When Kathy Brinnehl's brother Dan got a few kites for Christmasin the early ‘90s when they were growing up in Schaumburg, she had no idea it was the start of something big.
Kathy and Dan Brinnehl now make up one-third of the Chicago Fire Kite Team, the nation's longest-running competitive kite ballet and precision team. But these kites aren't your ordinary children's toy.
The sport kites used by the team typically have two or four strings and can be maneuvered with razor-sharp precision. In competition the team participates in two disciplines, "kite ballet," which is judged based on a choreographed routine set to music, and "precision," which requires pilots to perform a specific set of maneuvers pre-selected by the judges.
Brinnehl and her brother first honed their skills by trying to out-maneuver each other in the skies over Schaumburg's Busse woods. Eventually, the duo got pretty good and decided to branch out in search for more competition.
"We heard that there were clubs and that there were competitions, and we were interested," Brinnehl said. "We got some info about festivals and events, and we found a group of flyers that all started learning together. We just loved the whole idea of learning how to do something outdoors with people."
It wasn't long before the Chicago Fire Kite Team's founding member and team captain Eric Wolfe caught Brinnehl's attention. Wolfe founded the Chicago Fire Kite team in 1986, and by the time Brinnehl came knocking in 1996 the team had already earned a reputation as one of the best Kite Ballet teams in the country.
Just two years after receiving the best Christmas gift of their lives, Brinnhel and her brother were assimilated into the core group of kite flyers that made up the Chicago squad. Since joining the team, Brinnhel and her brother have helped the team win two American Kiteflier's Association national championships in Team Ballet and two more in Team Precision as well as a slew of regional titles.
Typically teams comprise anywhere from three to six members, but the Chicago team is currently one of just two teams in the country flying with the maximum number of six team members. The team's size can be both an advantage and misfortune.
Having six kites in the air at a time means the team can create elaborate displays that have a high degree of difficulty, but it also makes the team more vulnerable to mistakes. It takes hours of practice a Montrose beach to get everything right, Brinnehl said.
"The more the flyers you have doesn't necessarily guarantee you a higher score, but what we are doing is more difficult. It takes more discipline." Brinnehl said. "What you want to do is fly clean if you don't, that's where you get into trouble."
The competitions are organized into local, regional and national stages. The team has already qualified for this year's national competition which takes place in Gettysburg, Penn. At the end of September.
Brinnehel says she hopes that with some luck the team can bring home yet another championship.