ICH BIN ANDRÉ PASKOWSKI
After a long fight with cancer, André Paskowski passed away on 2 August 2013 aged 31. André was a friendly and passionate person, with a perfectionist approach to windsurfing and filming. He was crowned European Freestyle Champion twice and his windsurf movies changed the face of the sport.
We can mourn his death, but we can also celebrate his life. The moments shared with him, the beautiful images he left behind. Just before he passed away, André shared his thoughts with us. About life, love and the things that made him happy. Wise words from a young man who never gave up hope.
Interview by Mart Kuperij
The best advice I could give anyone would be not to be too hard on yourself. I was always very hard on myself during competitions. On myself and also on judges. I walked all over people who could have been friends, I just didn’t realise it. I wasn’t unfriendly, but I could have been more integrated, not the outsider I sometimes was. The truth is I was a rider going for titles, always. I was focused and determined, not the nicest combination. I not only tried to be the best on the water, but also to have complete control. I was so much into competing and put so much pressure on myself that I was blind to anything else but me sometimes. The problem with this is that you don’t allow yourself to have a deeper connection with anyone.
I was in the top ten of the World Tour, was crowned European Champion twice. But with success new problems and fears arose. What will happen next year? Any dangerous newcomers? A move I won’t be able to learn? An injury? I was always worried. If you base your life on competing and you don’t have anything else, it’s difficult. The life of a professional windsurfer is filled with uncertainty.
I see the young guys doing the same as I did. Competing becomes everything. They put themselves under a lot of pressure. But for what? A few Euros? They will have fun, but there will be one or two kids who will be under too much pressure. Not even the most talented guys will make it if they don’t invest all their time and effort. People can go over their limits, sometimes so much that they get sick, like I did. I feel the companies in windsurfing should guide their riders, make them aware of what comes after their careers. They should protect their riders when things go wrong, in case of an injury they cannot overcome, etc. The companies have a very big responsibility.
The reason I started filming was that I broke my hand back in 2004. I couldn’t windsurf but had a lot of promotional ideas. The injury gave me a chance to discover other areas of the sport. I started doing web clips, that got longer and longer. Then I decided to make a real movie. Four Dimensions was a huge success, with thousands of pages of publicity in magazines and newspapers. And this success only came about because I couldn’t sail! Ironic and fun at the same time. It was a step into my second career. None of this was written in my contracts, but I did it to play a bigger role in the team, be less replaceable than others. I knew that if I lost my sponsors I wouldn’t be able to afford my lifestyle anymore.
The success of my movies also put a lot of questions in my head though – especially about my changing life. Should I film less and be the windsurfer? Or be the promotion guy? I tried to do both at the highest level and at the height of it I did the filming, production, financing and promotion for Four Dimensions, and competed on the PWA and EFPT tour. To be honest, I was not surprised when I became sick. I went well over my limits. I demanded too much from my body, I was tired and always kept going. I was never at home, never took any time off. After the world cup in Sylt I was usually at my parent’s house for a week to wash all my clothes and sort out my administration, then I went to Venezuela or Brazil, followed by Hawaii and from there on to Podersdorf to start the tour again. I did that for seven years. How can you endure that? That’s crazy!
The year before I found out I was ill, I felt ill. Mentally as well. I wasn’t motivated, felt a bit lethargic. I had so many questions in my head. What to do after windsurfing? Where am I going? Should I go to university, move back to Hamburg? I had lost direction and was feeling a bit anxious about the future. I had done well for myself, won two European titles, had had top ten results in the PWA, but I’m not stupid. It was obvious that this wasn’t going to last forever. All this thinking and worrying can exhaust you. I didn’t even really feel like windsurfing for a while. I was still away all the time, but spent more time going out at night than windsurfing during the day. A big difference to the beginning, when I spent seven hours on the water each day, learning 20 new moves in one season. I had lost that feeling.
When I heard I had cancer my world collapsed. It eclipsed everything and my whole focus changed. Getting better became my only goal. Paradoxically my health situation also brought back the fire inside. Whenever I could and was physically capable I’d go windsurfing, I spent entire days on the water again. I had so much fun windsurfing, SUPing, I didn’t feel like getting off the water. I experienced the sport in a whole new way. In Jericoacoara for instance, instead of waking up late, sailing a bit and then getting ready to party like I used to do, I got up early every day, had breakfast and would stand up paddle on the calm water where the sun just rose. It was a totally different feeling and something I hadn’t felt for seven years. Without my health problems I would probably still have been doing the same as all my friends. It might sound stupid, but the illness has also brought a lot of good to my life, it didn’t just take things away.
I met my girlfriend Carolina when we were screening Magic Moments and Rewarded in Brazil last year. We just connected. We are not just boyfriend and girlfriend, we are best friends, partners, in life and work. There is not a single thought I wouldn’t share with her. The funny thing is, I don’t think I would have been interested in her before. And neither would she have been. I was blind to so many things. Now everything seemed to connect. Us together, what we liked, how we think, even though we are really different in a lot of things. She’s more crazy and fearless, where I am more shy and careful. I guess I am very German, while she has this Southern flair. Of course my situation makes everything even more intense. This might be the reason why we feel so much, why we talk so much. She does what no chemo or treatment could ever achieve. We never fight. Why would you have arguments if it only means you’re losing time together?
WINDSURFING AS LIFE SAVER
The doctors have always said that without my trained body and mental focus I would not have lived as long as I have. I had nine chemos, radiotherapy, three lung operations and three stomach operations. Procedures where everything the body needs gets cut into pieces. You have two possibilities – either stay in bed or you keep going. To keep going is even more difficult than staying in bed, because every time you advance and think you are nearly there, you might have to do it all again. I am convinced that my background as a professional athlete has helped me a lot to get far in wanting to beat this disease. It’s really difficult to take bad news and turn it into something positive – that’s something you deal with every day when you compete professionally.
I decided right at the beginning to be open about my disease. The support I got on Facebook was great, it made me feel that it is important to share my story. I got a couple of messages from people saying they went to see a doctor for a check-up. Even from people who actually found out they had cancer! That’s big. I was so afraid to go to the doctor. If someone would have spoken to me about testicular cancer in a normal way I would have gone there easier.
A NEW PERSPECTIVE
My illness has changed my perspective. I take things easier now, and notice things that before I would have just walked past without looking. I think this also shows in my movies. For me it’s about artistry. Music, colour, action, riders … it needs to come together and fit. I want to inspire people by the image taken, not necessarily by the craziest action. I am no longer looking for the perfect triple loop anymore – even though that would be cool to have – but instead I look for beautiful, emotional light, which transfers our action lifestyle and the surfer vibe. I want to immerse people in the feeling you have when you drive home after a good session. This feeling is mostly not just ‘I made a new move’. This feeling means more. Being out there in the ocean enjoying yourself, a nice shower after the session, having a barbecue and drinks with your friends at sunset.
The perfectionism stays, even with my disease. I want to make my videos perfect. I always want more, do better. But why? Just so people write to me and say ‘wow André, nice video’? I am not sure if that’s a good reason. I want to make a movie because I like it. To make it the way I want to make it, not the way people might want to see it. Whether people congratulate me or not shouldn’t matter to me.
The best advice my mum ever gave me was to find out what’s good for you. That’s why, when I said I wanted to be a professional windsurfer, she didn’t drag me to university. I know a lot of people struggle with money. I never had that, even though my parents aren’t rich. I have wonderful parents, and they have always supported me, but always within limits. Still somehow, working little jobs and saving up money, I could get better and better. I see a lot of people struggling by thinking they need money to achieve something. But in my eyes money’s on the street – you just need to grab it. If you are creative things will come up. And from little things come bigger things, if you try hard enough. If you are prepared to work hard, you will get rewarded.
I used to be popular in school. Everybody wanted to sit next to me. When I got into windsurfing I became a bit of an outsider, because it was the only thing on my mind. My friends went out for the first time, got drunk, hooked up with girls … all that didn’t really interest me, I just wanted to go windsurfing. When I look back at this really important phase in life, I placed myself outside the group, I missed out. It’s a vicious circle. You are already an outsider because of windsurfing, you get into windsurfing even more only to become the total outsider. At the same time people found it interesting. I had a good tan, sun dyed hair and always had good stories.
I didn’t know how to handle the attention and, I think because of this, I came across as somewhat arrogant. Being this outsider actually made me into a shy person, which I wasn’t at all before. What do they want from me? I just wanted to windsurf. I wanted to be a friend too, but I didn’t have time to hang out at the bar and drink beer. This was the reason I had less and less contact with people at home, until I only had a couple of friends left.
I was restless, one week in Hamburg was already too much for me. But the social attachment to your home gets lost when you are away all the time like I was. I don’t know anyone around Hamburg anymore. I don’t really know how to get in contact with non-windsurfers. Going out at night, meeting new people, going to the cinema… I don’t know how to do that anymore. I can fly to El Yaque and have a conversation with a total stranger who doesn’t even speak the same language as I do, but at home in Germany I kind of lost the connection.
People say I am good at partying. But what’s good? I can’t even dance. With alcohol, shyness disappears. It made me feel more relaxed, more secure. But all the partying aside I have always been a serious person. When I did the PWA and EFPT I only partied the last night. But then… (giggles) a lot.
It’s easy to comment on something on Facebook. But you see my telephone? It’s empty, no calls. I have a couple friends here in Hamburg. Carolina of course, my mum and dad, my cousin. Some of my friends from around the world might not get along very well with the topic, or maybe they don’t see the urgency. I guess it’s also because we’re in this world that is all about fun. Sunny beaches, wind, waves, nice girls, parties… being ill does not belong there.
It’s not that they don’t care. We just never expressed these feelings. Having cancer is so real and so difficult. How do you deal with that? To be honest, I can’t really blame them. I think I would have been the same towards them. We never really talked about serious issues, or expressed how we felt. It was always just ‘what sail will you take’, ‘what move will you do’ and ‘what chick will you hook up with’? It was like this for ten years. I guess I couldn’t really expect things to change overnight just because I had been diagnosed with cancer.
Sometimes I have no pain at all, sometimes a lot, but luckily I never had as much pain as I was afraid I would have. They say pain is created by the body to protect against damage. The last couple of years I learnt a lot about my body and the different types of pain. I know when it is something associated with the disease and when it’s something that had nothing to do with it. I know when the pain will pass by itself and also when it’s something different and I need to go to the hospital. But luckily it isn’t there all the time. I sometimes have weeks without pain, doing sports, travelling, whatever I want.
Sometimes the pain is really strong. Whenever I am with Carolina we can relax and talk about nice things to try and take my mind off it, but when we are not together it is difficult because strong pain comes with bad feelings and thoughts. It’s hard to get distracted and makes me scared. There are so many things to think about, so many uncertainties.
Sometimes I dream about my own funeral. I have spent weeks in the hospital, surrounded by people who weren’t going to make it. I’ve seen and smelled so much, it’s crazy.
I often think about the future. I imagine our house, my parents, and I’m not there. How will it be? Will they be happy? This is something you need to talk about, even though you’d rather forget the whole subject altogether. It helps to talk. I spoke a lot to the hospital’s psychologist, who I got along with really well. He told me that even when fighting and hoping for things to get better, I had to be prepared for death. He said: ‘Say what you want to say and do what you want to do, and do it now, before it’s too late.’
I always thought I would have plenty of time to spend with my parents after my windsurfing career, when I was done with all the travelling. With my illness, time became a totally different concept to me. I took my parents around the world with me and showed them the places I loved. I wanted them to see through my eyes why I loved windsurfing, travelling, filming. We went to Cape Town twice, we travelled to Sardinia and slept in the campervan, spent time in Jeri. I am so happy I got to do this, that I realised in time this was important. Just spending time together, talking. Making them part of my life.
I worry most about my mother. I think my dad will come to terms with my death eventually, in some kind of way. He always looks forward, is always motivated when I get a bad result from my doctors, he’s very positive. But my mother … I think she will be destroyed. Thinking about this makes me sad beyond belief.
BELOW THE SURFACE
Windsurfing is my life. It enables me to travel, to use my brain. I could stop doing this and spend my time on the sofa, but what would I gain from that? I think it is important to not let the illness control me. Life has to go on. I want to live this lifestyle, and I do so now by filming.
Making my final movie Below the Surface has been an emotional journey. But my illness and my new outlook on life have made it richer than any of my previous movies. If I am not able to finish the movie, Carolina will continue my work. My final present to the windsurfing world. Something I can already be proud of, because I will have made something I wanted to make.
I hope it inspires people to go windsurfing, or give it a try. My life without windsurfing? I can’t even imagine how it would have been.
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