The Surf Siren

Joana Schenker has become the local poster girl for Portuguese bodyboarding. A role model and ambassador for Portugal, it’s a huge achievement for a girl who grew up in the tiny hamlet of Pedralva, but it’s not hard to understand why when you meet her.

A world champion as well as beautiful, sassy, and just extremely nice, she embodies everything you’d hope a female sports person would be. But behind her diminutive frame and sweet personality, I sense a steely determination and discipline that has made her not only a sports champion but in demand for sponsorship deals and a social media phenomenon.

As her name would suggest, her parents are German, but Joana was born and grew up in the Algarve where her parents moved for a more relaxed lifestyle for their family. She has joint citizenship but says she feels more Portuguese. However, she admits she still has the German characteristic of liking to be on time!

Joana’s childhood home was the tiny abandoned village of Peldralva, where she lived with her mum, dad and three sisters before it became a boutique holiday destination. Her first job was at the renowned Pizza Pazza in the village. This remote rural location in Vila do Bispo is close to the surfing beaches of Amado and Bordeira, but her future was decided on the beaches of Sagres. 

She attended Vila do Bispo school and followed the ‘cool’ kids to the beaches in Sagres as “there was nothing else to do”. Born in 1987, it was probably to her advantage that her childhood was just before the era of smartphones and it is unlikely that the wifi signal was strong in Pedralva in the 1990s. So, for an outgoing teenager, it was maybe inevitable that she started to be drawn into the bodyboarding crowd, catching her first wave at 13.

Does she think bodyboarding is less cool than stand-up surfing? “Actually, it’s the other way round. It’s sort of a niche thing, but, in this area, everyone was bodyboarding. It’s only since surf tourism took off that this area has become associated with stand-up surfing. All the locals were always bodyboarding because, in winter, there are such great conditions. We have a really cut-out coastline with small beaches and as the waves hit the rocks, they create wedges with hollow barrels, which are great for bodyboarding but not so great for stand-up surfing. So you go to the beach and you see your idols who are surfing so well and entering competitions and you want to copy them.” Due to the huge surge in the stand-up surfing industry, bodyboarding went into a decline in the 1990s, but Joana believes it is on the up again as it is more authentic.

Joana has had lots of moments that were frightening but never enough to put her off like many beginners. And it was that no-nonsense determination that I sense that kept taking her back. She says that if she was ever frightened, she just went back to the beach and took a deep breath. She was also competitive from an early age. “My two best friends were also surfing and we kept each other company but also tried to outdo each other, so it was healthy competition.” 

Joana also attributes her success to the community that exists on the Vila do Bispo beaches. “All the locals who were always on the beach would take care of us and keep an eye on you. In this kind of group, no one lets you drop out. Yes, we were bodyboarding, but for me, it was about the community and camaraderie. Then you feel it’s fun and you want to get better but I never planned to be a champion I was just having fun. We’d hang out on the beach and it was like another family.” Part of this family was fellow bodyboarder, Francisco Pinheiro. They started dating when they were teenagers and are still together both romantically and professionally, as he is her coach.

She went on to attend Júlio Dantas senior school in Lagos, but all her focus and spare time went into surfing. From 13 to 14, she was taking part in junior competitions, so she would try to get to the beach every day. Gradually, everything she was doing was in pursuit of the sport, until the time came when she had to choose between university and bodyboarding – the latter won.

This was a turning point for Joana as, having made this choice, she knew she had to try really hard to justify it to herself and others. “But that doesn’t mean you are going to be able to succeed. There are many great bodyboarders who don’t make a living from it. I thought at least I will try.” 

After becoming a professional bodyboarder in 2013, her success kept growing and, from 2014, she has dominated the Portuguese National and European tour, winning both titles four years running. This led her to compete for the APB world title.

In 2017, all her hard work paid off. Winning the Sintra Pro was to be the most critical event of that year’s world tour, putting her at the head of the ranking. Then the final competition was critically played out on the beach of Nazaré, where she became the world champion. What did it feel like to win? “It felt surreal. It was, of course, a long-time goal and a childhood dream, but when it happened on the beach, I was just so relieved. The last event of the championship was in Nazaré and everyone was cheering and crying. I just felt so happy that I hadn’t disappointed people.”

Joana’s victory was so celebrated as it was the first professional world title in any wave-riding sport for Portugal. “I only learnt that afterwards, so my victory blew out of proportion and changed my career completely. The bubble from the world title was insane. I had no idea it would have such an impact on my career. Maybe if I knew, I would have been more nervous!”

In fact, 2017 was the ‘perfect storm’ for Joana and she ended it as national European and World Bodyboarding Champion. It totally changed her life. The high profile that becoming World Champion has awarded her means she can now make a living from the sport through sponsorship deals and modelling. But Joana’s accolades didn’t stop there. She was given the Portuguese Republic’s Order of Merit by the Portuguese president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa. “I don’t give importance to things like that, but when I look back at all the things I didn’t do because I was bodyboarding, it suddenly validated my decision. It’s like an official saying to me, ‘yes you made the right choice’, so it actually meant a lot.”

The recognition also gave her the opportunity to champion causes that are important to her. Lisbon Oceanarium is one of her sponsors and she has been their ambassador for six years to promote a cleaner ocean through the Blue Ocean Foundation. When Lisbon hosted the UN Ocean Conference in June 2022, she went along as a representative of the Lisbon Oceanarium to communicate the need to clean up the ocean. Their joint project– ‘Schenker School Tour’ – has also been a huge success. Joana visits schools to talk to the kids about what she has learnt through competitions, the ocean and the life lessons it has taught her. The key theme is to have respect for nature. Any school can apply and she has so far spoken to 12,700 kids in the hope of inspiring the next generation.

Joana’s good looks have also enhanced her career: as well as modelling for fashion brands, she also is sponsored by a cosmetic range Avéne. She is particularly passionate about their suncream, which is coral reef safe, and the company invests in coral reef restoration. The suncream can be bought in any pharmacy and Joana uses it every day and encourages everyone else to do the same. “Even though the cost is more, a little goes a long way, both on your skin and to help the ocean.”

Joana is very active on Instagram, which she argues is a positive force for athletes like her who are trying to make a living from sport. She says it allows her to promote herself and gives her control of her image and the independence to grow and build her own portfolio. If you check out her Instagram feed, there are some beautiful images and reels mostly taken by her boyfriend.

Joana’s ethos is to inspire others to enjoy nature while protecting it and living a healthy lifestyle. She is vegan and enjoys cooking for family and friends, but she confesses to enjoying sugar and the odd Sagres beer. “I try to be fit and healthy but I am a sugar lover!” Although the world tour and travelling to locations like the Maldives, South Africa and Morocco sound glamorous, she confesses, “It’s not a holiday. It’s exhausting and, in between competitions, we have the National and European tours.”

How does she train? Of course, a lot of time is spent in the ocean as waves are always different so she is constantly learning to surf different waves. 

On a typical day, she wakes up and checks the waves and if they are good, she surfs all day. If not, she takes care of her admin and other projects. When in the ocean, she tries to prepare for the different waves and, when in a different country, she needs to adapt to local conditions. Francisco takes footage on the beach and they watch it back to assess her style. She does simple weight training at home, with exercises she can do when she is travelling. But she explains to me that Pilates has become more and more important to her in order to combat her injuries. She has had a lot of accidents and hurt her spine doing a ‘scorpion’ where her feet touched her head as she went head over heels on a wave. This has caused her a lot of lower back pain.

She attends Uno Pilates in Almádena twice a week and has been helped enormously by Miguel Silva, who teaches in the Algarve but is world-renowned in the Pilates field. “It has given me a whole new understanding of my body. Every time I go, I feel like I am taller!” 

Joana has competed in the world championships every year since becoming the champion. While only winning the title once, she is happy to stay in the top five. When we speak, she is currently in third place, but at the time of going to print, she had a disappointing round in the Maldives, so has slipped down to fifth place. She is not too dispirited by this. “These things happen,” she tells me. 

Joana will arrive at competitions a week before the start to get over jet lag and train for the conditions. She then surfs every day until the competition starts. She competed in South Africa for the first time last year, so she headed there ten days before to learn the conditions.

Competitions have rounds and it is an elimination process until the final, when there are just two surfers left. There are five judges who give you a score depending on five of the waves you surf. The athletes use fins to catch the waves and fight against currents. You are judged on quality, your manoeuvres, how you land, the difficulty and if you used the most critical part of the wave and, finally, if it was the right move for that wave. Joana explains it as a very tactical sport as you score higher points if you use the energy of the wave rather than using your body to force the move, while air moves get higher scores. Joana compares it to judging dancing and there is, of course, a level of subjectivity while split-second decisions are the difference between winning and losing.

When Joana is not travelling to competitions, she loves nothing more than to be in her home town of Sagres. She still rates its beaches as her favourite surf spot and Francisco runs the bodyboard association in Sagres and is a great bodyboarder and surfer too. They have been together for 20 years, but she has no plans to stop and start a family. She is trying to enjoy every second of the perks that come with her lifestyle.

How has Joana seen Sagres change since she hung out on the beach as a kid? “It has become so busy all year round, not just in the holiday season, with lots more young surfing people. It’s great for the local economy, but it is good to have quality tourism. We currently have a huge problem with the wild campers who don’t really help anyone and they leave rubbish, which ends up on the beach. They have no respect for nature and just want a free stay, but I feel the police have no manpower to go against them.” She regularly does beach cleanups organised with the câmara of Vila do Bispo but explains that most of the rubbish picked up is in the car parks and is left by wild campers. She is frustrated that Vila do Bispo is the only area where these wild campers are still getting away with it.”

She and Francisco previously ran a surf school which they had to close during the pandemic. They never reopened as she got too busy, but she hasn’t ruled it out for the future. She believes that bodyboarding is easy to have fun with right away compared to stand-up surfing. “Many people can’t stand up and they get frustrated, but with bodyboarding, anyone can have fun. I think it is the perfect entry for any sport.”

I have to confess to not having been bodyboarding since I was a kid, but following this interview, I visited a well-known sports store in Portimão and purchased one for myself and one for my daughters. I guess, like Joana, I want to be a ‘cool kid’, but an hour in Joana’s company also made me want to be more like her. She inspired in me a desire to enjoy the ocean we are privileged to live near while respecting the environment that gives it to us and that is maybe worth more than any sporting title.

Joana’s last event for 2023 will be in mid-October in Morocco, but if you would like to witness her talents closer to home, she will be competing on Praia Grande in Sintra from 6–10 September.

Photos © Francisco Pinheiro

Instagram @joana_schenker


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