Justyna Sniady has become one of the world’s best women wave sailors despite being born in Warsaw, Poland, working a full time job and breaking 15 bones over years of trying to make it to the top. Her journey is an unconventional one, but testament to her strength of character and passion for windsurfing. Finn Mullen and John Carter caught up with the talented Polish sailor to find our more about her success.
Words Finn Mullen & John Carter // Photos John Carter
WS – How did you get into windsurfing and where did you learn to sail?
JS – Windsurfing came into my life when my Dad’s friend got a hold of a second hand windsurfer and tried it on a lake. We went with the whole family so my Dad could have a go. The gear was prehistoric, but my Dad got hooked there and then. After him my brother tried and that was the turning point! Even though I was scared and not really keen, I always had to do everything my older brother did to prove I could also, even if I’m a girl and smaller. I guess here you have an answer to where my motivation comes from! I was 7 and managed to go along a bit. It wasn’t until I was 12 that another opportunity to try came up. I semi-planed for the first time and was hooked for life. From then onwards all my notebooks were covered in windsurfing drawings and my walls in windsurfing. Every summer I would go to the Polish seaside to try and get as much water time as possible. I used to camp in a tent at Puck Bay on the Hel Peninsula. Yes, I learned to windsurf in Hel ha ha. When I got better I did my windsurfing instructor course and worked there every summer. At some point, probably because I watched “About Time” too many times, I decided to drag the gear through the forest to the open seas on the other of the peninsula to try windsurfing in the waves of the Baltic Sea. I was on my own and terrified, even though the waves were not even head high. I absolutely loved the feeling of being in the waves and from that moment on the obsession has never stopped.
WS – Tell us about your move from Poland to Western Australia?
JS – Since I was a little girl I dreamed of being able to windsurf on a regular basis and not just once a year. Even the Baltic sea was out of reach for me, as I lived 500 km away and didn’t own a car growing up. To sail I had to move from Warsaw. If you leave your family, friends and your entire life behind, I thought it would be best to go somewhere epic. Maui and Australia were the two windsurfing meccas in my eyes and I dreamed of going to university there. It was financially out of reach though, so I had to settle for studying in Warsaw, where the best universities were completely free. I knew I couldn’t rely on windsurfing to pay my bills, but the windsurfing life bug was still going strong.
After I finished my economics degree I wanted to do an MBA. I knew I’d have to pay for that degree wherever I chose to do it, so I looked into options worldwide. Maui didn’t offer it at all back then. Australia did and it also offered significantly cheaper living options and way better salaries than Poland, so I applied to university in Perth, Western Australia. Unfortunately just a few weeks after finally arriving in Australia I had a head-on car crash that almost killed me. My car was a complete right off. I was very lucky to survive and I couldn’t windsurf for a very long time. I went back to Poland to recover and my windsurfing dream was delayed further.
When I got back on my feet and returned to Australia, both studying and trying to make ends meet completely consumed me. I didn’t get to sail at all. Instead I was buried in books and busy doing various cash in hand jobs, as I didn’t have a full-time work permit.
Looking back I laugh at some of the random jobs I did. After working in HR in Poland, I now found myself installing kitchens in villas of rich Perth suburbs or doing vodka promotions in bottle shops wearing high heels and a Russian hat!!! I also used to disassemble old TVs and PCs for recycling. I had gloves and a facial mask on, a big hammer and I demolished things for 6 hours a day. I have never been so ripped in my life. My route to living in a windsurfing mecca was definitely a bumpy one and at times pretty extreme. I remember cutting down eating to a minimum to save all the cash I could and sleeping on a friend’s floor on an inflatable mattress. After a year in Australia I got my first set of gear and finally started sailing in Perth.
I had only been windsurfing a handful of times when I eventually finished my MBA degree and got an office job as a Business Development Manager. My boss put me on a sponsored visa and the rest is history. After 5 years and a few job upgrades, I was able to afford a place to rent and didn’t have to sleep on the floor, couch or in my van. I also met a lot of windsurfers and started to discover all the best spots WA has to offer. This year I will finally get my Australian passport and be free to come and go as I like; before I couldn’t leave the country for more than few weeks a year to keep my visa.
WS – How do you balance windsurfing and work?
JS – Short answer – I sleep fast! For several years now I have worked full time in Perth as a marketing manager then a chief communications officer (CCO). The best training spot for me is Coronation Beach in Geraldton, which is almost 500 km north of Perth. I would go every weekend and sometimes do a one day trip mid-week if I had leave and the forecast looked good. I have a van that I set up in a way to allow me to live in the complete outback, anywhere along the coast. I’ve installed a solar panel on the roof and a small fridge/freezer inside. I have a bed with a narrow sleeping space and underneath heaps of space for my windsurfing gear. I would leave work at 6 p.m. and arrive in Coronation around 11 p.m. I’d sleep in the van, sail all day and then make it back to Perth around midnight the next day. 1000 km, a few hours on the water, 8 a.m. red eye start in the office next morning. That’s what I’ve done for years.
It was always fun, but when you do 1000 – 2000 km a week for several months at a time with quite a stressful full time job, you can really run yourself down. Almost 3 years ago now I actually ended up in hospital blind in one eye from all the stress on my body. It was a bit scary, but luckily I recovered well. My most ‘relaxing’ time of year would weirdly be the competition season! I arranged it with work that I could work remotely from the Canary Islands for 6 weeks each summer. I would come to Pozo a week or so before the competition and work from 4 a.m. until 2 p.m. (to cater for the time difference with our Australian office), then go out sailing and training in the afternoon. I didn’t have to drive anywhere, I’d just walk out of the house 200 metres to the beach. For the competition I would use a week of holiday leave and not work at all. It was all quite hectic sometimes, but allowed me to afford to train and compete and keep my job for the rest of the year.
This year for the first time I decided to quit my job to give myself a chance to sail a bit more rested and more often, without all the work stress on my mind and all the driving. I must say that it has been life changing. Not just in terms of results, but in terms of ability to have time to try moves properly, digest and analyse them and try again straight away, instead of after a week in the office and another 1000 km drive. It made a huge difference to my learning. I would love to be able to continue to train and compete like that. If anyone is interested in sponsoring me, I’ve prepared promotion packages where you can choose anything from a sticker on the sail to high definition TV / online adverts I can produce for your company using windsurfing at their core. I’d love to put my marketing experience into promoting companies professionally, offering monthly subscriptions with social media posts, appearances in promotional events or product placement in my videos and posts. If your company would like to show their support for a female athlete and you are interested in cooperation then they can get in touch via my website www.justynasniady.com
WS – What is a typical windy forecast like for you in WA?
JS – Yeah like I said, my regular distance is a 1000 km round trip. I do that every weekend. Sometimes I would go for one day. If I have 3 days or more off work I do a 2400 km round trip to Gnaraloo – my all-time favourite spot, or a 1600 km round trip to Esperance. I’ve done over 100,000 km in the last two seasons! Van, fuel and tyre sponsors welcome!
WS – Do you like the camping lifestyle of the Western Australia windsurfing scene?
JS – I love it and wouldn’t change it for 5 star hotels. You get to drive into the wild and sail waves with only a handful of people. You are far away from civilization, often without phone range. Every trip is like an adventure and really brings you back to basics. You shower with water from a canister, cook outside, see wild animals and watch stars undisturbed by city lights every night. The night sky in Western Australia is stunning and when you go windsurfing it’s just you, desert, wind, waves and a few friends. Eat, sail, sleep, repeat. It’s absolutely amazing, especially after a long week in the office. I also always sleep best in the van. The only downside is the amount of driving and how remote some of the places are. I however love to drive so it really suits me.
WS – You have had a few nasty injuries in the past…how did you recover from these and how do they play on your mind when you are sailing?
JS – I think we could do a separate interview on my injuries alone! I have broken 15 bones to date, I’ve broke my nose 4 times, torn numerous ligaments, suffered concussion and had more whiplashes then a crash test dummy! In fact they used to call me Crashtina. The worse by far was my foot injury, that was supposed to take me out of windsurfing forever. I smashed 7 bones in my foot into tiny pieces from twisting my foot on a bad forward loop landing. I also broke the Lisfranc ligament and was not supposed to walk normally again. It still hurts every morning. I can’t bend my ankle and my toes stay straight at all times. My foot is so stiff that sometimes I start to lose the back footstrap mid forward loop as it just slides out. I found a way to adjust my riding and jumping to that though. Of course I was really scared to go back to jumping after my injury, but I was more scared of not being able to windsurf again and I missed airtime more then I was scared. It’s my passion and I can’t imagine not being able to do it. It took me many years to first start jumping again, then push myself to learn new moves and then to go higher and in strong winds again. To this day my heart starts racing if it’s really windy, but it is fun when you manage to embrace the fear and go for the moves anyway. The mental part of recovery is as difficult as the physical one, but I feel it is also the part that we have the power to control.
WS – How competitive are you as a person and with your windsurfing?
JS – I love competitions because they push me to do better in training and often in a heat to go even bigger then I can make myself go on a regular basis. That ‘cowabunga’ attitude is something I can rarely recreate free-sailing. Off the water I am not really competitive. I spend a lot of time giving other girls tips on moves and advice on competing. Some of them even send me clips and we do some Skype coaching sessions in the winter. I help others with their gear up the beach and caddy during their heats. Sportsmanship is super important to me. Without it I don’t think you can enjoy competing or winning anyway. I am for sure competitive in a way that I do try hard to be the best I can. Pushing myself drives me in windsurfing and in life.
“Sportsmanship is super important to me.”
WS – How tough is it to beat the likes of the Moreno sisters and Sarah-Quita?
JS – It is tough, but the reality is that everyone is beatable. I have watched hundreds of heats of both men and women over the years and there has been many upsets. There are also many people who perform amazing in free-sailing, but hardly ever perform under pressure and make it to the top.
I think it is important to be ready for when the opportunity comes. You might get your perfect conditions that your rival doesn’t feel comfortable with, you might put together a heat of your life just as they are having a bad time. Or you can simply be better in those particular 15 minutes! Everyone has their strong and weak points. The trick is to try to play to your strong ones and your opponents weak ones in a heat.
The most important thing I think is to go out on the water with the right mindset. Which is easier said than done. For years I would be heading out to difficult heats as if it was just a practice. That changed for me about 3 years ago. Now when I compete in a heat, I go out to win. I don’t care if I have to go against a 10-time world champion, I will go out with an “I can do it” attitude and that’s half the battle won. For the same reason you should never underestimate anyone. Because what matters is only those few minutes, not what your opponent did in a heat before or is consistent at free-sailing.
WS – Is it a friendly atmosphere between the women on tour?
JS – Yes it is and I feel like it’s got even better over the years. We get to know each other and understand each other better. I have loved hanging out with all the girls in the Canaries this year. We cook together, sail together, train together, compete together and celebrate together.
There’s many different people from different countries and naturally some friendships are closer than others, but we have a lot of respect for each other’s sailing, dreams and ambitions. We are all trying to push our own level and we support one another during comps, caddy for each other and try to calm each other’s nerves. We also help each other when we travel, with accommodation, sharing cars, sharing lifts. We learn from each other. For sure the atmosphere of support and pulling each other up is more alive then ever in the women’s fleet.
WS – What are the highs and lows of your career so far?
JS – Lows – I remember feeling completely devastated two seasons ago. I got knocked out in the single elimination in a fight for a place in the semi-finals with a controversial heat decision, where one judge didn’t score my best wave at all, as he didn’t see it, but it did appear on the sheets of both other judges. I lost by 0.01 of a point. I felt so disappointed and broken about how this happened, I cried for hours.
I didn’t sleep all night and I remember the next morning something snapped in me. That was a game changing moment for me in competition. I went into terminator mode. I have never been so focussed on the water. I think I had 5 or 6 back to back heats to come back in the double and against people who I never even considered beating before that moment, like Nayra Alonso or Sarah-Quita Offringa. I sailed on autopilot and won all my heats. As I came in from the last one, where I had scored a 8 point wave and a 7 point back loop, they stopped competing due to deteriorating conditions. The next heat would have been for my first ever podium. It was hard to swallow. That moment after the single elimination knockout was definitely the lowest low of my entire career. It almost broke me, but funnily enough it also turned me into a much better competitor. I have had many disappointments along the way that I had to deal with, but coming out the other side of these experiences give me a lot of strength. Failure is a good teacher.
Highs – becoming an Australian National Champion last Ozzie summer for the first time was a big high for me. I also won the British Wavesailing Association tour twice and am an undefeated Polish Champion. One of the most amazing moments I remember was coming second in the PWA indoor event in my hometown of Warsaw, Poland after landing my first ever starboard tack forward off the ramp. Also definitely coming second in both single and double eliminations in Pozo this year, making two finals and only losing to Daida was huge for me. To back it up with another final in Tenerife was more than I ever dreamed of. To then leave the Canaries leading the 2019 PWA wave tour just blew my mind completely!
WS – You use social media a lot, do you find it helps connect with fans and attract sponsors?
Social media definitely opens things up for everyone to tell their story, even if it’s not one of being a multiple world champion. I have had sponsors approach me via social media, and often competition results are not what they are after. They are interested in my followers and the connection I have with them. I don’t think it’s more important to post as a female vs a male windsurfer. However, there is something to be said for brands supporting people more for their online presence these days than the competition side of things alone, especially non-windsurfing brands who wish to promote a certain lifestyle. With less event opportunities for women, social media creates a chance to level up the marketing field for them. Female riders get a chance to offer promotion outside of the competitions and reach audiences in different ways to still create the same amount of exposure (value) for sponsors. Personally though, I really like to focus on windsurfing in my posts and in showing great locations and the best moves I can do. Rather than putting an emphasis on being a woman, I put it on being a female windsurfer.
In my Instagram stories I also share my everyday struggles, flat tyres, challenges of living in the outback, road trips and travels. Getting stuck at airports with 6 board bags and all the behind the scenes stuff to give people the idea of how it really is to train and do the tour. You will see anything from posts at the office, to tips on cooking in the outback. My Instagram is about windsurfing and motivation and sharing my ‘underdog on tour’ story. I compete on the world tour but work full time and chase conditions in my free time. I think lots of regular windsurfers can relate to that. I find I have a lot of followers write to me about their injuries as well, even non-windsurfers who have stumbled across my injury stories. I became a “come back” ambassador in some ways and I feel like my profile is there to give hope to those who are trying to get back on their feet. I try to post daily or every few days to make sure my sponsors get enough exposure. A lot of my time on social media goes into replying to people asking about gear, tips for moves or travel recommendations.
Creating content for social media is also time consuming. I try to film as much as I can. It is hard to do in places as remote as Australian spots, when often I am on my own. My GoPro is super useful for capturing everything easily. I film lots, name all the clips and also edit all the content myself, so it takes a bit of time. As of today, I have almost 16,000 followers on Instagram, which is my main focus on social media. I don’t have an athlete page on Facebook. I find I get a really good connection by just having a regular but public Facebook profile that allows people to reach out.
WS – What are your ambitions with windsurfing?
JS – My big dream was to make a World Cup podium, as it would be the first PWA wave podium in history for Poland. This dream came true this year in Pozo. But long before I even thought about competing and long before I could even gybe properly, let alone do forwards, I always dreamed of landing double loops. I am close to making this dream happen. In all honesty I think it’s an easier goal than competition goals, because it’s entirely in my control. It’s a matter of when and not if and doesn’t lie in the hands of anyone else but me. I really like to push myself and try different moves, even if they are not a safe choice for competitions. For example, this year I landed one hand one foot back loops and I was delighted! Every move I do I also want to be able to land on every sail size from 3.0 to 5.0 and in all conditions. Once I can do that and land it more than once in one run I consider it to be a move “I can do”. One hand one foot back loops are not there yet. I did land 2 in a row once, but I didn’t get a chance to land them on every sail size yet. So far it’s 3.7 – 4.7, so I am getting there. As we say in Poland, “appetite increases while eating”, which means that with every new move I want to learn more, I want to go higher and cleaner and with every competition success I want to do better. In summary my ambitions are to land every windsurfing move ever invented and to sail the best possible heats!
WS – A lot of people would describe you as energetic – any comments?
JS – I am aware I have, let’s call it, above average energy levels, I always have had. It’s not just on the beach, where I’m usually excited because I’m probably about to go windsurfing or have just sailed. I get these comments even in the office on Monday mornings – “How can you have so much energy?” I have a huge FOMO (fear of missing out) about life in general and like to squeeze a lot into my days, months and years. I love to try different things and learn new stuff. I love meeting people, I love to talk.. a lot! I do have an overactive mind and hard time sleeping too. I often wake up very early – around 5 a.m. I do F45 HIIT training or go for a run before I get to the office, so maybe that’s why I seem more “awake”.
I am bubbly when I’m happy and I think my natural state is happy. There has been many tough times in my life, from injuries, losing close people to near death experiences. I think it can work two ways, either it makes you bitter, or it makes you really happy and appreciative of life, people and times when nothing is going terribly wrong! I’m the latter kind. When I am not in the hospital, heartbroken or struggling, and when all my family and friends are healthy, that really makes me super happy and I feel a lot of inner power to make things happen. I think that’s what it is. I kind of look around and everything is exciting to me. And usually when we feel excited we feel full of energy I guess.
“I love to try different things and learn new stuff.”
WS – What is your favourite equipment to use and how do the brands cater for women these days?
JS – My absolute favourite board of all time is the new Simmer Style 72 litre Flywave. I got to use it in Pozo and in the semi-finals and final in Tenerife. Combined with a 3.7 or 4.2 Simmer Blacktip is my dream setup. I do feel that these days equipment is so light and manoeuvrable that women can simply use smaller sizes and have lots of fun. For smaller ladies, kids gear can also work great.
WS – Who are your windsurfing heroes and why?
JS – There are many and they have changed over the years. For sure Robby Naish and Jason Polakow had the biggest influence on my sailing as I watched the R.I.P. and About Time movies a million times. I can tell you which scene goes with what part of the song by heart. To be honest I think even me getting into MotoX was partially inspired by JP ha ha. My other big idol growing up was Brian Talma! I had his posters over my bed and I just thought he represented the essence of windsurfing – happiness. In more recent years I have admired a lot of sailors for different things, but the most inspiring is always watching people push their level and getting out of their comfort zone, like regular windsurfers going for their first forwards or going out in bigger waves for the first time.
There are a few absolute legends that everyone looks up to as well, but since I learnt moves analysing those of other sailors frame by frame, I can tell you that the most saved clips I have are from Philip Koster. I just think his technique is immaculate, also in wave riding, even in super light winds, despite him being quite a big fella! He’s a total freak – in a good way ha ha! Jaeger Stone, Marcilio Browne and Levi Siver are also up there in my folders of moves.
WS – What other sports/ training do you do?
JS – Since I was a kid I’ve loved all sorts of sports. I played football or basketball almost every day with all the kids from around our block. Over the years I developed the most love for extreme sports – inline skating, snowboarding, horse riding, wakeboarding, MotoX, you name it. My big dream is to try a wingsuit one day! I just love an adrenaline rush and I love a challenge.
To stay fit and ready while working a full time job I started doing F45 Training, which is a functional high intensity interval training program. A bit like CrossFit minus the heavy weights, so safer for your joints. It has transformed my fitness and sailing. A shout out goes to my sponsors F45 Training Claremont for keeping me fit and ready for any forecast.
WS – You are a big fan of motivational quotes, what are some of your favourites?
JS – It’s true, I like quotes. I really like funny but motivational ones. Like this one for the ladies, “If at first you don’t succeed, fix your ponytail and try again”. When I was coming back from my worst injury, a friend sent me a quote from Rocky Balboa, “It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward; how much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!” I do love that quote and it did help me through the low times. I even mimicked it with Rocky’s voiceover in one of my windsurfing videos.
Sport quotes naturally resonate with me. My favourite must be this one by Michael Jordan: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” I find that quote a great reminder that winning takes time and often a lot of losing.
“I love a challenge.”
WS – You have forged quite an independent path both in your windsurfing and your career – where does the motivation and strength to do that come from?
JS – I think it’s a mixture of things. For sure my life circumstances forced me to create a path that probably not many other PWA wave sailors had to. I was born in Warsaw, Poland, miles away from the sea. I grew up in a tower block in a 2 room flat on the 3rd floor where I shared a room with my older brother. Luxuries like windsurfing were just not on the cards at the time and the ocean was not “my playground”. My playground was in the housing estate where we hung out with the local kids playing football. If you start like this, you are deemed to forge a path different to most pro wave sailors I guess.
I think when I look back it feels like a huge journey, but I always took it a day at a time. I always knew I absolutely loved windsurfing. I wanted to do what Jason Polakow did in the About Time video. I dreamed about sailing waves and even seeing waves like this, and jumping high and doing double loops, long before I could do a forward. I think my entire path was fuelled by that dream.
My parents definitely put tenacity into me. My Dad always said if you’re doing something you might as well finish it and do it as good as you can. I’ve tried to apply that to many aspects of life. Mom’s biggest influence on me was her incredible positivity and ability to lift up from anything and always find joy in things whatever the situation. Whenever I felt low or worried, she’d say, “you can do it” or “one step at a time, you’ll get there”. Her unconditional belief in me gave me power. She always said it’s not over till you give up and made me feel it’s ok to fail many times as long as you shake it off and try again.
Having an older brother also shaped how I am I think. I always hung out with him and all the boys who were bigger and stronger than me. It was like a personal goal to be accepted into the tribe and prove to be good enough. As a 10 year old I once spent all summer learning to dribble so that I didn’t have to be a goalie every time we played football. I was a bit of a tomboy and I think parts of that have stayed with me till today.
I must say that working this year with Jorge Vera Garcia, a.k.a. Dr Windsurf (who is Philip Koster’s caddy, friend and sparring partner), helped me a lot, especially with the mental side of competition. He taught me to be a bit easier on myself and reminded me that it doesn’t matter what anyone thinks I am capable of. That even if I am perceived as an underdog, it has zero importance and I shouldn’t let it get to me. I should just sail as good as he knows I can. He highlighted to me how much I had improved both my sailing and competing in the last few years and how much bad luck I actually have had. He put things in perspective and taught me not to let doubt get into my mind, even for a moment. He made me realize that with a bit of luck I am in a position to do really good. That it does all start in your mind and if you think you can do it, you can do it! If someone who knows what they are talking about believes in you, it does fill you up with confidence and that is super important in competition. If anyone needs some coaching for competition or moves I highly recommend getting in touch with Jorge at www.drwindsurf.com
I often wondered if windsurfing is a blessing or a curse. I have dedicated my life to it, and it influenced most of my decisions, it has brought me to hospital multiple times and sent me alone to the other side of the world and into the outback. It caused some of the biggest upsets in my life, but has also brought the most euphoric moments. It took me around the world and back and it gives me this driving force to push through anything. Sometimes I look at people who have chosen a more traditional path and ask myself whether it was all worth it? I always get to the same answer though. I wouldn’t want to live without windsurfing! Many thanks to my sponsors – Mystic Boarding, Simmer Style, Al360, GoPro, Max Active Squad and F45 Training – for letting me live my dream!
“I wouldn’t want to live without windsurfing!”