Max Maeder: How to be an Olympian at 17 years old

Max Maeder, the Singaporean kitefoiling wunderkind

The average Singaporean, at age 17, is in school and likely moving on to tertiary education. Max Maeder, however, is anything but average. For one thing, he’s never attended a day of school, having been homeschooled all his life.

He is also a master in kitefoiling — a variant kitesurfing that involves using wind power and a large power kite to pull the rider across the water.

A two-time world champion and Asian Games gold medalist, Max is currently in preparation for the Paris Olympics 2024, where kitefoiling will be a medaled event for the very first time.

But the avid foodie — which Singaporean isn’t? — also hopes to master cooking chicken rice one day when he’s not training and competing across the globe, all while attending virtual classes.

MS News sat down with the prodigy likened by his rivals to Formula 1’s Max Verstappen for his sheer dominance over the past two years, to find out what makes a 17-year-old Olympian tick.

Unconventional surfing

Born to a Swiss father and a Singaporean Chinese mother, Max’s childhood couldn’t be called conventional in any sense. Though he was born here, he has at various points called Singapore, Switzerland, Indonesia, and countless other countries home.

Indeed, whenever he returns to Singapore, the time he has is often limited. Max was only in town for about two weeks last month for work.

Max’s training in kitefoiling came while he was growing up in his parents’ Wakatobi dive resort in Southeast Sulawesi, Indonesia.

At the age of six, he’d taken to the sea like a fish to water when his Swiss dad decided “it would be funny to put the little guy on the board”.

It turned out that Max was a natural — his dad had merely intended for him to kitesurf recreationally, and Max quickly surpassed expectations.

His dad thus recommended that he step up to kite foiling at age 10.

The only difference between kitefoiling and kitesurfing is a wing-like structure under the board known as a hydrofoil.

Max describes the hydrofoil as a “little underwater airplane”, which can glide above the water surface at high speeds, much faster than kitesurfing.

Kitefoiling can get crazy intense — with top speeds of up to 82km/hour — and Max was immediately enraptured.

The moment I got up [on the board], it was, wow.

Apart from the thrill, Max’s love for competition led him to pursue racing.

After competing in kitesurfing races previously, Max progressed to kitefoiling races, joining his first race in late 2017 at the tender age of 11.

Max estimates he already has over 50 tournaments under his belt — and that number is only set to grow.

A worldly man

Due to his worldly upbringing, Max professed that as a kid, he felt more comfortable being on a flight from one country to the next than on a bus in Singapore.

He shared how the flight ticket “had the destination written on it” while a bus in Singapore didn’t.

“That was my thought process at age six,” he laughed.

Max started to travel alone for overseas kitefoiling competitions when he was 12.

Even though many may balk at the thought of a young child boarding an international flight alone, Max was eager to start travelling solo — having gotten a taste of travel with his parents and later, chaperones.

In fact, he put the idea out to his parents himself, and while not without their worries, they gave their approval after seeing how their son could handle himself.

Now, as a 17-year-old professional athlete, he never stays more than three months in one place.

In an ActiveSG Circle article about their parenting methods, Max’s parents Valentin and Hwee Keng explained how they inculcated trust in their kids by “giving more space to let [them] live out the consequences of self-motivated action or inaction from early on”.

They added: “We try to raise decision-makers, so we let them make their own decisions and roll with the consequences.”

Just like how Max shuttles between countries for competitions and training, his parents also divide their time between their dive resort in Indonesia, Switzerland, and Singapore.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

So what goes through Max’s mind when he’s in a race? Sometimes, not very much.

“My heart rate is almost 200 BPM sometimes while racing. I can tell you from experience, your IQ is about cut in half at that BPM,” Max said. “You [have to] treat yourself like a different person.”

Source: Forward-WIP

This means preparation is that much more important. Though choppy waters and bad weather can affect his racing, Max knows that as long as the prep is done, things will take care of themselves.

“If you do it the way you’ve planned and it works, great. If you do it the way you’ve planned and it doesn’t work, you can adjust the plan…You focus on what you can control and see how well you’ve done.”

Behind every successful athlete is a team that ensures Max is as prepared as can be. Together with his coach John Dolenc and his son — Max’s training partner — they have formed a tight-knit bond and are mainly based in Croatia for training.

Source: @johndolenc on Instagram

Such is his coach’s importance that after Max won the kitefoiling world title for the second time in May, he went over to Johnny, as Max calls him, and hugged him on the boat, saying: “I’m at a loss for words, Johnny. Thank you so much.”

And for the first time in perhaps ever, Johnny replied, in a somewhat joking but also somewhat serious manner: “Max, don’t make me cry.”

“It’s such a beautiful thing,” Max muses. “You work so hard together and you go through all of this together and you come back and hug, say a simple thank you — and it moves him so much.”

That moment, the culmination of all they have gone through together leading up to the win, will live on in Max’s memory for a long time.

Max Maeder draws strength from within

The work that goes into being a professional often consists of doing things that need to be done — whether Max likes it or not.

“I think I struggle with the same things everyone else does, getting up and doing the things that need to be done,” he shared.

“It’s the same thing every day. Some days you fulfill them better, some days not so much. And it’s the same level of effort required to get those things done anew every time.”

Some of the least motivating days are when he’s training in winter and he’s putting on a 5mm wetsuit at 9am.

“The air temperature is about 9 degrees and the water’s like 13 degrees, and you see stormy weather outside and I’m thinking… do I want to go?” But his coach calls him out and he does it anyway. On such days, his motivation “is probably as dry as it gets”.

That discipline to train, rain or shine, has undoubtedly contributed to Max’s wild, “extraordinary” success.

“I myself did not expect this,” he said, although he noted that his coach and family did.

Max, however, attributes at least a bit of his success to good fortune.

“I still see opportunities to improve and to change, but I guess I’m happy that there’s a bit of a
natural affinity to the sport for me.”

He equally wants to acknowledge the support he gets, not least from Sports Singapore, as well as his sponsors who allow him to do what he does.

“You come back [to Singapore] and suddenly, you see what you do it all for,” he enthused.

Singapore, a home away from home

As a strapping young lad who needs to work hard, not just on the board but also in the gym, Max finds his favourite nutrition, at the end of the day, still lies in Hainanese chicken rice over any Swiss food.

“If I had to pick a Swiss cheese fondue or chicken rice to eat for the rest of my life, that’s a very obvious choice — I’d go for the chicken rice.”

This is even though he adds laughingly that his Singaporean mum would pick the opposite.

His love for food is perhaps no better indicator that he’s a Singaporean through and through, although he could have easily represented Switzerland on the world stage.

When Max was about to compete in the Hempel Sailing World Championships Aarhus 2018 championship, it was Singapore that offered the support to register and get him there.

Hence, it was a conscious decision to represent the country of his birth.

“I was born here, and I feel Singaporean,” he noted.

“The more I compete for my nation, the more I felt pride… to represent the flag and the nation worldwide, and the more I feel the responsibility to show what it means to be a Singaporean athlete.”

Max Maeder speaks about his kitefoiling journey

Max shared that his motivations to compete have changed drastically over the years.

Although he was initially captivated by the sheer thrill of kite flying, skimming over the water at breakneck speeds, that excitement soon gave way to the joy of competition and the relentless pursuit of improvement.

“My motivation stems from something deeper these days,” he said. “Competing allows me to share my journey with so many people — those who support and stand by me.”

“Just because I go around a race course really fast, they’re all happy for some reason. I think it’s really fulfilling and is one of the reasons why I continue competing.”

As he continues his training for the Olympics, Max has resolved to do what has worked so far — after all, it’s hard to argue with the results in the form of two world titles — and see where that takes him.

Maybe after that, he can finally make a plate of chicken rice that he can be satisfied with.

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