Justyna Sniady Interview | She Was One of The World's Best Windsurfers. Then Doctors Told Her She'd Never Walk Again...
Words by Ellie Ross
Justyna Sniady was a promising young windsurfer, competing on the world tour and racking up a series of impressive results. Until she suffered a horrific injury, breaking her foot in several places and requiring multiple surgery, 13 screws and a plate.
Doctors then delivered a devastating blow to the 29-year-old athlete.
“They told me that I wouldn’t walk again, and that I should forget sport," she said. “I didn’t want to believe it. The thought of no more windsurfing was the scariest thing ever."
But Justyna, from Warsaw in Poland, has not only climbed back, but has also made it to the top of the podium. This month she was crowned UK Wavesailing Champion and has become the first ever Polish Wavesailing Champion.
She is currently second in the world for indoor windsurfing and seventh for wavesailing - and has numerous other trophies under her belt.
That fateful day in 2012 however almost put an end to all of this before it had begun.
Justyna had arrived three weeks early to train for the Professional Windsurfers Association (PWA) World Tour in Pozo, Gran Canaria. The morning of her second day, she renewed her travel insurance. It would prove to be the wisest decision she made that day.
Recalling the accident, Justyna said: “It was my last run out. The wind had really picked up and I could barely hold on to my sail so I was heading in. I went for one more forward loop. It was the move I had been working on - I was doing 50 a day to nail them.
“I hit a big ramp and jumped - but I caught a huge gust of wind and wasn’t able to sheet in with my sail. The sail was ripped out of my hands and I fell hard - with my right foot stuck in the footstraps."
I thought it had torn half of my foot off. I could feel the pressure of the bone and I felt sick. I didn’t want to look down because I was scared I would see an open wound
“I thought it had torn half of my foot off. I could feel the pressure of the bone on my skin and I felt sick immediately. I didn’t want to look down because I was scared I would see an open wound with blood and would pass out."
Justyna started shouting and waving for help, but she managed to get herself in from the water by using the power in the sail to ‘body drag’ towards the shore, where she was helped by friends. With her foot swelling up, she had to wait for half an hour for an ambulance to collect her from the beach.
But the worst was yet to come.
At the local hospital, doctors said they couldn’t give her painkillers until they had seen her passport and insurance - which she didn’t have on her. Still wearing her wetsuit, she waited for two hours before being transferred to a second hospital.
It took another five hours before a friend was eventually able to deliver her passport.
She said: “They finally gave me a painkiller after seven hours. It was horrendous. My foot was massive. At first I was in shock, but when the pain started kicking in it was pretty bad. And I was gutted about missing the competition - I had trained so hard for it."
Justyna was initially told she would need an operation, but after the results of a CT scan, doctors changed their minds. She said: “I was relieved because I didn’t want screws in my foot. But a friend showed the scan to his dad, who is a surgeon, and told me I was in serious trouble.
“He said it looked really bad, like I wouldn’t walk again, and that I needed surgery within two weeks. That’s when I started panicking."
Justyna flew home to Warsaw for surgery, but struggled to find a surgeon willing to carry out the complicated procedure she required. She said: “Private surgeons didn’t want to take the risk, and because I hadn’t come through A&E, I would be on a long waiting list at a public hospital."
But good fortune came in the form of Piotr Piekarczyk, a surgeon at Szaserow Military Hospital. The doctor - whose high-profile patients include the son of Poland’s former president Lech Walesa - regularly reconstructs the limbs of soldiers injured by IEDs and mines.
Justyna said: “He saves a lot of people from hardcore injuries. When they want to chop somebody’s leg off, somehow he puts them back together and they walk again.
“They held a special conference about my case, and at the end of it he patted me on the head and said he would fix me up. I was incredibly lucky."
Piekarczyk operated on Justyna on the last day of her two-week window, inserting 13 screws and a plate into her foot. The five bones she had broken were so badly shattered that he was forced to embed wires to fuse them back together and to restore the joints.
Confined to a wheelchair, Justyna refused to quit the windsurfing world, travelling to Tenerife to work as a commentator for the second leg of the World Tour. “I sat on the beach all day with my foot in the air," she said. “It beat moping about at home and crying in front of the live stream because I couldn’t be there."
They finally gave me a painkiller after seven hours.
After four months, Piekarczyk removed the wires from Justyna’s foot - without anaesthetic.
They finally gave me a painkiller after seven hours. It was horrendous.
“I call him The Butcher," she said. “He’s a legend but he’s not that gentle.There’s a long line of around 60 patients waiting for him in hospital, so he doesn’t always have time to anaesthetize."
“He just sat me down and said: ‘OK, I’m just going to pull them out’. He removed the first one and I thought I was going to be sick."
“The wire went all the way through my foot to the bone, so when he pulled it out it took a bit of meat with it." Two weeks later, Justyna put her crutches down - and began to walk. Yet despite already overcoming the odds, she wasn’t content to leave it there.
She travelled to Tiree, an island in the Inner Hebrides to watch her boyfriend, Ben Proffitt, compete in the British Wavesailing tour.
It was there that she took a step closer to where she is today.
“I decided to have a go on a board," she said. “I wobbled out, and did a little wiggle on a tiny wave. I came back into the beach and burst into tears. “I was told I would never walk again, let alone windsurf. But four months after the injury, I had done it. I just sat on the beach crying with happiness."
The wire went all the way through to the bone, so when he pulled it out it took a bit of meat with it
Justyna entered the women’s competition the next day. She wasn’t able to perform jumps, but still clinched third place. A year after the accident, Justyna went back to Piekarczyk to have the screws removed.
“Normally they would put you to sleep, but he just gave me a local anaesthetic and cut my foot open," she said. “I felt sick because I could see it all happening, so he gave me a rubbish bin in case I needed to vomit."
After removing four screws - and handing them, bloodied, to Justyna - Piekarczyk told her that he didn’t have the right tools to finish taking out the smaller parts.
It was another two weeks before she went under general anaesthetic for the final operation to remove the screws. Next followed two weeks of intense physiotherapy that she describes as “painful".
"The physio told me to put a pillow in my mouth and suffer through it," she said. “You do anything when you’re told you won’t walk again.
“The pain was horrible. But it was the mental game that was really tough - not giving up, and pushing through the rehab."
Justyna kept motivated with a little help from a certain on-screen boxer.
After the accident, a friend sent her a clip of Rocky Balboa’s inspirational speech, from the final film in the series - and she started watching it religiously.
She has turned a clip of herself miming the speech into the introduction for her latest windsurfing video, Screw Loose Windsurfing.
It begins with footage from the accident and documents her surgery - including the removal of screws - and rehabilitation, before ending with her windsurfing post-op.
“I filmed myself miming the speech for fun. It was never meant to become a video," she said. “But it fit my situation well - it’s about not feeling sorry for yourself or blaming anyone else for your hardships."
“Rocky says, ‘It’s not about how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you get hit’. His words kept me focused."
Justyna says the accident has completely changed her life - and her windsurfing.
“I used to think I was invincible," she said. “I would go as high and as fast as I could, without thinking about technique. People used to call me ‘Crashtina’.
“Now I analyse new tricks and learn them safely first, and it has helped. I learned to backloop after the accident. There’s still a fear in the back of my mind - not of pain, but of being unable to windsurf again."
I used to think I was invincible. I would go as high and as fast as I could. People used to call me ‘Crashtina’.
Justyna’s biggest challenge since breaking her foot has been returning to the spot where it happened, a year later. She said: “I looked down at my wetsuit and I could see my heart beating through it.
“Even though I had windsurfed loads since the accident, there was something about being back at Pozo that made me shaky.
“All the memories of that day came back, and a fear that it might happen again. I had to listen to Eye of the Tiger and then run in without thinking."
When she’s not competing around the world, Justyna lives in Perth, Australia, where she works as a business development manager. She moved Down Under to study for an MBE when she was 23. It was then that she was involved in her first serious accident. One that was potentially even more serious: a head-on collision with another car.
“I nearly died," she said. “I ripped out the steering wheel with my face. They said that if I was a few pounds heavier I would have broken my neck. “Luckily the other driver was fine, and within a month I was able to move around, although I had broken my nose and looked like Quasimodo."
But if the brush with death had a silver lining, it was that it inspired Justyna to realise her dream of joining the Professional Windsurfers Association World Tour in the first place.
“I thought that if I had died, I would never fulfil my dream of competing there. “I wasn’t ready for it, but I was no longer afraid to try. I worked my way up and it is because of that first accident that I’m where I am today.
“The accident taught me not to regret anything, because you never know how much time you have left in this world."
Justyna - who first stepped on a board aged seven - says her love of windsurfing is partly due to a childhood fear of the ocean. She said: “When I was young, I was afraid of being in a boat at sea. But windsurfing gave me the ability of knowing what to do out there.
“I could go out and no-one could tell me to come back - my mum would have had to swim out and get me.
“Now, I love everything about windsurfing - going really fast, jumping and riding waves.
“It combines the best parts of other watersports - the jumps are more dynamic than kitesurfing and you can still ride the waves like surfing."
Now well on the road to recovery, Justyna has the 2015 world championships in her sights, and will spend the winter training as often as conditions allow. “Conditions have to be just right for windsurfing - you need perfect wind and waves. It makes it all the sweeter because you can’t always have it when you want.
“Windsurfing gives you a constant challenge and leaves you wanting more, which is why I can’t stay away from it."