Joana Schenker

Words: Cláudia Pinto
Photos: Fred Buyle

Being in the sea. Being the sea. Belonging to it and still respecting it, like a superior being. Joana Schenker surrenders to the sea every day. It is her best friend. It is there, in the water, in the sea, on the beach, that she keeps all her memories. It is for them that she continues, day after day, raising awareness among hundreds of students across the country. Because, in her words, the ocean is the foundation of life on Earth.

We are talking with Joana Schenker at the Foz do Tua Hydroelectric Power Station. Water is part of our landscape, just as it is part of the athlete’s daily life. Jokingly, she shows us images of her swimming with sharks. To us, mere mortals who only enter the sea for leisure or pleasure, the idea seems fantastic and unthinkable. For Joana, it is just another experience that leaves a positive mark. “The sea has always been a part of my life. I was born in the Algarve, but my parents are German, They came to live in the Algarve to provide their daughters with a more natural life that was closer to the sea. So, I always remember belonging to the sea”.

She caught her first wave when she was just 13, and she has never stopped since. Whether it’s because of the connection to the sea or the number of friends who practised, the choice was never far away. “Bodyboarding appeared very naturally because Sagres and Vila do Bispo (where I lived) are important hubs for the sport. There are many athletes and there is much history associated with bodyboarding there, and at that time the coolest kids in school practised the sport. I also wanted to be cool and ended up following my school friends. I tried it once and never stopped”.Joana continues, “Bodyboarding only intensified this connection to the sea because suddenly I started enjoying it in a more intense and direct way by being in the water every day”.

In 2017, she became the International Bodyboard Champion. More than just a first for Portugal, it was also a first for women. “I started competing in the junior category before moving up to the senior category. Things kept getting better… and then I won the world title, which was the pinnacle in terms of awards. This was the first time Portugal had won a world title, so it was really cool. When we invest in something we love, things suddenly fall into place and turn out well. Bodyboarding is not an easy sport to build a career in. And the award ceremony couldn’t have been more symbolic: it took place on a beach in Nazaré, with the entire community of friends (community, as Joana likes to emphasise) present.

The most difficult question: “Is it the most important moment? From one perspective, yes, in terms of the title; it was a very important moment to become a professional athlete. But overall, no. My experiences and everything that bodyboarding has provided me outside of competition are much more valuable. They are my life experiences”.

Demystifying prejudice

Being a woman in bodyboarding. The question is inevitable. “Bodyboarding is seen as a more masculine sport because there are fewer women practising it. But in Portuguese bodyboarding, I would say it is impossible to ignore women: we have brought European titles and we brought this (world) title to Portugal, which had not been done before or since. Personally, it was very good, and I feel that it served to demystify prejudice”.

The sea goes to school

But the connection to the sea is not only made within it. It can also be made outside. “Protecting the ocean starts at home and not at the beach. In fact, the beach is the last place we should clean up. What is important is to inspire action: the theory is already known. Young people already know what we should and shouldn’t do”.

Therefore, a project was launched this year that aims to reach more and more young people and raise awareness about the importance of the oceans. The Schenker School Tour is an original initiative of the Lisbon Oceanarium and the Ocean Azul Foundation. The goal is to raise awareness among children and young people through the testimony of those who spend their “life” in the water. “For what I already believed in and cared about — nature and the sea — I now have a direct platform with young people. It’s very pleasing to see that they listen and that the message stays with them”, Joana says.

That’s why Joana divides her time between the sea and schools across the country. “When they invited me my first response was no… I’m very shy. (laughs) But I soon said yes”.Although it only started this year, Joana’s mission has already reached “12,500 students nationwide”.So, “when I go to a school, the mission is to inspire the children and let them know they are important in these actions, that they can help. I want them to know that they are important and that it’s worth the effort because their future is at stake. I like to say that the cool kids are also the ones who do good things.

There is more to teach in addition to environmental awareness. For now, I pass on the lessons I learned over years of competing, which are — in my opinion — the foundations for success. Then, I always make the connection to the ocean. The ocean has given me everything I have, it is the foundation of life on Earth. We are interconnected with the sea, even when we are not at the beach”.

The personal future

How does Joanna see the future? In the sport? With young people? As a messenger of the ocean? “In the future, when I retire from competition, I will be connected to the ocean. The sport will always be there, and I will only leave bodyboarding when my body tells me it is time (laughs)”.

However, “since I have a young and influential voice, I have a responsibility. Even as a professional athlete, I ask myself: what is our role in society? If it’s just to win, then we are very selfish. We have to give back what we receive”.

Favourite beach

We wanted to know Joana’s favourite beach. A not-so-innocent question, but one that gets the best answer: “Any beach in Sagres”. She says “we are in the best country in the world for water sports. Let’s make the most of it”.

“The sea is my best friend. I talk to it: I say good morning when I arrive and thank you when I leave. Anyone who spends a lot of time in the sea will know that it teaches qualities for life: patience, respect, perseverance… I can’t imagine my life without the sea. It is one of the most important things in my life. All of my good memories… involve the sea”.

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