Thursday 22 March 2018

'Windsurfing has taught me to brave it and get out or you'll regret it'

Windsurfing and SUP champion Dr Katie McAnena tells us how juggling a hectic career in medicine only ignites her passion for the paddle further

Katie McAnena in action wind-surfing.
Katie McAnena in action wind-surfing.
Katie McAnena celebrates during the American Windsurfing Tour.
Taylor Swift paddleboarding
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

From the moment Katie McAnena (29) was introduced to windsurfing 15 years ago at her local windsurfing centre in Rusheen Bay, Co Galway, she was hooked.

Now a qualified doctor, and pregnant with her first child, Katie spent much of her teens and 20s dividing her time between her medical studies and her passion for the sport, which has seen Katie compete around the world at the highest level.

Katie has been the National Irish Ladies Champion in Windsurfing five times and competes on the professional American Windsurfing Tour.

"I came first in the Cabo Verde Event in February and third in the Oregan State event in June, then I became pregnant and couldn't chase down the overall 2015 American title," Katie smiles, "but it turns out from these two good results, I came fourth overall in the USA for 2015 anyway."

Katie is also a Stand Up Paddle Boarding (SUP) champion. SUP is a sport that has become increasingly popular in recent years, particularly among celebrities including Cindy Crawford, Rihanna, Taylor Swift and Matthew McConaughey, and is seen by many as a more accessible, entry-level water sport.

"I have won the Irish SUP surfing ladies title for the last four years in a row, 2015 included. This year's event was run from Bundoran in Co Donegal where I am now living and I entered both the men's and women's divisions," Katie explains.

"So I won the ladies again and for the second year in a row I have placed fifth overall in the country against the men. I also entered the Longboard Surfing Nationals and I am now Vice Lady Champion."

Katie also competes in SUP racing and won the National Ladies Technical title in 2014, as well as the overall title of Lady Of the Bay from her cumulative racing results in the 2015 Dublin Battle For The Bay.

"There are not a lot of women getting into windsurfing these days, but there are a lot of girls surfing and SUP is also going from strength to strength," Katie adds.

"All you need is a paddle and a board and a leash and there are loads of schools popping up all over Ireland. I have never met anyone who tried SUP and thought it wasn't for them.

"It gives you such a unique perspective; you are basically walking on water. It also opens you up to a world of fitness; it is really good for your core, your balance, your upper body strength and you can even do yoga on the board."

Originally from Salthill, Co Galway, Katie grew up close to the Rusheen Bay Windsurfing Club.

"It's flat water in Galway but that is great for learning, it takes a long time to get the basics right and you need good flat water to be able to do that so it was a couple of years before I ventured into the waves then," Katie explains.

"Obviously, you need to be able to go to the spots in Clare or Sligo or Mayo for the waves and I had to wait to get my driver's licence and a car before I could get out as often as I wanted, so from the age of say 14 to 18 I was just windsurfing in Galway doing a few flat water races and learning competition from that.

"When I was about 18, I went with some friends to one of the main wave competitions and thought 'this is brilliant, I would love to do something like this,' and that's when I started training in the waves. It was a really natural progression for me, but in the waves it's different, it involves different jumping, rotations in the air and surfing the waves like you would on a surf board, so it is much more dynamic than the flat water racing."

Katie took two gap years during her studies in order to pursue her windsurfing dreams, the first in between her fourth and fifth year at NUI Galway and the second following her internship in 2012.

"I was really keen to train and push it as hard as I could, but I needed that year to do it. The thing about windsurfing is that it's not like many other sports, you need the right conditions and you have to wait for them," Katie explains.

"So during that first year I went to Hawaii for about seven months and Western Australia as well. It was a great experience and a stepping stone for me into the more international scene, training and competing with the best in the world.

"Then I finished out medicine for another two years and at that stage I was also doing competitions in Ireland and in the UK. I won some competitions in the UK and I have been Irish champion since about 2009," Katie adds.

"Then I did my internship and I took another year off, which really helped me push it to another level. I was travelling with all of the different contests and taking part in some of the professional windsurfing tours, I did the PWA tour and I still do as much of the American Windsurfing Tour as I can commit to."

For Katie, being out on the water provides a much-needed escape from what can be a very hectic work life.

"You just have to make that time," she explains. "I think in some ways it is good that it is all forecast-based because it makes you very good at maximising your time.

"You look at your week and see that the forecast is looking good for Thursday so you work your butt off all week and take Thursday off and you know it is your one day out there, so you really enjoy it and make the most of it.

"Somehow the two areas [Katie's medical career and her watersports] work really well together," Katie adds.

"Even for my own mental health, it has been great to have something outside of medicine because it is quite a rat race, it is intense and there is a lot of career pressure, so it is lovely to have that interest outside of it."

Katie is acutely aware of the importance of nutrition. However, she admits that it can be a challenge. "Doctors are often very unhealthy," she laughs. "We try to be examples of health, but often we are the same as everyone else. We love to snack.

"My mum is an amazing cook and she is really into nutrition, so I have been lucky that I have always been surrounded by that, but I love my sweets too.

"I am not regimental with my diet; I just live by the rule that if it feels good eat it. I know it's such a cliché, but it is all about moderation, there is nothing I would say no to."

Despite having visited some of the world's most beautiful beaches, Katie believes that we have some of the best surf and beaches right here in Ireland.

"What we have on our doorstep is actually phenomenal. Over the last few years I have been to every nook and cranny along the west coast and I feel so privileged to have all that here in Ireland and it is so good both mentally and physically to just get out and enjoy it," Katie says.

"I know I am lucky because it doesn't matter to me if it is raining because I am getting wet anyway, but even when I am not windsurfing, I will go for a run or a hike or I'll go for a stand up paddle; you just put your wet gear on and get out.

"That's one of the main things that windsurfing has taught me; you just have to brave it and get out because you'll never regret it and you will feel so much better afterwards."

In 2013, Katie became the first woman to windsurf the notoriously unpredictable and dangerous wave known by locals as 'Jaws' off Maui, which can reach heights of up to 120 feet. Looking back Katie describes this journey as "kind of nuts" but is glad to have overcome such a challenge.

"I don't like to scare myself, but I do like to challenge myself," Katie explains.

"There have been days where I have looked out and thought 'no' because you just trust your gut and I think that comes from years of experience.

"Every day is relative to another, so the first day I went out and got beaten up I will never forget, yet subsequently I have had much bigger thrashings and wipe-outs, but they haven't seemed as bad.

"It's that 10,000-hour rule, building on your experience to a point where it becomes second nature." In my work there have been times that have been genuinely scared, maybe when I am on call at night and people are really sick," Katie adds.

"I have come to realise that it is all about experience in work, in life and in sport. So the reason I panic maybe more at work than when I am looking out at massive waves is because I have been windsurfing for over 15 years, but I have only been a doctor for four years. So it is all about experience."

Despite suffering from severe nausea earlier in her pregnancy, Katie, who has a spring due date continues to exercise as normal.

"I've been exercising as usual since the nausea has gone," she says. "I surf and SUP all the time and it's magic. It's so good for my head and keeps my fitness up. Obviously I am more careful and I'm not going out when the surf is massive or when there are lots of people on the water, but it's been so important for me to still be able to do the sports that make me happy and stay healthy."

Katie is a sponsored Dream Team Rider for Starboard SUP and Windsurfing and a brand ambassador for Voya Organic Beauty

What is sup?

SUP first emerged in Hawaii in the early 1950s during the post-war tourism boom, as an off-shoot of surfing. As the name suggests Stand Up Paddle Boarders maintain an upright stance on the board and use a paddle to propel themselves through the water. It is this combination of balancing and paddling, which is believed can greatly improve core strength as well as arm and leg muscles.

Stand Up Paddle Boarding can be done on flat water for recreation, fitness or sightseeing purposes. SUP racing also takes place on lakes, large rivers and canals, surfing on ocean waves or even paddling through river rapids.

When starting out, there are lots of different configurations as far as fins, boards, paddles, deck pads and leashes to contend with, so Katie recommends that beginners first try a lesson or two at one of the many SUP schools now springing up around Ireland to ensure you are confident with your equipment before setting off. Celebrity SUP fans include Rihanna and Taylor Swift.

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