LENNART NEUBAUER: ROAD TO RECOVERY
Fresh from a maiden victory on the European Freestyle Pro Tour (EFPT) at Lake Neusiedl, Austria, and a recent second place at the 2023 EFPT King and Queen of the Caribbean in Bonaire, you wouldn’t think that Greek young gun Lennart Neubauer has done very little windsurfing in the last 18 months due to injury! Lennart tells us how his road to recovery has made him stronger and even more determined to become a freestyle world champion.
Words: Lennart Neubauer
Photos – Freestyle Pro Tour / Merlin Libicky, Freestyle Pro Tour / Aalvaa Media / Alex Lang.
I injured myself on the 18th of November 2021. That season was my best year on tour on the EFPT. I kicked off with a sixth place in Austria, followed by another sixth place in Rhodes in the men’s division. I was seventeen and felt like I was just breaking through. In the previous years I had been struggling with my results, but I felt I was starting to make it quite far up the elimination ladder. I also won the tow-in European championships, which was also an important step for me. At the end of the year, I was at the last event in Marseille in France. The event was almost finished and I was having a bit of fun on a skateboard. I made a couple of mistakes and hurt my knee quite badly. I think the skateboarding irritated my knee, but I then went back on the water 2 weeks later and hurt it really bad. I didn’t realise I was not ready to go back on the water at the time and pretty much destroyed my left knee.
Basically I did a trick on the water and my knee gave in. I heard a pop, which was very scary and soon after my knee started swelling. It felt really bad and I could not walk on it. I knew already that it was going to take some time to recover. I went and had an MRI pretty much straight away and they told me I had a bone bruise or a bone marrow edema, which meant the soft part inside the bone had a micro fracture and was bleeding. There was no treatment for that. It was just rest like any fracture. The doctor told me to rest for three weeks and that I should be fine. Three weeks later I was not fine unfortunately. It still hurt a lot. Foolishly I went back on the water and made it worse again. I didn’t really know what the right thing to do was. I didn’t know if I should rest, or try and sail and keep it moving. Unfortunately I just made one wrong decision after another. I didn’t really know what I should be doing to be able to recover.
I stopped windsurfing for five months. I was trying to strengthen my knee, but I was not in professional care yet. I was trying to get better doing my own thing. I did a few local physio sessions at home in Naxos, but that did not go very well. So eventually I contacted Red Bull. They have the APC (Athlete Performance Centre) in Austria. I told them that I had found one of the best orthopaedic professors in Greece, who luckily is my dad’s best friend. He did surgery on my knee, where he basically drilled four holes from one side of the bone to the other to promote blood flow to the area and make it heal faster. Two weeks later I went to the Red Bull centre in Austria for the first month of rehab after the surgery. I was on crutches for six weeks, so I could not walk for the whole time. I had lost five cm of bulk on my injured leg compared to right side. That was a huge amount and the goal was to build that up slowly.
My mental state at that point was positive. The surgeon had told me in three months that I could windsurf again. So I realized it was not the time for self pity. I knew I could not windsurf, so I did not watch any windsurf videos or follow any events. I was in a completely different mental zone of just recovering. I knew if I was in touch with what was going on in the windsurf world I would just get upset. That was not something I needed at the time. So I did my own thing and also met a lot of other athletes during the rehab. It was very cool that I was not alone. I don’t know how many times I cried because of how hard the rehab was. Rehab does not only go up, it goes up and down, you might have pain one week and the next week everything feels fine. You might have pain for no real reason and then you question why this is happening to me. These are just regular ups and downs that I managed with my whole team. Without them I would not be able to windsurf today.
After the entire process I am now feeling stronger than ever in every part of my body. My legs, arms and core are much stronger than before and mentally I am much stronger. I was doing six days rehab a week. It was not only gym, which was three hours, it was also physio sessions for one or two hours and one hour of mental performance training. It was a very full plan. I lived in a hotel close to the APC and was driven there every day. Only Red Bull athletes are allowed to go there and it is totally state of the art with the best professionals in all areas on hand. The building is quite new and there is a team of sixty people working for Red Bull to treat the few athletes that are there at the time.
I learned so much in those months at the APC that would have taken me decades to learn elsewhere. This experience is something that I am taking with me for the rest of my life. I learned so much about the body, and also about competing and how to look after myself. I had a lot of spare time to read and learn more about the process. I had access to a mental performance coach, which was also incredible and I don’t think many windsurfers have that available. Just like in any sport, windsurfing, especially freestyle, can be eighty per cent mental. I would say most guys can do the most difficult tricks, but it is just about the connection in your mind to go and land it. These fine differences can make a huge impact and give you an edge when you are actually competing.
I was lucky that I was a Red Bull athlete and was able to go to the APC. I would say the whole process would normally cost hundreds of thousands of Euros. I could not have done that without Red Bull that is for sure. They paid for the hotels and everything while I was there. The support is insane. I don’t know any other sponsor who takes care of their athletes like Red Bull does. Everything was about the athlete. You become the number one priority and this was really beautiful to experience. I am extremely thankful for the way they supported me. Altogether on and off I was in Austria for six to seven months, which was not the whole process. I had my time before I went in there and have had more rehab since I left the APC. I would go for a month and a half, and then come back and stay a week at home before returning. During breaks from the APC I got to see my mum and my friends at home.
That was my whole pre-season, summer and late season last year. It was crazy and I was living in this bubble. I did not have much contact with anyone, just my close friends. I did not post much on social media. I was very in the zone with the goal of recovery on my mind. I wanted to come back stronger than before. It is really cool now being back with all the windsurfers on tour and of course being able to windsurf myself again. I can now live the life that I used to live and that I want to live again.
There is not really a green light to say you are ready to go back on the water full power. I went on the water for the first time 8 months ago. That was just for twenty minutes and twice a week just to test the water so to speak. We upped it to twenty-five minutes the next week, thirty minutes the week after and so on. My physio and gym trainer were keeping a close eye on me. I was in contact with them every day to let them know how every session went. That continued until the first contest, and I am still working with my mental performance coach as well. I will continue working with them all throughout the season. That is very important. We basically now work as a team. I have the windsurf knowledge and they have the knowledge about the human body. If we work together then we are a very strong team. That is how we do it, exchange opinions and see what works and what does not. It is all about finding the balance.
It was amazing to get back on the water. I was taking it very easy during my twenty-minute sessions. I wanted to start doing some moves, but I had to stay patient. It took a while before they let me actually freestyle again, so it was kind of frustrating, even though it was nice to be sailing again. You can imagine when I went to Cape Town recently, that it was incredible to actually freestyle and be part of the crew again. It was not everyone having fun and me having to hold back anymore. I would prefer not to go on the water than to hold back. That was also part of the process that I had to endure. Now I am really happy to push it and not have to think about my knee anymore. I am now a hundred per cent focussed on the trick I am doing, rather than worrying about my knee.
I want to be a world champion. That never changed, even during my lowest moments during the rehab, my goal never changed. If it was not for that I would not have pushed as hard as I did. That was the only reason I embraced this process; I want to be the best in the world. I have to do whatever it takes to be there one day. I don’t look at it as a bad experience at all. It was part of my life. I am eighteen now. It was maybe a necessary experience because as a younger kid I was a bit reckless and I could have really injured myself worse than this. I think all those times I escaped an injury when I was younger, I got it all back in the face. That is how I see it. I am now quite calm again in my mind. I know what I have to do and also in which situations I should risk something, both in and out of the water. Now I’m more of an athlete, rather than someone who just windsurfs.
Back in the game
My latest Caribbean trip started off in Aruba, coming straight from Cape Town winter training. We kicked off the trip with the Starboard photo shoot, which lasted roughly a week. After that I had a decision to make, if I would stay on in Aruba for training, or if I should go to Bonaire already and prepare for the event. I choose to stay in Aruba as the forecast was a bit better and I could train with Sarah-Quita and Oda Johanne in Barcadera, my favourite freestyle spot on Aruba.
The closer I came to the EFPT Bonaire event, the more confident I got, not only in my sailing, but also my tactics and strategies for the competition. We decided with my mental performance coach to not set a goal for what place I should reach, as it was my first competition in 17 months. Since I had no ranking from the previous year, I had to go against top seed Steven Van Broeckhoven in the second round. After managing to beat him in a super tight heat, I knew I was back in the game. After ending up in second place in the single elimination, I realised how important all the gym work had been to get to this point. I was able to defend my second place in the double elimination, but lost to Youp Schmit in the final. This was a really important event for me, as I felt it would set the tone for the rest of my season.
After Bonaire I headed to Lake Neusiedl, Austria, where I was incredibly stoked to win my first ever event on the European Freestyle Pro Tour. Even a couple of months ago I wouldn’t have thought this was possible with the limited amount of on the water training I had. It was a super tough battle with Jacopo Testa in the single final and Steven Van Broeckhoven in the double elimination final. I believe the mental preparation the months prior to the event made the biggest difference compared to my previous years of competing. The most challenging part of an event like that is to always keep levelled emotions throughout the competition, so that your focus can thoroughly be on performing one heat at a time. To me it didn’t matter in the moment what heat was next or who was watching, I didn’t care. The only thing in my mind was the moves I wanted to make. Spending many hours in the gym gave me the edge in the light winds, as I was able to hold on to a 5.6m for the whole competition. The feeling of winning is very hard to put into words. At first I was not too excited about it, but after some minutes I sat at the edge of the lake by myself and it kicked in that I had just won my first European championship event! The joy I felt was indescribable, truly. All the hard work paying off felt like the biggest release. Normally I am not the biggest of celebrators, but the party at the end of the event was pretty wild, though we had the tow-in finals the next day so it wasn’t a late one ha ha! I’m going home for some weeks till it’s time to pack up for the next events. I didn’t think I would say this this year, but my eyes are on the title. It’s gonna be a tough one!