Jennifer Gately Henderson

No other woman in the world has won greater respect from the boys

American Windsurfer: You grew up skiing in Utah. How did you get into windsurfing and how do the two sports compare?

Jennifer Henderson: There was a pretty big group of people—the ski bum type of people—that windsurfed in the summer and people always talked about windsurfing. It was like a disease. They were almost fanatical in a way. All season I would hear, “I can’t wait to get back to windsurfing.” Somewhere along the way, I think I saw a video, a wave sailing video, and I just thought, “That is what I want to do.” It appealed to me right away and I went up to the Gorge one summer and got some equipment and learned how to do it and got hooked. From there, it’s probably a similar story for a lot of people but it is definitely connected to that type of lifestyle—carefree, free, kind ski-all-day-and-work-at-night type of thing.

AW: Did you move to Maui after that?

JH: Maui was like the ultimate spot, ultimate goal, and it took me probably a year, two years, a couple of years, to financially be able to come to Maui. Like a lot of people, You can’t just up and leave your job and move somewhere else. I first came here for three or four months, then went back to Utah and worked at the ski resort in the winter and then went to the Gorge. Finally, I moved out here.

AW: You are one of the few American women competing. What is that like?

JH: It is really tough for American women. It is tough for them to find support financially, as a lifestyle. The American market is vastly different from the European market. I don’t know why. Maybe Europeans are more fanatical about their windsurfing. It may be because we have monster trucks and all these different sports that attract Americans in a different direction. Americans love motors so that’s kind of an influence. For an American woman, it’s very hard to support yourself financially, to be professional and to train and be able to travel. That’s probably the biggest thing going on right now.


AW: For you as a competing pro windsurfer, what is it like being in the minority?

JH: The . . . minority? [Both laugh.] Uh . . . American, you mean?

AW: Well, there are not that many women competing.

JH: There are a lot of women, but not a lot of women who compete on a regular basis. It’s too expensive for them. It’s not worth it. There’s no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. You would like to think you are working towards some kind of goal and there’s always the goal of winning but there’s got to be some payoff, monetarily, for what you are doing and if that’s not there, there’s no motivation to even try to do that. There’s nothing there.


AW:  You became a mother and then went out and won the Aloha Classic.

JH: The Aloha for me was a very long-term goal and it was something I always wanted to achieve. The previous year was really disappointing for a lot of people because it was the first year that the PWA and the World Cup brought that event back to Maui after four years of not having it. So it was a real high point for me but it was also like I had to do it after I had my daughter because it was kind of the only thing that separated me from being a mother and being a wife. Women lose that when they have a family. They lose who they are and it was really important to me to do that for myself and for self-achievement, knowing that I still had my own thing.

AW: Is there much of a sisterhood among the pro windsurfing women?

JH: Definitely. I think there have been a few dark areas where a few people really dampened that process either by ego or whatever you want to call it. I would say there’s always been a sisterhood. Right now all the girls are more part of a group than I think they ever have been because they realize that we’re all we ever really have. We’re not working against each other. We’re all trying to work together to achieve the same thing and we need to be unified and everyone is cheered by everyone and that’s how competition should be.

AW: So is the attitude more fun than competitive on the beach?

JH: Yeah. Though there are a few people out there, a few older people with that mentality, and that definitely doesn’t make it fun.

AW: [Laughing] Those who came out of retirement?

JH: I’m not going to mention names! [Laughing.] There are definitely people out there that either it’s their way of coping or the way they’ve always known to do it. And it’s a little hard to deal with for a lot of people.

AW: How do you think the sport could promote women windsurfers more?

JH: With more coverage of women. Women can feel very alone in the sport like they’re the only ones out there or the only ones doing it. They need to know that there’s a large group of women. Look at women surfing, as a classic example. There are all-women surfing magazines. Women surfers get more exposure in surfing magazines, on average than any other sport. So, in that sense, it makes the sport grow because people are like, “Wow!” There are a lot of people doing this. This is cool. This is great. This is what I want to aspire to.”


AW:  Do you think the more women see women in magazines, the more motivation there will be?

JH: Of course. If you’re the black sheep out there, you’ve got your drive and motivation to do what you are doing but it’s definitely kind of a lonely feeling to think, “I’m the only one doing it.”

AW: How is the balance between you being a mother and a pro windsurfer?

JH:  It’s a different balance. I remember some of the first comments when I traveled without my daughter. A lot of guys that have families travel the World Cup and it doesn’t seem to be an issue. It’s like, the man’s out working. But for a woman, it’s a different perception. “Oh, shouldn’t you be home? Oh, you are away from your child? That must be awful.” It’s not awful but the perception is much different on a female level. If I’m windsurfing all day, it’s like, “Well where’s your kid?” “My husband is with her.” Is that not normal? “Shouldn’t you have your daughter here?” I don’t know what’s going on in society as far as that goes. Traditionally the mom should be the caregiver and I wouldn’t say that Mr. Mom is in our family. It’s difficult to manage and I think being able to have a relationship where you do support one another with what you’re doing is being equal. We give each other equal time to do things we need to do. It is very difficult and changes the dynamics. I only have one child but I couldn’t imagine having two or three, juggling all that. It really is a full-time job. There’s a lot more involved. You have to define how it’s going to be in the beginning or problems do arise.

AW: What makes you windsurf?

JH: Probably the type B personality. I’m an adrenaline junkie. I’ve always been that way. And I see it with my daughter, which is kind of scary. I know it’s a genetic thing passed down. We have a thirty-foot pendulum swing in our backyard. From Day 1 my daughter has loved to swing as high as she can possibly go and then she wants to go higher. I put other kids in that swing and they start crying. There’s definitely a personality type. I don’t know where it comes from but unless I’m really scared I’m not having fun. I think to some degree to be an athlete of that caliber you have to be that type of personality.

AW: Have you sailed Jaws?

JH: I have never sailed Jaws. I had a board made eight years ago for Jaws when it was kind of the thing to do and I got into tow surfing. I was out in twelve, fifteen foot days tow surfing at Sprecks which is a lot heavier than Jaws actually because you are not dealing with a huge channel. You can’t run anywhere. You are out there. It’s breaking all over the place. At that point in my life, it was really something I needed. I needed to prove myself or do things like that to get press. I’m kind of over it in a way and if I go out to Jaws, someone would have to pay me to get the picture they needed. I really don’t feel like I need to put myself in a situation that could be disastrous. And I know firsthand I have been worked towsurfing to the point that I could have died. It was a real eye opener because you get to the point that you think you are invincible and you do a lot of things and go out on a lot of big surf and it only takes one time when you’re in over your head. I got really close to that and my perception changed because I thought, “This isn’t worth it.” Once you see your life flash before you, it’s a definite sign that you’ve kind of pushed the limits. I think every athlete gets to that point at least sometime in his or her life.

AW: Having the experience of your life flashing before you can significantly change you. How has it affected you?

JH: It made me wimpier. When you’re younger you don’t have enough experience to know that you’re not invincible and everything is great, you’re going for it. You’re playing on a fine edge but you just don’t know it until you hit one of those points. It doesn’t necessarily have to be getting worked in big surf. It could be a car accident or disease. There are certain points in your life where all of a sudden you are slapped in the face and you say, “If I die in this world I am gone.” Your life and your health are all you have, in essence. Money, monetary things, and relationships become nothing. All you have is your health. That’s a really big discovery for a lot of people and I think it does come with age. You’d be pretty lucky to find that out early on.


AW: How old are you?

JH: Thirty. It’s changed me but it’s changed me to be more appreciative of what I do instead of always, “Oh I need to go bigger. I need to go faster. I need to do this and this and that because it keeps pushing the limits.” There are limits. There are limits at whatever level for everybody. Some people find them and some don’t. Some people get hurt on the way.

AW: It’s amazing how we hear of so few people getting hurt or killed in this sport.

JH: Well, the percentage is much higher in the mountain industry because the variables are much more uncontrollable. You’ve got avalanches and trees. One of the things you see now is that thirty percent of the people skiing are wearing helmets. You never used to see that back in the 60s and 70s. That’s pretty incredible. Windsurfing is much different because you can kind of control the variables in a way. You can’t control the surf but you can definitely see the potential danger. You can go backcountry snowboarding and not see the potential danger unless you are highly trained in avalanche detection. You can make that choice to charge out over a big set or you can turn around and go back in. Some people have a really good idea about their limitations as far as windsurfing. Some people don’t. It’s a much a greater awareness, a visual awareness, a feeling. You feel the wind come up and if it’s too much, you go in. If you’re ten thousand, twenty thousand feet up a mountain and you are getting oxygen sickness, there’s nothing you can do. That’s why a lot of people die in car wrecks. They don’t see it coming.


AW: What do you do when not windsurfing and being a mother?

JH: I work for a health club. Fitness has always been a real passionate thing for me. I got into it when I was young. I trained with the wrestling team in high school when I was cross-training for track and cross-country and I saw a lot of the benefits from cross training really early on and had a lot of good coaches who stressed that. It’s been a part of my life and I like seeing people change their lives through that. I work with athletes but mainly with the general public and see them increase their livelihood and quality of life, not how long they are living because no one knows how long they are going to live. It’s important. Probably what hit me was when I was pregnant and gained extra weight, I wasn’t exercising much. I just thought, this is what people feel when they are overweight and out of shape or when people don’t exercise, they feel like crap. That was a real eye-opener for me. I love seeing peoples’ lives change for the better. I always want to help people.

AW: What’s it like married to someone well known in the industry?

JH: I had a pretty big mind trip about that when I first met my husband. I figured it was a big issue. What he does in the industry is really helpful for me as an athlete—to see the other side. I’ve learned a lot from the other side and what people are looking for. The perception of a professional athlete is always much more one way where an industry person is probably windsurfing themselves and knows both sides to some degree. Some people say, “Oh you’re definitely locked into your sponsors and maybe you might not be able to progress like you would want to progress.” Ultimately it’s not an issue.

AW: Can you give an example what that means to see something from the industry perspective that you learned?

JH: As a professional athlete, you need a certain amount of support. Peoples’ perception of companies is that “I deserve this. I am an incredible athlete. You should be giving me this.” From an industry perspective, you need to get something out of what you are doing in your marketing. People pay a lot of money for advertising and basically, that’s what you are doing with an athlete. That part of it really opened my eyes because you’ve got to give something to get something. It’s like work. “This is my job.” For some reason, a lot of people figure just because they are an incredible windsurfer they should be sponsored. They should be getting the max that they can. I’m not saying they shouldn’t but there’s got to be some kind of payoff and, “What can you do for me?” type of thing. That’s what industry, sports marketing people are looking for. It’s got to pay off. Nothing’s for free in this life, unfortunately. Maybe the air that we breathe but even now that’s questionable. It’s cut and dry, pretty much.

AW: Except love?

JH: I don’t know. Is it free? Do you think it so? If you love someone, do you expect to be loved back?

AW: I’d like to think . . . No

JH: No. Love is free.

AW: Love should be free.

JH:  It should be free. There should never be any, “If I love you then you should love me.”

AW:When you look at your child, do you think she should love you?

JH: No. Love is definitely free. So I take that back —that nothing in life is free.

AW: & JH: Love should be free.

by John Chao

Publisher / Editor is a former photojournalist for GEO, National Geographic and Time-Life Magazines.

photos by Darrell Wong

Our prolific Maui based Contributing Photographer