Barbara Kendall reckons she was born happy.
It takes a lot to knock that famous grin off the five-time Olympian’s face – even now, as she chats to the Weekly about her biggest challenges (finding balance), her dislike of cooking shows (“How many can there possibly be? Food is not my passion!”), and the thing that irritates her most of all (people who emotionally dump on others), there’s still that ever-present smile.
But that’s not to say the windsurfing legend, who won a gold, a silver and a bronze medal during her 22-year career, hasn’t had some hard knocks. Being an Olympian is hard, she reveals, but the toughest trials are the ones the public never sees.
“After every games, I stopped. I thought about retiring after each one – even after I won gold,” she tells. “It’s exhausting and all encompassing. You get to the end and you’ve had enough. You want to be a normal person again.
“It took me years and years to figure out how to do that, and how to be gentler on myself. And to not have nightmares that I’m about to go and do a competition and I can’t find my gear!”
Barbara (48) knows first-hand how difficult life after retiring from professional sport can be. After all, it took her five tries to finally concede that her career was over – at the impressive age of 42 – but when she did stop, she was very, very ready.
“I kept going back to the Olympics thinking that it was going to make me happy,” she explains. “Like I say, I was born happy, but going back all of those times didn’t teach me what I needed to learn. It was my vehicle for learning all the stuff I’ve learnt now.”
Life now is very different for Barbara than it was when she was competing – but it’s certainly not slower.
The Auckland wife, mother, entrepreneur, businesswoman, volunteer – there doesn’t seem to be enough hours in the day for all of her endeavours. She sits on 13 – yes, 13 – international executive boards, runs corporate development programmes, is a member of the International Olympic Committee, fronts Health 2000 advertisements and has invested in a friend’s natural skincare company, Feel at Home.
She’s also mum to Samantha (15) and Aimee (11), and has been married to husband Shayne for 23 years.
“Oh, it’s all the vitamins!” she says with a laugh. “I do like to be busy, but I’m getting really good at doing nothing. I know that time out for me is very important – otherwise you burn out, which I did a little at the end of last year. If I hadn’t been an athlete, I wouldn’t have been able to sustain this pace.”
As she prepares to head to Rio to support the current crop of Kiwi athletes, Barbara’s focus, for the meantime, is once again the Olympic Games.
But ever since she first joined the IOC in 2005, she’s always insisted her job be a family affair.
“I have meetings around the world, but a lot are in Oceania. When it’s possible, the kids come with me,” she says. “I was pregnant with Aimee when I started and here she is about to turn 11. They’ve experienced some great things. I have a clear list in my head of what’s important and for me, it’s family. If they want women in leadership, this is a part of who we are, so you have to mould things around that.”
Thankfully, she’s got an incredible partner in Shayne, whom she married in 1993, to help with the daily struggle of balance and looking after the two girls.
“He’s an amazing husband,” she tells. “He hasn’t been career-oriented – he’s much more of a hands-on, down-to-earth, practical bloke. It’s been a partnership.”Of course, parenting a teen and a tween has its challenges, Barbara remarks wryly.
“You think they’re okay, then the next day... well, it’s a rollercoaster, as anyone who has ever been a teenage girl knows!” she laughs.
“Samantha is more of a thinker, while Aimee is more of a doer. They’re really different and I love that. Watching my girls develop into beautiful human beings makes me incredibly happy.”
Time out with the girls and Shayne is always a priority, and even though life is still organised in quadrennials, holidays are frequently planned – and they always revolve around the same thing.
“Surfing!” Barbara proclaims gleefully. “It’s always been a dream of mine to be a good surfer and hopefully it’s going to be in the Olympics in 2020.
“And,” she continues, her smile, if possible, even wider, “we were in Fiji recently for a meeting and I got my first-ever barrel. It was amazing! But what was more incredible was Samantha got her first barrel too. Then, the day after, she’s sitting in the surf and Chris Hemsworth – you know, the guy who plays Thor – came up to her and goes, ‘Are you the girl who got that awesome barrel yesterday?’ Needless to say, she was on cloud nine!”
While it’s her family that’s still her priority, Barbara has also been dipping her toe into the business world too, which led her to investing in her friend Leanne Martell’s business, Feel at Home, in 2013.
“I’d never invested money before and it wasn’t like we had a lot,” Barbara admits. “But I felt so strongly about it. Leanne is an amazing person and I love what she does.
“We’re currently living in a state of chaos, it’s tough starting up a new business. And you learn so much – we look back even two years ago and think, ‘Oh, my God, we were naïve!’”
It’s fair to say skincare wasn’t a huge priority for Barbara during her Olympic career – “but I did use a heck of a lot of sunscreen! I’m not the best poster girl for a skin company,” she grins – but her business brain kicked in when she saw the potential of the brand.
“I just love learning, I love the development. And we’ve just signed a lease to open a shop in Browns Bay, Auckland, too!”
As she so loves saying, it’s another tick of a box on the great list of things she still has to achieve in her life – and it’s a long list.
From more travel to more sport and business projects, it seems like it’s growing, not shrinking. But one huge box that got ticked off last year was when she was honoured at the Halberg Sport Awards with a Sport New Zealand Leadership Award.
“That was huge for me on a personal level,” she nods. “To go from being accepted as a female – accepted by the old boys – was amazing. It had taken me 10, 11 years to be acknowledged.”
It was an amazing moment for her daughters to witness, she says.
“I just try and teach them that, yes, you should do what you love, but also, don’t be afraid to follow your gut, because it’s usually the truth.
“There are so many people who live externally, looking at the big house and the big car, and worrying about how fat or skinny they are. You really need to pull back and look internally. You might get that gold medal, but it might not make you happy.”
As much as life tends to get in the way – and what Barbara does crave from her days as an athlete is the sheer simplicity of having one goal, not 500 – she tries to take time out each month to reassess.
“You have to ask yourself those big questions – Who really am I? Why am I here? Where do I want to go? Every once in a while, you need to stop and ask if you’re on track. If you’re not, then do something about it.”
Of course, she has her indulgences – mindless, entertaining television shows such as The X Factor and sleeping in are her true vices.
This might explain why she reckons she has as much vigour as she did when she first began sailing almost 30 years ago, although now, she concedes, it does come in shorter bursts.
“I feel like I’m 21,” she says. “I’ve always felt like a big kid. I do have to sleep a bit more, but when I’m going, I have just as much energy.
“But I love being older. I’m almost 49 and I got a barrel at Cloudbreak? Bring it on.”
Words: Kelly Bertrand
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