Beating rivals half her own age is just the latest iteration of an endless appetite for hard work for Cyprus’ Flyboard leader finds THEO PANAYIDES
Enough of the hustle and bustle; sometimes you just want a nice relaxing day at the beach, interviewing a woman who flies around all day on a kind of aquatic hoverboard connected by a hose to a jet-ski. The sun does indeed shine brightly as I make my way down to Christos Water Sports, just behind the Cavo Maris Beach Hotel in Protaras, and the sea does indeed form a backdrop of crystalline blue behind Petra Wijnker – a bronzed woman with a cascade of blond hair – as she comes up to greet me.
Yet the carefree holiday ambience is deceptive. For one thing, though the water looks inviting enough, there were one-metre swells earlier this morning, and it’s still too choppy for a water sport that involves finding your balance at a height of up to 20 metres (the approximate height of a six-storey building); Petra won’t be giving Flyboard lessons today, indeed it’s one of those rare summer days when she probably won’t even go Flyboarding herself. More importantly, the relaxed sun-and-sea vibe is deceptive in another way – because her life has been eventful, and in no way a day at the beach. She’s always had to work hard – fight hard, train hard – to get what she wanted.
Her current phase is the happiest, and perhaps the most successful. The Flyboard world may be small (the sport was only invented in 2012, though it’s currently the fastest-growing extreme sport in the world), but make no mistake, she’s a celebrity. She went on holiday to Bali last spring, and of course made a beeline for the local Flyboard school. Did they know who she was, when she introduced herself? “Yes. They know definitely who I am, yes,” she replies in her Dutch-accented English. “Yes. Even in Bali, they know. So they were honoured that I was coming, and for me it’s nice to see how other people are working”. The Flyboard World Championship took place in the south of France last month and Petra, representing Cyprus, was one of only 10 female qualifiers. She finished seventh, making her the No. 7 female Flyboarder in the world at the moment.
That’s fame enough – but it gets even better, because Petra Wijnker is 52 years old. “All the other girls – some of them I could even be their grandmother!” she chuckles, speaking of her competitors in France last month. “And they are all in their 20s, so half my age.” On the one hand, it’s a thrill to take on younger opponents and prove yourself better than all of them (except six); on the other, it’s something of a bittersweet accolade – because she also knows her time is running out. “Flyboard all comes from your legs,” she explains, and younger muscles are naturally stronger. “In the winter I’m training my legs. I have a huge trampoline in the back of my garden, to jump on there and make moves and so on. But still, the level [the younger women] have…” Petra shakes her head: “No matter how hard I train, I could never go to that level. I want to, in my head I can do all this – but then I go out on the water and my body says: ‘No, no. We are not going to do this today’.”
You can’t really blame her poor body, which has been thrust into this life after 40 years of being relatively un-athletic. Petra did some dancing and gymnastics in her youth and was always sporty as a kid in her native Holland, swimming in the summer and ice-skating in the winter – but five years ago, when she watched a Flyboard clip on YouTube and instantly fell in love with the sport, she’d just spent 10 years running a successful bar-restaurant (The Romeo Inn) in Ayia Napa, her only exercise being the daily trek between tables. Before that she’d been a barmaid, worked for two years as a flight attendant with Cyprus Airways, co-owned a bar in Nicosia, and spent a few years in Holland working with tulips and other flowers (“I’m specialised in looking for viruses and diseases in bulbs and flowers”). Standing on a board, however, being propelled into the air by jets of water? This is new.
Then again, it’s also more of the same – viz., the endless appetite for hard work that seems to define her sensibility. Life at the Romeo Inn was no walk in the park, she tells me earnestly: her working week was “80 hours, easy”, often close to 100 hours. The place was open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, 8am to 2am, and she was the owner and manager, fielding every detail and mini-crisis; the Inn was always packed, indeed it was so successful that when she sold it (just before the crisis) she was set for life. Nowadays “I don’t have to work,” she admits – which of course is why she was looking for something to do in 2012 and settled on Flyboarding, which she now pursues with the same religious fervour. “If I go for something, I go full for it, I give everything for it. I fight for it. I work for it, yes.”
Work, for her, isn’t an end in itself. Work is a way of self-definition, a way of imposing her will on the world. Working with flowers in Holland – she was born in the northwest where all the tulips are grown, in the small town of Anna Paulowna – was “very beautiful” but it wasn’t enough: “It was boring. And I don’t like boring”. She wasn’t unhappy, and could conceivably have stayed in that job for life – but “I looked at my life and I thought ‘No, this is not going to be it. I want to see more’”. She was 27, and decided to go around the world – a noble plan scuppered by a certain Mediterranean island, one of the first stops on her itinerary. “I met somebody here,” she shrugs, “and I’m still here. That’s 25 years now.”
She’s lived mostly in Napa (she tried Nicosia for a while, but couldn’t handle it: “I need the water!”), but it’s never been about relaxing by the beach. Even her view of Cypriots is untypical, for a North European: “I don’t know anybody in Cyprus who is lazy,” she asserts. “Everybody is working – and working hard. I know many people who are working two jobs. A very hard-working people”. Whether or not that’s true (she doesn’t meet many civil servants in her neck of the woods), it’s surely significant that she chooses this particular compliment. Indeed, one could draw a straight line from what Petra Wijnker is doing now – pushing her body, willing it to compete against younger, stronger bodies – to her 100-hour weeks at the Romeo Inn and before that, to the girl who wanted more than looking after tulips in rural Holland.
Actually, the line could be drawn even further back, to something she talks about only reluctantly: her childhood, marked by the trauma of losing her mother to stomach cancer at the age of six. (She now does a special flight for breast-cancer awareness every October, holding a giant pink ribbon as she swoops on her Flyboard.) Left alone with a young family – Petra has a younger brother and sister – her father remarried, “which was not very successful, so we ended up with my aunt and uncle till I was 16”. Why was it not successful? She hesitates: “She was very abusive,” she explains of her former stepmother. “I am a victim of child abuse, and my brother and my sister as well”.
She doesn’t elaborate, which of course is understandable – but what’s more intriguing is the reason why Petra prefers not to dwell on this childhood unhappiness: not because she’s crippled by it, but precisely because she isn’t. “I don’t want people to think ‘Oh, what a sad girl’ and so on,” she explains, with the clear-eyed resilience of a woman who prefers to keep going. “Because I came out of it all right. I’m okay. My brother and my sister, they’re doing fine. Good jobs. My sister has a family”. It’s important not to feel like a victim, she says firmly. It’s important to be positive – and above all to fight, to work, to impose your will on your circumstances. “I believe in that, because you have to do it. It’s your life. It’s your responsibility to get somewhere. You have to fight for it, to get somewhere”. She’s forgiven her abuser, says Petra, and refuses to blame the past for whatever problems have been placed in her path. “Because everybody can become what he wants to become.”
Has Petra herself become what she wanted to become? Probably – though it took a while. Flyboarding has changed her life completely, she gushes; “It’s not work for me, it’s passion, it’s love… Actually I’m angry with the inventor of the board, that he didn’t make it sooner!”. Does she never have moments when she thinks ‘I’m 52, what am I doing here?’. “No, never. The only thing I get angry about is that my body doesn’t want to do what I want to do. That’s frustrating. But that’s – getting old. I hate getting old.” That said, the age difference is never an issue when she’s competing: “Nobody ever says to me, ‘Grandma, what are you doing here?’. We respect each other, because we know what it takes to Flyboard”. Maybe because the sport is new (there are only a few dozen female Flyboarders at professional level, though the number is growing all the time), they’re like one big family, says Petra – and later uses the f-word to describe Cyprus Airways too, which she also felt to be “like a family”. One almost wonders if it’s part of a subconscious impulse: seeking out surrogate families to replace the flawed one from her childhood, just as she uses work to dispel any thoughts of victimhood.
Then again, does it have to be so complicated? Maybe she’s just a girl who loves to Flyboard, the occasional excitement of World Championships being just a part of her love affair with the sport. Flyboarding isn’t only athletic; there’s an element of performance as well, as there is in gymnastics or figure skating. When competing, Petra launches into “tricks” – maybe a back-flip, or a double back-flip, or a spin or a “dolphin dive”, or a “Superman” where you straighten your body and fly parallel to the water. When in Cyprus, she (along with her business partner Kyriakos) also puts on shows, applying her creative streak to flamboyant costumes. They might do a pirate show, two Flyboards battling in the air with swords, or a James Bond show; their next event is the Paphos Beer Festival in a couple of weeks, when Petra will be wearing a custom-made suit inlaid with (waterproof) lights. “I’m the only female in the world who flies with fireworks,” she adds. “I have fireworks on my back and at one point, when I think it’s the right time, I let them go off.”
Flying through the air is always spectacular – but the more salient point is that putting on a show is less physically taxing, so she’ll still be able to perform even when her body can no longer hack it at professional level. It’s an odd situation, in a way, this stubborn Dutch expatriate who finds herself, in early middle age, as an athlete with a touch of the circus performer – and of course Flyboarding is also an “extreme sport”, meaning potentially dangerous. Not in a lesson, she makes clear (almost anyone can Flyboard; she recently taught a 93-year-old man how to do it, and would certainly have roped me into a lesson if the sea weren’t so choppy), but when you’re an athlete doing tricks without a life-jacket … well, all it takes is for the connection with the jet-ski to fail, for whatever reason, and down you’d come: “And from 20 metres, coming down in the water is like falling on the rocks. You’re black and blue. Guaranteed”. Risky stuff, for a 50-something who claims to consider herself “a very down-to-earth person”.
What’s the best part of being on a Flyboard, for Petra Wijnker? Is it the feeling when you take off and soar through the air? No, she replies, “the best part is when you’re all the way up there”, looking down on the world. She once saw a massive turtle swimming at the bottom of the sea, invisible except from her own God-like vantage point. “You’re flying at 20 metres and you look down and see this creature underneath you, that’s just beautiful”.
Some might say she likes the solitude, or perhaps the feeling of being in control (a feeling she didn’t always have in her early years), but the bottom line is clear, whatever the reasons behind it. “What makes you happy these days,” I ask, “apart from Flyboarding?” – and she hesitates, trying to find some worthy runner-up. “Flyboarding!” she replies at last, and laughs. “That’s it. I wake up with Flyboard, I go to bed with Flyboard.” She gazes out hungrily, at the platform and jet-ski and the vastness of blue sea beyond.
Petra Wijnker and Flyboarding Cyprus can be found behind the Cavo Maris Beach Hotel in Protaras. Call 99-121981 or 97-750560 for more information