Ellie Aldridge clearly remembers the first time she sailed, for all the wrong reasons.
“Dragged” onto a boat by her mother when she was seven, she capsized – the “very scary” experience that left her understandably reluctant to return to the water.
Still, she did it, and almost 20 years later, Aldridge is on the verge of an Olympic debut as one of the best Formula Kite pilots in the world.
But if you’ve paused reading to ask ‘what is Kite Formula?’, you won’t be alone.
Formula Kite – also known as kite foiling or kite boarding – sees athletes racing above the water on hydrofoil boards, propelled by kites at speeds of over 80km/h.
As one of two new disciplines added to the sailing program for next year’s Olympics in Paris, it is an exciting time for the sport and one of great change.
“It’s really exciting to have something of an upgrade to sailing,” Aldridge, 26, told BBC Sport.
“It’s a lot different than it used to be. For the sport, it’s amazing.”
Sailing is in Poole-born Aldridge’s blood. Following in the footsteps of her parents and grandparents, she grew up on the water and competed on several boats, but kite foiling was something reserved for weekend fun.
That, she says, was what kite foiling was all about back then – “a beach lifestyle sport”. But everything changed in 2020 when, in a bid to increase gender equity in Olympic sailing, this – along with IQFoil (foil windsurfing) – was added to the program for Paris 2024 and beyond.
“When I started, everyone was traveling from event to event, having fun, and everyone was friends,” says Aldridge.
“Now, certainly, as more countries support their athletes more and there is a lot more pressure on everyone to secure funding or secure a place in the Olympics, there is a lot more desire to win at all costs.
“So it’s definitely changed. But I think that will always happen when it becomes an Olympic sport, it will become much more serious.”
At the time kite foiling was added to the Paris roster, Aldridge was still finding her footing in her new sport. With “virtually no one in the UK” thwarting the kite, she responded to a talent identification survey in late 2018.
“I spent the winter learning how to do everything from topping the sailing class I was in to starting again,” she says.
The following year, she competed in her first European Championships; as of 2021 she is a World Championship medalist.
And having just won silver at the Olympic test event in July and her third world medal – another silver – last month, Aldridge, ranked fourth in the world, is in prime position to fill Britain’s only women’s spot at next year’s Games.
“The last four years of my life have been completely dedicated to [the Olympics]” she says. “That would mean a lot.
“It’s crazy to think it’s within touching distance. I think part of me imagined it, but part of me was kind of fooling myself.”
But before Paris comes Portsmouth.
From September 19, the European Formula Kite Championship will descend on the waters of Eastney Beach, with qualifying rounds taking place during the week before the finals at the weekend.
Aldridge is one of 12 athletes – six men and six women – who will compete at home for the British team, with places at the Olympics up for grabs for nations who have yet to secure one. The GB women’s fleet, with Aldridge, secured their place in August’s World Championships, but the men are yet to secure a place at the start in Paris.
For a sport in which Mother Nature has a lot to say, the weather on the south coast looks “fruity” in the coming days, but this does little to lessen the excitement surrounding the regatta.
“It’s been almost four years since I was competing at my first European Championships, so it’s really nice, a year out of the Games, to be in the UK, to be at home,” says Aldridge.
“Tuesday and Wednesday could be quite tricky. It looks very windy. We could go out quite windy, but if it gets dangerous, it’s not a good idea to send everyone into the water, but the rest of the week actually looks pretty good.
“We qualified for the World Cup, so there is less pressure than if we hadn’t, but we still want to perform well.
“This whole year there has been a lot of pressure on every event. You want to prove that you are the best and should be chosen for the Olympics.”