Professional Windsurfer Lena Erdil

Hi Lena! What have you been doing so far during this pandemic? How has it been for you?

I came back to Germany from Tenerife where I was training. Here, I’ve just been running and doing bodyweight exercises at home. It’s been a bit frustrating because all of a sudden you lose this goal point that you’ve been training to and they take away this date, the date you were supposed to have the competition so it’s a bit more difficult for the training focus. But now it’s good and everything is going back to normal slowly. We can go windsurfing again.

I’ve read that you’ve changed disciplines very recently, what’s the major difference?

I’m still doing Slalom but on top, I started training for the Olympic class, the new one, it’s called iQFoil. Basically, you have a foil under the board, so you are flying on top of the water. It’s a quite cool discipline but there is a lot of new stuff to learn and areas that are completely new to me, so it’s a big new challenge quite late in my career. I am excited though. It’s always good to learn and challenge yourself.

Talking about your career, how did you start windsurfing and when did you decide you wanted to do this professionally?

I started during my summer holidays. We were living in Germany and were always going to Turkey for the summer holidays. My parents both windsurf and my dad’s Turkish so we would spend the whole summer in Turkey by the seaside. There I spent two months in the summer windsurfing and doing some local competitions. I started getting good results and that was what motivated me. Seeing that I was in the top three in Turkey, I started setting bigger goals. Then we had the World Championships in Turkey, and seeing that I could participate really motivated me.

I took a year off after high school where I wanted to focus on windsurfing and had a really good result after that. So after spending a year windsurfing and training more properly and not having school or any other obligation, I managed to finish fourth in one of the races at the World Championships. That showed me “Wow if I can place this good after training full time then I want to keep doing it” but I also wanted to study. It was important for me to have a degree.

So I went to university and had one sponsor that agreed that he would exchange my equipment for me every year. It wouldn’t belong to me but he would give me new equipment and I would give him the old one back. He made a 3-year contract with me for my years at university and that really helped me because I didn’t have to worry about the equipment so much and could concentrate on my studies and continue to windsurf as much as possible.

Obviously, it’s different when you can focus full time on something than if you’re just doing it in your holidays. After I finished studying I took the step to become a professional and haven’t stopped so far.

I imagine it must have been hard sometimes to follow your dreams…

Yeah, it is hard. It is hard when you don’t have much financial support or security. You don’t have a set amount of money that you’re getting regularly. It depends on how successful you are and on the economy. We had this really bad economic period in Turkey for the last few years and I have lost all my sponsors from the last 3 years. That’s also one of the reasons I’ve switched to Germany because I wanted to keep windsurfing but just kept knocking on closed doors and nothing happened. I was not ready to give up!

How hard is it to make a living from windsurfing?

It always depends on the sponsorship support. What I was doing was not an Olympic discipline so normally you don’t get state or federation support or a salary from the government. So you just rely on outside sponsors. I think a few years ago it was easier but now it’s also getting harder because all of a sudden we’re not competing against other athletes anymore but against social media influencers, who are getting sponsorships from brands because they have this follower count even though they are not athletes.

It’s unfair but all that the marking departments of these brands are looking at is “Oh, how many followers do you have?”. Most of them don’t even care anymore how successful you are in your sport or how good of a role model you are, they don’t really factor that into their equation anymore. All they care about is the numbers on your social media profile. That’s pretty crazy.

I think this made it a lot harder to get sponsorship deals with brands now than it was 10 years ago. It was much easier before all these influencers just started taking boards and posing on the beach as if they were pro surfers. In Turkey, it’s even harder because the sport is even smaller. In Germany at least the sport is known and there are more people windsurfing.

Do you feel that some of these challenges come from being a female athlete in a male-dominated industry?

Yes, the prize money is very unequally distributed. So for guys, it’s 45.000 and for women, it’s 15.000, it’s less than half because we are always less in numbers. You have the guys telling you “You’re not as good, because you don’t have the same level of competition,” or get this kind of comments just because there are more men in the sport.

The industry is also male-dominated because the same people that are windsurfers, later on, become the people who are working in the windsurfing industry and they are mainly men. They are the ones who are giving out the sponsorships, and a lot of them are also quite macho so women don’t get the same value.

They say “Oh well, there are not that many female customers so you don’t have the same marketing value as a male.” It’s this kind of stuff that you are up against the whole time. I feel like it’s changing a little bit slowly but a really important aspect, which is also why I am doing the camps and all that, is that we need more female participation. If there are more numbers, there is more power. So I could say “Look, it’s actually changing. You also need to change, you need to go with what’s happening!”.

I’m trying to do the best I can with what I have and what’s in my power. I’m also on the committee in the PWA (Professional Windsurfing Association) as a woman representative and trying to push for more equality but it’s hard when all of the others are men. Well, I hope that with MyWindstories, my new project, we will be successful and grow slowly. I’m very positive that it will have a positive impact however small it might be.

So tell me a bit more about your project, MyWindstories. How did it start?

It started off this need to get more women in the sport. We wanted to build this platform where they can learn from the women who are already in the sport or see that there are other girls out there. Because maybe they are in this little community where they are the only girl, maybe they feel alone and they don’t have anyone to compare themselves to.

We wanted to have this kind of platform where they can see “Oh, wow there are so many other girls out there that are also windsurfing, that are at the same level as me and also struggling with this and that” and just to have a community. We wanted to have the webpage to be able to build this community to let the girls who are in windsurfing know that they are not alone and that there will be some sort of power and confidence that comes from that feeling of not being alone.

Maybe it would stop some girls from giving up and maybe it will be able to connect some girls who live close but don’t know of each other. Also, to share a good vibe amongst girls, set good examples for them, and show female role models. That’s why we have the blog and now we are preparing different interviews with different girls or women athletes every week.

Then of course we have the camps as the final part, to really have some hands-on teaching and give the girls the possibility to meet in real life, become friends, learn together, and again to enhance this connection.

Where are you planning on having your camps?

We have one in June now in Leipzig, which is in Germany and we had one planned in Fuerteventura but we had to cancel it due to Covid-19. Then we have one planned in September on Lake Garda in Italy but we don’t know if it’s gonna take place because of the current situation.

What would be the dream outcome for your MyWindstories project?

That we can do a few camps a year in different, nice locations and that there is a community of girls growing out of it, a community that is connected even more. And in the long run that we have this pyramid structure, where at the top you have the top athletes, and at the bottom, you have everybody participating in the sport, and we start growing from the bottom all the way to the top.

I think it’s amazing that you are working on this platform where girls can read about other female athletes and find role models. Did you have anyone that you looked up to when you were growing up?

Yes! There was a woman who was the World Champion at the time or who was fighting for the first place, she was also competing in different disciplines and very helpful to young girls who were new in the sport. Actually, I have an interview with her coming up on MyWindstories where I can introduce her and tell her that I was looking up to her when I was growing up and starting to windsurf.

I think it’s always people that you feel connected to because of something. She was a Swiss lady, so what attracted me to her was that she didn’t grow up by the sea, just like me. As soon as you have something that you can relate to in that person it makes the connection a bit deeper. That’s why it’s good to find out and learn about girls who are doing this sport, not necessarily professionally but also as a hobby and feel a sense of connection.

Do you have any advice for younger girls, who want to practice windsurfing professionally?

Yes! Be open-minded for sponsorship opportunities and be aware that just being successful won’t make all the sponsors magically appear, which is what I thought for quite a long time. I was thinking “If I just train enough... I don’t care about the media that much. Who cares? I’m an athlete. All that is important to me is sportive success.”

In the end, it turns out it’s not only that but the whole package that is important so that you have a good connection with the media and are also successful. You can not just focus on being the World Champion or National Champion and then expect the sponsors to come. Of course, you can’t just focus on the media and not train, you need to focus on having the whole picture and think about what you can give to the sponsors.

What are your thoughts about media representation of female windsurfers, especially windsurfing being a minority sport in itself?

It’s really bad. We are not on TV or anything. I mean, TV is being less and less watched but the digital age is moving at such a fast pace it’s hard to keep up when you don’t have a huge amount of money to spend, also as an organization. Even the PWA that has the best of the best riders, a budget, and management, they still don’t have unlimited resources like the WSL (World Surf League) and they can’t just make this app and broadcast like crazy. It’s all a question of money in the end.

But I’m optimistic because it’s such a great sport and if we manage to reach more people it can still take a positive turn. I think more and more people are getting into watersports, free time and hobbies are getting more important. There is a global trend where leisure and sports are becoming more important than working all the time and having a house and a car. I really think the new generation is thinking more about quality time as well, which windsurfing kind of fits into.

But I see that you’re putting a lot of effort into creating your own media presence. You have your blog and vlog channel on Youtube…

I started doing it a few years ago since I’ve realized athletic performance isn’t gonna cut it. I needed to do something else if I wanted to keep living this lifestyle and follow this dream to make my living from the sport. That’s why I started doing more and more on social media and started filming and vlogging. But it’s kind of hard, it’s all very time-consuming.

For example with the vlogs, I’m not putting out the quality that I would like to have. But I’m putting up what I can afford time and money-wise. If I had the possibility of someone shooting me and cutting it for me, it would be much easier. Well, if someone is reading your interview and they are interested they can get in touch with me :)