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Sarasota Thursday, Sep. 15, 2022 1 week ago

Viral scooter prodigy learns his craft at Payne Park

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"Krazy Kai" Haines, 6, has 61,400 followers on Instagram and has earned the attention of extreme sports stars like Tanner Fox and Nitro Circus.
by: Ryan Kohn Sports Editor

A fall on an attempted jump elicited concern. 

"Oh no, are you OK?" Matthew Haines said to his son, Kai Haines. By the time Matthew finished his query, "Krazy Kai" was already back on his feet. He grabbed his stunt scooter and cruised back to his starting position on the other side of a down-and-up ramp to try the jump again. 

This time, he nailed it. 

Kai Haines, 6, spends every Sunday at Payne Park, working on his craft with his father and his coach, Nick Leinberger, a professional rider who operates Sarasota Scooter Lessons. Sept. 11 was no different. It's more than a hobby at this point. It's Kai's favorite thing to do, and according to Leinberger, Kai has a chance to be the best in the world at it, if he sticks with the sport for the long haul. 

"I was pretty impressed by how good he was when he first started (at 4 years old), but it wasn't anything absurd," Leinberger said. "Within the next six months, I became consistently impressed with how well he followed instructions and the speed at which he progressed. That's the same to this day. We'll have barely worked on a trick and he'll nail it in three tries."

Kai Haines, 6, gives a thumbs up to coach Nick Leinberger during a lesson at Payne Park. Haines has been training with Leinberger for two years. (Photo by Ryan Kohn.)

According to Matthew, Kai's interest in the sport stems from a book the pair were reading before bed when Kai was 3. One of the pictures in the book — not one that was front and center — depicted someone riding a scooter. Kai immediately was drawn to the image and asked questions about it. Namely, what was that thing, and how could he get one?

"He was transitioning from wearing pull-ups into wearing regular underwear at the time," Matthew Haines said. "We (Matthew and Kristen Haines, Kai's mother) told him, 'If you go 30 days with no accidents and you potty like a big boy, we'll get you a scooter.' So 30 days later we had a scooter in the mail."

Kai started on a three-wheel scooter for safety purposes before proving to his parents that he was skilled enough to ride a two-wheeler. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020, Matthew and Kai would practice in their driveway and around their block. Matthew said Kai would grab sticks or rocks he found on the side of the road and stack them, seeing if he could jump over them. Then Matthew constructed plywood jump for Kai to use in their driveway. But those quickly became structurally unsafe as Kai, who was 4 at the time, conquered bigger and bigger jumps. Matthew — who had no extreme sports experience prior to Kai's interest — decided Kai needed a real teacher.

That's when they found Leinberger, who took Kai's skills to the next level. According to Matthew, Kai — among other things — is the youngest American rider to ever successfully land a tail whip, a move that requires the bottom of the scooter to spin 360 degrees, leaving both of the rider's feet in the air. 

It would be an amazing feat for anyone, but Kai's success is even more unusual: Kai has bilateral profound hearing loss. He wears hearing aids, which help to an extent, but listening, especially in noisy areas, is still a challenge. It's why Matthew believes more traditional team sports, which typically rely on oral communication, would be difficult or frustrating for Kai. But on a scooter, Kai does not have to worry about that. He can feel the rumble of the ground under his wheels as it sends shockwaves through his feet and hands.

Kai Hanes, 6, rides toward a big jump during his Sept. 11 lesson at Payne Park with coach Nick Leinberger. (Photo by Ryan Kohn.)

Matthew believes Kai's hearing challenges have given him a greater sense of his own body in relation to his environment and how he can use it to his advantage. It's why Kai loves not just riding a scooter but doing parkour. Kai said he landed his first standing backflip when he was 5. 

Throughout Kai's journey, Matthew Haines has documented his progress on social media, creating accounts for him on Instagram and other services. Matthew only did so after people told him he should. They were right to suggest it. Kai's instagram account has 61,400 followers and Matthew estimates that his most popular video, a clip of Kai riding down a slide and landing a tail whip on a piece of plywood, has been viewed close to 20 million times on various platforms thanks to it being shared by accounts like Nitro Circus, which is one of the biggest action sports companies in the world. 

Tanner Fox, who has 4.3 million followers on Instagram thanks to his stunt scooter videos, even gave Kai a professional-grade scooter that his family cut down to his size. 

Matthew said no matter where Kai's career goes from here, the lessons he's learning will help him in the future, like goal-setting and the feeling you get when you finally achieve what you have been working hard to get. 

"Determination and tenacity sees you through almost any difficulty you are going to face," Matthew said. "Kai has no idea the muscles he is building right now. It will be one of the greatest gifts of his life. 

"Kids will surprise you every single day of your life — if you let them. Just don't get in the way. Don't underestimate them. A lot of people are, in my opinion, overprotective of their kids these days. Let them learn. If they fall, they will get back up." 

It is a perspective backed up by action. Kai's fall during the Sept. 11 practice was not an isolated incident; he also fell while attempting a grind on a rail lining one of Payne Park's bowls. After realizing he was OK — Kai wears protective padding both over and under his clothes — he got up and rode his scooter some more, and even attempted two standing backflips.

Kai has no fear, and his ceiling in the sport has no ceiling, as long as he stays dedicated to it. 

It doesn't sound like that will be much of a problem. 

"Riding makes me happy and it's fun," Kai said. "I love it." 

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I’m the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. I was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. My biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. My strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.

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