SUP Women | Penelope Strickland-Armstrong
15 years of self-destruction, three years of SUP, two M2O podium finishes. Meet Penelope.
Penelope Strickland-Armstrong is no stranger to overcoming adversity—or being at the top of her sport. The elite New Zealand racer, also wife of accomplished Kiwi paddler, Armie Armstrong, battled sport-related injuries and a variety of illnesses as a world-ranked swimmer long before she picked up a paddle. When injury and illness pushed her into self-destructive behavior, Armstrong found SUP and with it, a new incentive for a healthy lifestyle. Three years later, Armstrong is one of the fastest female paddlers on earth. —Shari Coble
SUP: Tell us about your life before you found SUP. How did you come to paddling?
PA: I was a swimmer growing up and competed internationally for NZ. My last big competition was the World Cup in Hong Kong in 1997 or '98. In the lead-up I suffered three broken ribs, which I tried to train through. At the competition I was diagnosed as having Strep. A , Strep. C, Tonsillitis, Glandular Fever and Anaemia.
After that I did nothing athletic till I took up SUP. Through the next year I kept relapsing, ended up developing an eating disorder, and eventually gave up my dreams. I was self-destructive—I drank a bottle of vodka and smoked a pack of cigarettes a day for 15 years, right up to the point where I realized I was going to die if I didn't change my lifestyle. I knew I had to find a healthy outlet; that is when SUP appeared. I like to think it was fate.
Within about a year of learning to SUP, you took third in the unlimited class at 2014 Molokai2Oahu, then bettered it with a second-place in 2015. What made you want to conquer one of SUP’s most infamous crossing so early on?
The M2O really stood out to me when I first heard Annabel (Anderson) and Armie (now my husband) talking about it. I let them both live at my house the summer I learned to SUP. They had both done the M2O the previous year and the way they talked about it just made it sound like such a great adventure, and such an achievement to even get to the start line. I have had an amazing team the last two years at Molokai, and I would be a fool to think that my results were my own. Even as a solo paddler, the Molokai is a team event.
What drives you to be a top SUP racer?
It's always good to compare yourself to the best; it keeps you honest, but my drive really has nothing to do with competition and more to do with bettering myself. If I win a race, but it was easy and I don't feel that I gave it everything, then it's a hollow victory. But, when I finish a race and my body feels like there is nothing left to give—that feeling is like a drug!
You're a skilled racer, whether competing in a downwinder, long-distance, or technical race. Which is your favorite?
My favorite is definitely downwind, and in particular, the downwind month in Hawaii. In saying that, my recent medical issues have really prevented me from doing more. For 12 months they’ve compromised virtually everything—stability, core strength, and energy levels. Seeing as that accounts for about 50 percent of the time I've been involved in SUP, I am really keen to see what my body can do now that I am on the mend.
Recently, after 'ignoring warning signs' from your body, you had surgery to remove an ovarian cyst. Can you tell us about the warning signs you experienced and how your performance has been affected?
The warning signs were all there, but I blamed everything: genetics, hormones, aging, sugar, etc., rather than admit to myself there was something medically wrong. The lead up to Sayulita was when I first noticed I couldn't eat properly anymore, or, if I did I felt so uncomfortable I had to lie down. Hawaii was even worse: I had no energy, couldn't eat and there was no wind for the whole month! My arms and legs got skinnier and skinnier, but my belly kept getting bigger and bigger, and my weight kept climbing no matter how "clean” I ate. When they removed it, it accounted for ten percent of my body weight, so it pretty much affected everything!
Once cleared for activity, what kind of training will you do during recovery?
I am still waiting for the 'all clear' from my oncologist, but should there be no further treatment required I can start paddling again in early February. It's summer here in New Zealand and it feels like I'm in prison not being out on the water. The NZ Champs are on in February, three weeks after my intended return, so there will definitely be some cross-training to try and get ready for that, but you really can't beat time on the water, so from February 4th I will be out paddling after work every day!