assist as a volunteer occasionally?

It was never a strong goal to compete. For the first year that Ron competed, I was content being a spectator. My very short-lived competing career — consisting of three not-very-impressive showings in NIP — began in June 2000, when Ron spurred me on by paying my registration fee at the Old Dominion Sport Kite Championship in Richmond, VA, and it ended just four months later at the Norwalk Regional not far from home here in Connecticut. Because I competed only three times, I have pretty vivid memories of every time on the field.

After my first outing in Richmond, I was asked by the youngest of the Huszes how I had done. “I took 7th place,” I said. She replied, “Well, at least you placed.” I get a chuckle every time I think about that. I’m not a terrible flier, but as a competitor, I’m a bundle of nerves, so competition quickly lost interest for me. The same event that was my last for competition — that Norwalk Regional in November 2000 — was my first for field directing, and the field director’s spot is where I’ve been ever since.

Once you got seriously involved in kiting, did you join a club, or hang out with a group of fliers, or just fly with Ron? Who, if anyone, were the biggest influences on you during that time?

We were “seriously” involved in kiting for a good year and a half before Ron got into the competition side of things. That first summer after Ron’s introduction to sport kites, we spent both days of every weekend — literally from 9:00am until dark — hanging out with a small group of kiteflying friends at Harkness Memorial State Park, a beautiful former estate right on the Long Island Sound about an hour and a half away from our home. Our biggest direct influences were the people we hung out with there — Mike Balkum, Rich Michna, occasionally Jim and Debbie Baker — all avid kitefliers but none of them competitors.

In July 1998, we cashed in a bed-and-breakfast gift certificate that we had received a few months earlier as a wedding gift and went to our first kite festival in Newport, RI. Our “honeymoon,” such as it was, was literally the start of our going to kite festivals. As we attended more and more festivals, we came to admire many of the competitors we saw repeatedly — Scott Weider, Billy Ng, Bob and Debbie Hurd, Dennis Smith, to name a few. Little did we know how well we could come to know all those people in time!

How did you end up becoming “Ms. Commissioner” in the first place? Is it a job you’ve been working toward over time, or something that you decided to do at the last moment? Or was that role something that you took on either because no other strong candidates chose to run?

The job just sort of fell into my lap when Lou Behrman was ready to move on in the fall of 2001, no one else showed any real interest, and I volunteered. I was ripe for the picking, I suppose, probably subconsciously wanting more of a way to be involved in the sport kite world — where Ron was spending the bulk of his free time — without being just a “groupie.” Many people questioned why the position was handed to me, a relative newcomer on the scene, but my guess is that no one else had come forward or else the league had been turned down already by a dozen or so people , so I ended up being the EL Board’s choice. And here I am four years later.

All the leagues have had their issues over the last few years, from diminishing attendance at events to the loss of good flying areas. What type of things has the ESKL faced, and what do you think is in store to remedy those issues, both as a league and nationwide?

When I became commissioner in January 2002, the Eastern League was in a state of some disrepair. Nearly every membership in the league had expired, and the league consisted of little else than a list of event results and standings on a web site. There was a dire need for more reliable access to information and improved communication. I set out to do something about that immediately, and by the time the Treasure Island Sport Kite Championship rolled around three weeks into the new year, I had put together an Eastern League informational brochure and (thanks to Ron’s programming efforts) had a member database in place and mostly up-to-date. A month later I published the first issue of the new league newsletter, the Eastern League Phoenix, which continues today.

Since those first few months in the position, much of my work as commissioner has continued to focus on providing good information for competitors and event organizers. Once the league was back on more solid footing, I was free to focus on creating some specific tools for competitors. Publication of the new IRBC rule books in August 2002 was the inspiration for designing several products specifically for use on the field: a spiral-bound half-size version of the rule books, laminated field references for judges and field directors, and later, laminated compulsory figure sets for competitors.

Although the feeling of camaraderie among competitors in the Eastern League continues to be strong, despite the vast geographic area that the league covers, my start as commissioner coincided with a striking downturn in sport kiting that has not yet really turned the corner to an upward trend, though it seems to be holding steady right now. Something did change three years ago, when four French fliers came to Wildwood and wowed everyone with their incredible flying. That visit inspired an awestruck bunch of fliers, Ron included, to get serious about learning some of the more sophisticated tricks that were already old hat to many European fliers.

That new dedication to quality trick flying is starting to pay off, as the start of Tricks Party USA attests. The increased attention and respect being paid to “trick fliers” is, in my opinion, a positive trend in the sport. The Tricks Party format not only ramps up the competition experience a bit — running at a fast pace in a relatively relaxed atmosphere — but also sets standards for tricks that raise trick flying to a new level. For trick fliers, the format is simultaneously more fun and more challenging than what has been available to them up to now. Perhaps that difference will result in the upturn that we’ve been looking for in sport kite competition.

Steph, your demeanor both on and off the field speaks of a well educated person who is a quiet force in her workplace. What do you do for a living? How does your “job” schedule reconcile itself with your fairly frequent absences in order to attend kiting events nationwide?

Yes, I think you could say that I am a quiet force in my workplace. If you saw my workplace, which is just steps away from my bedroom and requires little contact with any living beings other than our two cats (and that guy across the hall), the humor in that statement would be immediately evident. I have been self-employed full-time as a book editor for over 13 years. Most of what I work on are college-level science textbooks and computer books for software professionals. Though it’s not a particularly lucrative life, freelancing does have the great benefit of giving me a very flexible schedule, and that’s how it’s possible for me to be scuttling off to as many kite events as I do (though work often accompanies me!). It doesn’t hurt that Ron is also self-employed.

By all reports we’ve come across, and by way of everything we’ve seen first-hand, you are an organizational powerhouse. How do you manage it? Does it come naturally or is it something that tends to drive you crazy at times?

I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t have the organization bug. As a child, I assigned numbers to and made library cards for the children’s books in our house. When I was teenager, I catalogued my parents’ record collection. Most people think I’m a little nuts that way, but hey, it gives me pleasure to put things in order.

I have always been a compulsive list maker, and that’s really the key to organization for me. Making lists frees my mind of the scads of details that can easily become hard to manage. That helps me keep multiple

things going at once. Another thing that helps me stay on top of everything is being able to interrupt my day to do little tasks related to the various things I’m involved in, or to add the thought that just popped into my head to this list or that. I can usually pick up work later in the evening or over the weekend if I need to.

Does it ever drive me crazy? Absolutely. Sometimes I feel completely overwhelmed. I try pretty hard not to overextend myself, but, as everyone knows, when multiple facets of life come to a head all at once, it can be pretty taxing. Deep breathing is a pretty darn good tool then! That, and constantly reminding myself, in the midst of going bonkers, that this, too, shall pass.

According to some reliable sources, Stephanie Hiebert may be (arguably?) the best kiting Field Director in the USA today. How did all that come about? How long have you been Field Directing, and how much work has gone into training yourself to become one of the premier Field Directors?

I was fortunate to be the last person whom Jef “Sarge” Cleaves ever taught the art of field directing. From Sarge I learned some great tricks of the trade, as well as an even healthier respect for the job than I had already. In November 2000, at the same Norwalk Regional where I competed for the last time, I had the privilege of a one-on-one field directing workshop with Sarge, and I got my first shot at putting theory into practice the next day. It scared me to death … and I loved it. The nervousness that I used to feel whenever I took the field as field director is different from the unbearable nervousness of competition. I got nervous not because I thought I wouldn’t be able to do the job well, but because I loved the job (still do!) and really wanted to do right by the competitors.

As anyone who knows me knows, I take the job of field directing pretty seriously. The field director can make or break the competition for both the competitors and the rest of the field staff. The field director sets the tone on the field and ensures that every competitor is treated fairly. What could be more important at a sporting event? Helping brand-new competitors have a good experience their first time out on the field is a high point of the job. It makes me feel really good when Novice competitors tell me how much I helped them feel more at ease on the field.

Though I’ve been field directing now for five years, I still regularly review the rules to make sure I know what I’m doing out there, and I make sure to keep abreast of any changes in the rules. There’s a lot to keep track of, and the majority of my life is not spent on a kite field, so brushing up from time to time is essential, as is toting a field reference card with me onto the field!

With respect to Ron’s “Machine” kite, were you both involved in the design of these and now, the making of them? They look like each one takes a tremendous amount of work, resulting in a tremendous kite. And the bidding frenzy around the ones done to raise money for the Red Cross was amazing! How much was raised when all was said and done?

I had nothing to do with development of the Machine, nor do I help produce it. The Machine is Ron’s baby through and through. I can vouch for the fact that each Machine takes an incredible amount of time and painstaking effort, and that Ron is a very conscientious and dedicated kitebuilder. I admire his tenacity and focus!

Both of the last two auctioned Machines went for $1,000+ each, the most recent one earning a cool thousand for donation to the American Red Cross’s Disaster Relief Fund.

Give us some idea of what your thoughts and experiences were when attending the First Freestyle World Cup in Cap d’Agde, France in May of this year. What was interesting, exciting, and delightful? And, was there anything about the event that was less-than-perfect?

I was excited to be going with Ron to Cap d’Agde, but to be honest, without anything organizational to do, I expected to find myself bored of the competition at some point in the week and was prepared to take side excursions on my own while Ron was thickly involved in the kite scene. What actually happened surprised me. Every morning I walked the mile and a half or so from the hotel to the beach where the competition was being held, settled in near the pit, and found myself absolutely glued the entire day to the goings-on on the field.

I loved the whole format — the round field; the colorful, festive tape that marked the boundary and the banners ringing the field; the incredible energy and impressive knowledge of the announcer; the enthusiasm of the spectators. I really enjoyed meeting kiters from all over Europe and elsewhere. Spending each evening in a cafe with any number of other kiters was a high point. Really the only thing that I can think of that was a downside was the ballistic wind of the first couple days, which not only made it awfully tough for the competitors to give their best peformances but also spelled ruin for both our still camera and our video camera.

We know that Roger and Sylvie Tessa-Gambassi originated/designed the entire Tricks Party event-format about five years ago, and have been running Tricks Parties for four or five years now. Therefore, the European kiters likely have a healthy lead in preparing for Tricks Party events. How much of a real “lead” do they actually have, and how long before we Yanks (and other kiters) can become competitive?

I’m not sure I’m the best judge, but my sense is that, with the burgeoning of trick flying that has happened in the past few years in this country, we’re not really so far behind. Even many of the fliers at Freestyle World Cup who had never competed in the Tricks Party format before felt considerably more comfortable with it by the end of that week. It’s just a matter of getting to know how the Tricks Party format works — getting a little firsthand experience with it. And with the recent launching of Tricks Party USA, we hope that many more people in this country will soon have an opportunity to get that sort of firsthand experience.

What led to you and Ron to decide to form Tricks Party USA, and what are you expecting from it initially and long term? Please share with us your hopes and dreams behind this project.

It was simply the next logical step. It’s important to us to preserve Roger and Sylvie’s intent in creating the Tricks Party format, so establishing an organization that could shepherd the process in this country seemed crucial. Our immediate goal is to make available a type of competition that many fliers have been wanting and to provide both fliers and spectators with something new and exciting to fly in and watch. A more lofty goal is to revive interest in a sport that has been suffering a downslide for some time now. That has to be a natural progression, though, and can’t be forced. We’ll do our best to make the format work well. After that, whatever happens happens.

We’d also imagine that there are plans in the works (or at least “dreams”) to hold an International Tricks Party on this continent, but realistically, how far away from that are we?

Sure, that sounds like fun. 🙂

Realistically, I think we’re at least three years away from such a goal.

Time to get a bit philosophical; please give Kitelife readers your views on Sport Kiting becoming “mainstream” in the USA… Do you think it can happen? If so, what does the sport of Kiting need to do to get there?

If we really want to make sport kiting mainstream (not that I necessarily think that should be our goal), then we have to do more to pique the interest of the general public. When I watch cooking competitions on the Food Network that are not at all flashy but still manage to hold the interest of an enthusiastic group of spectators, I think to myself, what is it about this show that makes it interesting to someone who knows absolutely nothing about what they’re watching? It’s not like there’s spine-tingling, nail-biting action! I think a big part of the answer is the information that’s provided along with the show. Learning all about how things are made, what materials are used, what sorts of people are doing the work, and all kinds of other interesting little tidbits is what gets an audience involved. (Of course, those competitions tend to have cash prizes, too, and that certainly provides some incentive.)

We have to ask ourselves whether we really want to be mainstream, or whether we’re satisfied with the family-oriented, relatively low-key, and nonprofessional type of competition that we have now. On the other hand, rarely are there only two choices in life. There may well be a balance that would help the sport grow enough to keep going without completely transforming the nature of it.

Personally, I would like to see sport kite competition grow to the point where competitors don’t also have to be judges. That sort of inbreeding is part of what limits the growth of the sport, I think. This issue is one place where Tricks Party diverges from traditional sport kite competition. It’s not as if there are many Tricks Party disciplines and you can choose to fly in some and judge others. It’s fly or judge, but not both.

With that being said, how do you see Tricks Party USA playing a role in this, both as a new venue for spectators and competitors, and as an organization?

My hope is that Tricks Party will appeal to a new crop of kite competitors who have been standing on the sidelines wanting to be involved in some way but have not been particularly attracted to the traditional forms of competition. At the three Tricks Party competitions that we have held so far in the U.S., we’ve already seen some brand-new competitors come out of the woodwork for just that reason. I hope that the existence of Tricks Party USA will help motivate fliers to raise their flying to new levels to compete with other fliers from around the country and possibly someday at an international competition.

With its clearly and relatively narrowly defined focus, an organization like Tricks Party USA has the potential to ensure a high standard for the type of competition it supports, and to create a cohesive nationwide network, building camaraderie across a broad base of competitors and improving the experience of sport kite competition in general.

Also, please share your thoughts on Kiting as a part of a “global culture”, and the unique community it represents… What do you think of its very nature?

I can’t say that I have ever given this much thought, so it’s a little hard for me to respond to this question. What I do know is that I have made some very good friends in the kiting world, and there is a great sense of community. It’s like an extended family, and that’s a nice thing. I think part of the reason for that feeling is the small size of the kiting world — an argument perhaps for not wanting to “grow” the sport TOO much.

We’re also interested in your thoughts and experience both here and in Europe… What, if any, are some of the major differences you’ve seen in how competitors approach their events with regard to attitude and preparation?

My only firsthand experience with competitors abroad was at Freestyle World Cup last May. Like competitors here, the competitors I met in France ranged widely in attitude and preparation. With only that limited contact, there’s little of value that I could say on this point.

With you having seen and most likely judged countless events by now, can you name a few of your favorite American fliers with regard to overall style, showmanship and ability?

I have seen many events but never judged a single one. My interest has always been field directing. I’ve never wanted to judge, and I’m a firm believer that not everyone is cut out for doing everything. We all have our strengths, and we should play to those strengths.

Because I’ve spent so much time in the field director’s shoes, I’ve missed a lot of kite performances altogether and haven’t seen many whole performances in the last five years.

That said, I have fond memories of Brian Vanderslice (“Slice”) unabashedly pushing the limits on the competition field and having a grand time entertaining the spectators.

I also have great respect for Scott Weider, who always manages to wow me with his kite routines, both indoors and out — virtually devoid of tricks but solid in every other way, and so well choreographed.

I used to love to watch Billy Ng running circles (literally) around a stoic Bob Hurd when Upper Limit was on the field.

Watching a great team fly (Chicago Fire, Legend, and Cutting Edge come to mind) is always a thrill for me.

The same goes for pairs. I will never forget Against the Wind’s wonderful, moving performance at the 2002 Grand Nationals in Ocean City. To see it again still gives me a chill.

I could go on and on. Many many competitors’ performances have inspired me over the years. I feel privileged to have been present for a lot of exciting sport kite moments, and I regret having missed many other legendary performances that happened before we ever discovered the kite world.

To those fliers just coming into the sport, do you have any advice, encouragement or recommendations you’d like to share?

I guess I would say, do what makes you happy. If you love competing, then do it! If you don’t, then don’t! Whatever you do, though, if you get involved, you are likely to make some great friends and find a solid community of support and friendship.

I suppose there’re the occasional moments that stick in your memory as “high points” and perhaps some accolades you’ve received or events that were special. And maybe a special day comes to mind when it all went right and the world turned “magical” for you. Or perhaps you saw someone else succeed that gave you great satisfaction…?

In June 2001, Ron and I were flabbergasted and proud to receive the “Excellence in Kiting” award from the organizers of the Old Dominion Sport Kite Championship in Richmond, VA. What a great feeling that was — such an unexpected honor from people whom we admired and respected.

The applause that accompanied my receipt of the “Volunteer of the Year” award at the 2004 AKA Convention was a particularly meaningful moment for me. That was a wonderful way to cap an intense week of coordinating sport kite competition for the Grand Nationals.

Which brings me to my personal favorite moments. Stints of meet coordinating with David Hansen — most notably at the 2003 and 2004 AKA Grand Nationals — have been the most intense, exhausting, exhilarating, and satisfying kite festival experiences for me. The amount of effort beforehand, the intense level of juggling/shuffling/staying on top of it all at the competition itself, striving to give the competitors the best possible competition experience, and, topping it all off, having the privilege of handing out awards are terrific highs.

I still get butterflies for Ron whenever he’s on the field, and I love to watch his ballet performances. His enjoyment of this sport and his success in competition are sources of great pleasure for us both.

And on a similar note, would you care to mention some festival disasters that you don’t care to ever repeat?

Most of the disasters that come to mind are weather-related, and there have been a few doozies in the past couple of years. Neither I nor anyone else cares to repeat them, but I don’t think we have much choice about that!

The one potentially disastrous memorable moment that had nothing to do with weather was the first day of competition at the 2004 AKA Nationals in Seaside. The day started out on rough footing all around. Everything that could possibly go wrong seemed to do just that. All the judges that we were a little unsure about were, in fact, unavailable to judge that day. On top of that, the sound system and sound engineer, though en route, had been waylaid by serious car troubles and hadn’t yet arrived in Seaside by the time we were ready to start the competition. Then, once we finally did get everything going, we had to stop for a significant wind delay.

It was an incredibly intense day of shuffling disciplines, competitors, and field staff. All of our field assignment prep went quickly out the window as we tried to make the schedule work under the completely altered set of far-less-than-perfect circumstances. At times I thought I might go insane that day, and it troubled me to have to throw together judging panels that were not as regionally balanced as we would normally strive to have, but there wasn’t much else to do. In the November 2004 issue of the Eastern League Phoenix, I referred to that day as “the mother of all quirky first days,” but quirks or no, all the disciplines got done, and we ended competition that day only a half hour later than planned. In the end, I think we’d have to call the day a success, but I wouldn’t choose to repeat the experience!

Finally, have you anything you’d like to say to the sport kiters on some kiting subject we’ve NOT mentioned? If so, we’re “all ears!” Fire away, Steph…

Wow. Free rein. My mind is suddenly blank. The previous 22 questions seem to have cleared out the memory banks! No doubt I’ll think of something grand to say after this has already been published. C’est la vie.

Stephanie, thank you truly for sharing your experience, thoughts and passion with us… Please keep up your amazing work, it is appreciated.

Thanks for the opportunity to tell pieces of my story. I’m truly flattered.