Words: Jeroen Aerts (Boards and More)
Pics: John Carter and Jeroen Aerts
SUP performers aren’t simply one trick ponies – as many will already be aware. In many cases paddlers come from other ocean sport disciplines and are equally gifted across multiple disciplines. Airton Cozzolino and Gollito Estredo are two cases in point. Both able to turn their hand to a variety of watersports and both outstanding ocean athletes…
There’s a stronger connection between Airton Cozzolino and Gollito Estredo than meets the eye. A common ground one could say, between the innovative kitesurfer/SUPer and windsurf freestyle champ that dates back to a time long before either of them discovered their talents on the water. Today Airton and Gollito have both changed their destiny. They’ve managed to use their talents to escape from the poverty of their hometowns. By doing so, they have set a brighter future for both themselves and their families, while showing the world of professional board sports that where you come from can in no way determine where you are going in life. Nevertheless, after almost a decade on top of their sports, both icons haven’t forgotten their humble beginnings.
When you see Airton and Gollito on the water together, one spinning endlessly on his windsurf gear, the other flying high in the sky throwing his strapless surfboard around and smashing it on his SUP, you can clearly see the synergy of both lives. And guess what? No longer does the king of freestyle stick to his windsurf kit. The young boy from El Yaque’s backstreets that became the biggest freestyler of all time, appears to show some serious skill in flying a kite as well. Meanwhile, kite genius Airton can be caught stealing Gollito’s windsurf gear and throwing down some killer freestyle moves, as well as tackling impressive waves on his stand up paddle board. Both multi-talented, both skilled at a number of watersports and both ultimate watermen…
When you stumble upon the rare occasion of talking to both at the same time you’ll find that aside from their modest upbringing, Airton and Gollito find a bond in their shared love for the ocean, for their family and for life itself.
From the street…
Though both watermen grew up on opposite sides of the globe, the similarities between both Gollito’s youth, and that of Airton are painfully obvious. With over 4500 kilometres (2.784 miles) of vast blue ocean between Gollito’s hometown of El Yaque and Airton’s birth island of Cape Verde, the misery of growing up in two of the world’s poorest backstreet places is equal.
Just a stone’s throw from the vibrant windsurf community of El Yaque, the young Jose Gollito Estredo shares a ragged shed with his mother, his grandma, a bunch of brothers and one sister. After becoming World Champion Gollito will use his well-earned prize money to build a real house for his mother. But for now eight-year-old Gollito just runs after his bigger brother, carrying his windsurf gear, hoping to get some time on the water for himself. Although Gollito enjoys every second he can to jump and trick around the thought of becoming a professional windsurfer hadn’t even crossed his mind.
Meanwhile, on the holiday island of Cape Verde, Airton spends the vast majority of his childhood in the ocean. The green-eyed kid is already at a young age, used to getting along on his own. With no father around, Airton believes it’s just him and his worn out surfboard against the world. That is until he meets Libero, an Italian kitesurfer who is charmed by Airton’s infectious smile, and their joint love for waves. Libero Cozzolino teaches Airton to fly a kite and is hardly surprised when the little surf boy takes off like he’s been kiting his whole life. While on the water Airton takes his new found favourite sport into the waves of Punta Preta and an idea grows in the mind of Libero Cozzolino. That idea was to adopt the twelve-year-old Cape Verdean, take him to Sardinia in Italy, and train him for his first World Cup. In time Airton’s SUP prowess is also nurtured and these days you’ll find the boy turned man from Cape Verde charging wherever he finds himself!
… to the world stage
It takes more than just an endless bank of new school tricks to make it in World Cup events. At age 14 Gollito travels to Bonaire with his board bag filled with new Fanatic toys, ready to make his big windsurfing debut. The pressure gets to the youngster, who’s overwhelmed by the international windsurf circus, and sets a disappointing end result. ‘I kicked out some of the good guys though!’ Gollito proclaims. Never having learned any English in his hometown, travelling to different World Cup events will remain a challenge for the Venezuelan for years to come.
‘I only learned to speak English while travelling,’ Airton recounts. ‘The only words of English I knew where: “Yes! Super good!’ Like after my first heats in the World Cup, journalists would come up to me asking me about the gear: the answer would be: “Yes! Super good!’ Airton? What size of board where you using? “Yes! Super Good!’ Nevertheless, with the support of Libero his adoptive father, Airton Cozzolino perseveres, taking his first World Title in 2011. ‘Up until that World Title, my father would go everywhere with me. He still supports me and flies to as many competition stops as possible. I have so much to thank him for!’
‘You should see my passport,’ Airton proclaims, ‘it’s totally stamped up. An Italian passport is valid for ten years, but it took me just half that time to fill it up.’ Today both Airton Cozzolino and Gollito Estredo lead the way in their sports. ‘I always travel with two passports,’ Gollito confirms. ‘One is almost totally full, so I keep a back-up passport, just in case they don’t want to put anymore stamps in the first one!’
Although both athletes have topped up their bank accounts quite nicely these past years, they still support their family back home. ‘I finally convinced my mother to stop working!’ Gollito proudly announces. ‘She’s been working as a cleaning lady in a hotel. I’ve been telling her she has to stop working for four years now.’ ‘It’s funny!’ Airton chimes in, ‘I’ve been telling my mum the same thing! She works way too hard. I make enough money to support the family, but she just doesn’t want to stop working.’
Gollito kept his promise, buying a new house in El Yaque for his mother. ‘But now I support myself!’ Gollito laughs! ‘I have my own house, my own money!’
Gollito is without a doubt the most dominant force in freestyle windsurfing, and Airton’s skills in strapless riding and SUP surfing are out of this world. Nonetheless, both icons no longer stick to the restrictions of their individual sports. During an unguarded moment and away from ever-present journalists, Gollito Estredo can be caught flying a kite, while Airton Cozzolino shows some true skill in wave windsurfing. ‘It wouldn’t be the first time that I arrive on the beach to find my freestyle set up missing,’ Gollito says, ‘That’s just how it goes. Airton takes my windsurf gear so I steal his kite equipment!’
And then, there’s SUP! Today Airton finds himself torn between two sports he loves with all of his heart. Over the past year he’s been trying to combine the kite, and the SUP World Tours, although it’s proved to be quite a challenge missing some of the most important SUP events. So what will be Airton’s priority in 2016? ‘I can’t even tell myself.’ Airton declares.
From two different places on the globe Airton Cozzolino’s and Gollito Esterdo’s life stories are remarkably similar. Both athletes show that with passion and a lot of stubbornness and commitment you can make a better future for yourself and your family.
What’s the best drink in the world?
Airton: ‘Red Bull’
Gollito: ‘I stick to water!’
Favourite soccer team?
Gollito: ‘Real Madrid!’
Airton: ‘Then I’ll say Barcelona!’
What’s the best place in the world to kite?
Airton: ‘Punta Preta, Cape Verde’
Gollito: ‘El Yaque, Venezuela’
What’s the best place in the world to windsurf?
Gollito: ‘El Yaque, Venezuela’
What’s the best place in the world to SUP?
Gollito: Cape Verde or Mauritius
Fish or meat?
Who’s the best fisherman?
Airton: ‘Gollito, for sure!’
Coffee or orange juice?
Gollito: ‘Orange juice’
Airton: ‘Orange Juice’