Bodyboarding is a popular wave-riding sport across the world. However, professional bodyboarders have always struggled to live out of competitions and sponsors.
As in many other individual and team sports, men tend to end up with the largest sponsoring deals and the largest contest prize purses, leaving almost nothing for their female counterparts.
However, both sides have bills to pay if they decide to live the dream and tour the world. In other words, it's not easy to become a female bodyboarder.
There are many challenges women face when pursuing a pro career in bodyboarding compared with men. So, why do girls want to become pro bodyboarders?
Joana Schenker, 29, is totally committed to bodyboarding. She lives and breathes bodyboarding 24/7.
The rider from Sagres, in Portugal, has already won several national and European titles and is now focusing on the World Tour, where she is one of the top performers.
Live Bodyboarding, Embrace the Physical Challenges
Why and when did she decide to become a professional bodyboarder?
"I don't think there was such a moment. I dreamed about it since I started bodyboarding, but honestly, it always felt pretty far away from becoming a reality," explains Joana Schenker.
"I just kept going to the beach almost every day, investing all my time and money into the sport because I loved it so much."
"With time, I got better and better results in competitions and also started to earn some money from my sponsor. This was a slow but steady upward path."
The Portuguese bodyboarder says that when she first started, his friends were the main push. The cool kids in school were bodyboarding, and so she went to try it as well. And she never stopped.
"My two best girlfriends and I were so into bodyboarding that we went to the beach almost every day, the three of us together in this little girl squad," notes Schenker.
"I think that was an incredible thing for us since we kept each other's company and also pushed each other to become better by being a little competitive. Only later, I started to look up the famous bodyboarders like Neymara, Kira, Lilly, and Karla."
From a physical point-of-view, are there any challenges that women face that men don't?
"Yes, I think there are, just like in any other sport that relies a lot on body strength. I wouldn't say we are weak, but we are smaller and more fragile for sure."
"Particularly in the upper body, we don't have the same strength as the men. But we are more flexible, and that's a very good thing."
Help Change the Status Quo
The bodyboarder from the Algarve acknowledges that "there are clearly fewer women competing. Prize money is, therefore, way lower. That doesn't mean it's easier or less valuable to win a competition, but people generally take us less seriously."
"It's a fact that normally we get second best in a contest when it's time to choose the better wave conditions unless it's a women's only event."
"I think this is slowly changing; women are starting to speak up for themselves. On the other side, women have advantages in certain aspects - usually, the media loves the female side of bodyboarding."
Despite the noticeable differences between male and female bodyboarding, Joana Schenker thinks there's a lot that can be done to increase the number of women athletes in the sport.
"It has to start from the very bottom, having as many girls as possible to try it, for example, with events with free classes," states the bodyboarder.
From there, the ones that liked it and are curious for more need to have a place to learn with a good support group, a bodyboard school/club, or a group of friends."
"And, ultimately, for the few that get to a level where they can enter competitions, they need to feel the investment of time and money required is worth it."
"That this sport can really give something back to them and even turn into a career like other sports do. The professional tours need to be stronger and better to give that return to the athletes."
Joana Schenker is one of those who support gender equality when it comes to event prize money purses.
"Yes, I do. I understand we are fewer competitors, and maybe right now it's not possible to have total equality in terms of prize money, but the current difference is way too big and unfair," says Schenker.
"That's one of the key factors we don't have more girls on the world tour, for example. We invest the same amount of money as the men to compete in an event, so it needs to be even,"
Chasing Dreams is Chasing Sponsors
Bodyboarding is her job. Joana managed to become a professional bodyboarder.
"It took me many years, with a lot of help from different people and a variety of side jobs, to achieve that. It was totally worth it, though. I'm living my dream."
"Generally, it's hard to find sponsors as a bodyboarder. But times are changing; I see more and more mainstream brands looking for a healthy beach vibe," stresses Schenker.
"I think the best way to approach a company is to represent values to them, commitment, empowerment, health, fitness, etc. That takes the main factor away from your sport and focuses more on the individual athlete."
You almost have to be your own brand and convince a company it's a valuable image to partner up with."
The rider from the south of Portugal feels she still has a lot to learn and achieve in bodyboarding. As long she has a sponsor that allows her to be a pro bodyboarder, she will pursue it.
"Together with my boyfriend Francisco Pinheiro - a great bodyboarder - we have a bodyboard school in Sagres for local kids."
"That is something we want to keep doing as it's not only also our job but ensures there is a new generation of bodyboarders to come."
"Besides that, since 2010, I've been a certified Bowen therapist, an alternative therapy with amazing results in sports injuries, as well as in many other different problems," reveals Joana.
"I haven't been working so much with it for the last two years, but I do treat my friends and family regularly."
Focus On Your Talent, Not On How Your Body Looks
There's been a lot of talk on the sexualization of the female body in surfing and other sports. How does Joana analyze it?
"It's everywhere, just scrolling through any Instagram or blogger account. It's pretty clear what gets more likes."
"Women consume this kind of content fiercely; women's magazines thrive on selling stuff to us that feeds our pursuit of beauty and vanity."
"I don't have too much of an issue with it, though, exploring the beauty of women in sports. I don't see it as an insult to our athletic abilities, as long as it remains just an addition to our careers," underlines Schenker.
"I think it becomes a problem when women feel it's more important how you look than how you perform; when brands choose the prettier surfer over the better one, and you end up having a whole generation of surfer girls that just surf to have blonde hair and suntanned skin."
Follow Your Instinct
The Portuguese bodyboarder believes in chasing dreams. So, what would Joana Schenker say to a teenage girl who wants to pursue a career as a professional bodyboarder?
"I would just tell her to be consistently persistent in pursuing what she wants because, ultimately, it will happen. Bodyboarding has given me so much. All effort and struggles were totally worth it," concludes the talented rider.
Discover the life and career of Joana Schenker. Visit her official website at joanaschenker.com.