Episode 31: Maxime Jonker – Sailing, Success and Pursuing Greatness | Maxime Jonker – Team Portera

In this episode, Waleed Siraj sits down with Maxime Jonker. Maxime is a world-class sailor that competes in the ILCA6 class, with a 1x World Championship Medal and a 2x European Championship Medal to her name. They talk about her journey, where she comes from, how she defines success and her ambitions for the future.

Waleed’s Q&A with Maxime

 In today’s Q&A, we’re joined by Maxime Jonker. Maxime is a world class sailor in the Laser Radial, and is part of team Portera. Having won silver at the European Championships in 2018, silver at the World Cup in 2020, and silver at the European Championships in 2021, she now has one goal in mind – gold at the next World Championship in Argentina. Here, we talk about Maxime’s journey, where she comes from, competitive sailing, and what it takes to compete at an elite level.


W: Welcome, Maxime. Can we start with how you would describe yourself. Who is Maxime

M: I would say I’m a very social and hardworking girl with big dreams and big ambitions. Smiley, happy – most of the time.

W: Can you tell me about where you grew up, where you come from, your family background, the nature of this happy, smiley girl.

M: I grew up in a family of six. I have three sisters, two older ones and one younger. So there were a lot of girls in the household. I’m very lucky to have grown up where I grew up. I was able to sail, which wasn’t common as there’s not much water there, in the middle or eastern part of the Netherlands. But we had a holiday house in Loosdrecht where there are lakes so I could sail. I was always happy to be around water because it was either during holidays or at the weekend. It was a happy place. I always had my older sisters to look up to, and I just wanted to be as good as them or get as far as them in life. And I still had my younger sister, if my older sisters were acting too old. I could still be a little kid with my younger one.

W: Was someone in the family already into sailing? Who got you into it?

M: Yeah, my father. We got the holiday house from my grandparents – his parents. He knew how to sail, and he taught us how to sail. But he wasn’t a racer. He taught us a little bit and he put us in a boat. My mother was absolutely not a sailor and still isn’t. It was just about having fun then, more of a holiday activity. When I choose to do something, I want to be really good at it. I’ve had that since I was a kid. When I got to a certain level, I knew I was good at sailing and I started to do some races at the club. I think I was around nine or 10 years old. That’s where it started to be competitive. We went to national races and that’s where my life changed. Around age 13, I was doing it as an elite sport and my life was all about sailing.

W: Was there a point when knew this is what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?

M: I also did gymnastics and as I said, I wanted to be good at everything. I was doing that for a lot of hours as well. During high school, I also had to cycle an hour there and back.With school work and gymnastics and sailing at the weekend, there wasn’t really a life left. So I had to choose. My parents let me choose sport and I told them that I wanted to continue sailing because I would still have a chance to get to the Olympics. In sailing, you get good at it by building up experience whereas in gymnastics, you have to reach the top level while you’re still young. Some Olympic gymnasts are 16 years old.That was the first time I had mentioned the Olympics to my parents. That’s where it really started.

W: If you had you grown up playing a different sport, like hockey or tennis or football, do you think you would be trying to get into the Olympics for that? Do you think it’s the sport itself or the nature of the person you are that gave you that competitive drive?

M: It didn’t come from my family as none of them are athletic, so it’s just something that was in me. Even as a child, I was so eager to learn stuff and to be good at stuff. Sometimes I wish it was another sport, when sailing isn’t as fun as I thought it would be.

W:. OK. Can you describe sailing for me?

M: It’s a combination of all sort of aspects. You have your physical part, you have the tactical part, strategy and your technique. It’s a very technical sport, about small details. You want the boat to go as fast as possible But you have competitors and wind and water and current and waves to deal with. It’s actually like chess, but outdoors and physical, which is so cool. It’s every sport combined. We have to be strong, and smart, and use both of those things at the same time. And we are outdoors having an adventure.

W: The way I understand the class of sailing that you’re in, it’s very much equal in terms of what is possible. It’s not about the equipment. The conditions are different almost every time. How do you define the nature versus nurture aspect of sailing? Are there people who are born with a naturally ability for it? Or is this something you develop over the years, gaining experience?

M: I think you have two types of sailors, to be honest. I think I developed it. I’m more of a physical sailor. I really like the physical part of the sport. I’m quite strong and I really like going to the gym and doing my cycling sessions. The strength and conditioning part of sailing I really love. But there are also sailors who have a really good feeling for the boat and where to go. Bart and Odile are two sailors who were born with it. I’m just a very hard worker and developed it myself. It can work both ways. You develop that feeling over time as well. But for me, it’s hard to follow my gut. I want to think it through and understand why I’m doing something. For example, if I want to go left in an upwind, it has to make sense. I want to have an explanation for it. But some people just feel that they have to go left. I don’t have that feeling.

W: That’s interesting because I think most sailors lean towards the feeling side of it. But you rely more on the physical things that are in your control. I imagine that can affect your mindset – if you work harder, if you go to the gym more, if you get on the boat more, if you are physically more capable, then you can be a better sailor.But people who operate from that sense of feeling, that’s a difficult thing to train. You get that through being in competition, being in multiple Olympics, for example. Do you feel you’re more in control of becoming a better sailor by focusing on the physical side?

M: Yeah, but it’s also a flaw. I’m the kind of person that thinks if I work hard enough, everything will work out. If I do my best, I will win. But that’s not how it works. Definitely not in sailing. You can do your best. You can train as hard in the gym as you like. But if you’re in a World Championship and there’s zero or very light winds, then it’s not about physical strength anymore. It’s hard because you have to be perform well on that one day that can happen. You want to have a good average. It annoys me when there’s no winds and I’ve trained super hard. That part is out of your control. In fact, the only thing you can control is your own body. You want to be as strong as possible and as fit as possible. I like to have that part ticked off, so I don’t have to worry about it. I also focus on the mental side because sailing is quite a mental sport. You’re always going to make some mistakes and during a World Championship, it’s about how few mistakes you make. I think my work attitude has really helped me get to where I am right now. But I do struggle sometimes.

W: Can you describe your sailing class and then why you chose it?

M: I’m sailing in the ILKA 6, which used to be called Laser Radial. It’s a single person dingy so I’m sailing alone. I have one sail. I do everything. I’m helm, but I’m also crew. I have to work hard, but I also have to work smart. Most kids start in an Optimist, which is also a single handed boat. You do that until age 13 or 14 and then you grow out of it, because it’s a very small boat. When you’re in high school, it’s already hard to balance sailing and school life and your social life. So I just thought it would be easier to sail on my own. Then I only have to worry about myself and my own schoolwork. I was also afraid that someone else wouldn’t want to work as hard as I wanted to.

W: You wanted to keep control.

M:  Yes, it just seemed like an easy choice. The laser is quite a physical boat and I thought I had good potential to become a good Laser sailor. I like to steer a boat but I also like to do the hard work. In most double handed boats, it gets split up. You have the crew doing the hard work, and then you have the helm, who is steering. I wanted to do both. So that’s actually why I went to the Laser.

W: In your case, there are already lots of variables to take care of while you’re sailing. Having to trust another person to work as hard as you are, that’s a whole different experience. Have you ever thought about doing another class?

M: Yes, I did one Worlds in the 49er FX, actually. I was in a crew of three. Winning with two other people is more fun, and losing with two is easier because you can help each other through it. So, I’ve thought about switching a lot. But I started this journey in the Laser and I just want to finish it off with a gold medal. I’ve had some offers from people in double handed boats. I’ve given it a try, and I really like learning new stuff. That would be a positive about switching classes right now. The Laser is very basic, but it’s about little details. And it’s also the biggest class on Earth, because it’s the least expensive one and it’s quite easy to get into. At a Worlds, we have 100 girls at the start line. There are around 200 boys. It makes the racing so much fun. When you’re good in the Laser, you’re a very good sailor, which is a cool reward too. It’s sometimes quite boring though because we actually go quite slowly. It’s hard work and it hurts your legs and abs. I see others flying by and these days other boats are using foils, and I feel lame in my Laser. But the racing aspect is so cool. It’s not about your own speed – it’s about going faster than the others. I would love to have that steep learning curve again. When I switch boats, I will have that and I will be so much fun because I love learning new stuff. But eventually, the learning curve will be flatter and then it just becomes about the details again. I’ve always said that if I win a gold medal or any medal in the Laser, I will try to do the same in another boat.

W: What’s the most important thing while you’re sailing? You’ve described it as a chess game on water. Is there one main that you focus on or is it really just an adapting game where you get on the water and you solve it on the spot.

M: There are always a few things you look at before the race. For example, the start line. The race committee puts the start line perpendicular to the wind, but the wind shifts. So sometimes it’s a bit skewed and you have a biased side of the line. You want to sail the shortest way possible so you would start on that side. Wind shifts in patterns. So sometimes before the race you can tell that it’s two minutes to the left and then it switches to the right. When it’s going to the right, then the right side of the line is better. You’re always looking out for patterns like that. On the course, sometimes the marker is not in the middle where it should be, but it’s more to the right or the left. Those are the easiest things to focus on because everything else is changing, like the waves and the wind. You want to focus on the things that are solid. The markers are the most solid. You sometimes have some influence from the land, too. When the course is near the land, that has impact on the wind. So if there is land nearby, you ask yourself what impact it could have. Those are the things you can talk about before the race. There’s also your technique. When you know how much wind there is, you know how you want your trim to be. During the race you have 50 other people who want to get to the marker as fast as possible so you don’t want to be looking at your trim anymore. That should be set before the race.

W: Once it starts, there are a lot of things that you have to keep in mind that you have to constantly adapt to. Tell me a little bit about what you’re now currently working towards. What’s your big goal and how do you plan on getting there?

M: The big goal is Paris 2024 and I’m in the middle of trials right now. We just had the Worlds in the Hague. That was the first bit of our trials and I’ve already been selected for the country and qualified. But only one girl can enter the ILKA 6 class. The last part is trials, which is the hardest part. For Tokyo, I ticked the other two boxes as well, but I lost trials. Now we’re in the battle again. The last event is the Worlds in Argentina. It starts on the 5th of January. Normally our Worlds are in summer but in an Olypmic year, they move the Worlds to the winter and this one is in Argentina. We don’t have any races in between. So it’s Worlds back to back. But sailing is about experiencing, and you want to do races to learn more and get better at it. It’s super hard to train for race conditions. You never have 50 boats on the start line unless you’re in an actual race. I didn’t do well at the last Worlds, so I’ve been feeling insecure and want to do better. My goal is to win the Worlds. It’s out of my hands now because Merit Baumeister, my competitor from the Netherlands, she did better than me in the other Worlds. It’s now about points and she can finish it off in Argentina. I just need to do the best I can and wish for the best. I’ve always dreamed of going to the Olympics and it’s still a big dream of mine, but it’s also about being the best sailor in the world. Winning the World Championships may actually be harder than winning the Olympics because there are more top sailors there. It’s a super cool event to compete in, to represent my country and to be able to win a medal.

W: I hope it works out for you. Like you said, it’s about doing the best you can. If things are meant to be, then they will be. What does the preparation look like? You must have a lot of travel, a lot of training, and you have to balance that with sleep, different foods than you’re used to. How do you adapt to different lifestyles and this constant moving around?

M: There’s also a lot of traveling within Europe, which isn’t a big culture shock and there aren’t big time differences. For example, I just got back from Lanzarote, which is a four hour flight. I’m home for a week and then I fly  to the south of Portugal on Saturday where we have a little regatta. You get used to it. Packing and unpacking is easy. I just go through what I’ll wear on the water, what I’ll wear on the shore. I sometimes bring food from home, especially sport nutrition, but also spreads like peanut butter, or some bars that I really like. Sometimes I bring a mattress or a topper for my bed. That’s hard when you have to fly but when we travel with our boats through Europe, you can pack a lot of stuff.

W: Do you travel by boat?

M: No, we have a van with a trailer that has the coach boat on it, and our Lasers on top of that. You can put a lot of personal stuff in it, but when we fly it’s different. I’ve done it for so many years, it’s normal. I also bring my vitamins, especially in the winter. season. You really don’t want to get sick, so we’re more careful with shaking hands, hugs. We don’t go to crowded rooms and we don’t want to fly too much. Those are the things we think about.

W: How do you deal with the mental and physical pressures that come with it? You have a coach and your support system of friends and family but when you get on that boat, it’s just you and your brain. How do you cope with it? Do you have something that works for you?

M: Mental strength is the most important thing in sailing. Everyone knows how to sail the boat. Everyone knows how to train hard and work hard. But to perform well at the Worlds or the Olympics, that’s the hardest part. I have a coach and I also have teammates to train with, so we can compare our speeds. I’m actually training with my biggest competitors, because those are the ones I want to beat for that Olympic ticket. But we also want to help each other to raise the level, so we can get to medal standard. For me personally, I work with a mental coach. I think it’s super important to do it and to learn from it as well. It’s quite a difficult subject. And races are always different, so it’s hard to perform at the moments you want to perform. I always wanted to do well and even in training, I’m comparing myself with others a lot. You can have a good day. But if I haven’t done better than someone else, it can feel like a shit day. That’s something I really had to work on because you can’t control others. Maybe you both had a good day and maybe that’s the fastest the boat can go. In our sport, you can win the World Championships without winning a single race. You just have to be good six days in a row. Good is sometimes good enough. But in my brain, I always have to beat someone. That’s something I’m working on, trying to be satisfied with the little things. It’s quite a journey sometimes. Sometimes I’ll have something in my head but my coach doesn’t know what I’m thinking thinking. If I think something stupid and it to myself, it can become a big thing. So I have to share it. It’s about finding balance, how to work with it. The mental part is the coolest part of elite sports, I think. The traveling is nice and to being on the ocean is super cool, of course. But to be able to learn from yourself and to get to know yourself better in an environment where every day counts, that’s what I love about sports. Every day you’re in an environment where you have to perform your best, otherwise you’ll get beaten by your teammates or another competitor. That’s what makes it so challenging. Mental issues will come up and you have the choice to learn from them. You have that in the business world as well, but you have to look for it. You have to put yourself in spot where you get challenged. You could work from nine to five and go home of course. But in sailing you don’t have a choice. It’s just it gets thrown at you. When I look back at all the things I’ve learned from this sport, it’s so cool. They’ve made me the person I am today. That’s what I really love about this lifestyle.

W: What I’ve learned about competitive sailing is that you have to be consistently good. This isn’t a Champions League final where if you do well in that one match, you get the trophy. You can get first place in one race. But if you don’t do well in the other five or six, then it doesn’t matter because the points get accumulated. How do you stay consistent?

M: That’s a good question. It was my biggest flaw, to be honest. I was either magic, I did things that I were so good. And then another day, I could be really average. Then my average became very bad. Really, you want to do the same every day, and don’t worry about doing something magical. It’s harder than it sounds.

W: Especially for someone who wants to keep improving every single day, right?

M: Yes, and you need to train like that. You have to do your best every day. If your best is not as good as someone else, that’s fine. But you need to be the best version of yourself. You also have to step out of your ego, and learn from others. You might need to ask someone how they did this downwind. What were their settings? That can be very vulnerable if they’re your direct competitors. But that’s how you become consistent. You have to learn from your mistakes and your flaws and then be good at what you’re good at. But don’t try to look for magic or be super good. In racing, you can go for the corner with the chance of being first to the top marker by 100 meters. But it’s not judged on time. You only get one point for first and then two points for coming second etc,. It doesn’t matter if you win by one second or a whole minute. On the other hand, you can get so far behind, you can’t catch up. It can be all or nothing, and it’s also like this in training. I’m not saying you want to aim to be average. You want to push it. You want to become better at certain skills. Try to practice every day as if was the last day of your Worlds. But don’t throw away a bad day. Embrace it and see it as a challenge because you’re probably going to have a bad day in a six day championship. It doesn’t matter if you’re feeling positive or negative, it’s about what you deliver. Everyone wants to feel good of course, and feel secure. I’m learning to get better at that as well. But my biggest struggle is just be average every day.

W: Earlier you mentioned how being in control and being able to understand what you’re doing is really important. You don’t have many pieces of equipment on the boat that you’re racing. But there’s a lot of data being collected that you can use to analyze the race later on, and we’re now working on that with the Sailing Innovation Center. Does the data help you? When I spoke with Annette and Odile, they found it helpful but the data didn’t always match what they were feeling in the boat. How do you see it?

M: I really like the data from racing. For example, with the start line, you can’t actually see it on the water. There’s an imaginary line you want to cross at zero seconds. You might feel you went over it too early and you need to be more patient next time. When you look at the tracking, you were three boat lengths behind it. But the boats around you were also late and you were comparing yourself to them because that’s the only thing you have at the time. At the other end of the line, people actually crossed on time. So you’re already three boat lengths behind at the beginning of the race, which makes it super hard to then get to the front. When you see the data, you can make a picture of it in your head with the feeling you had at that point and the data that shows you were behind. Data is data. It’s black and white. You know we’re too late, which makes it easy to be better in the next race. I really like that part. Sometimes there’s so much going on in a race. When I’m in the middle of the fleet and I’m trying to gain on some boats, my eyes are have to be on something in my boat and I have no idea what’s going on. There are 50 boats flying everywhere and it’s hard to get an overview. The tracking shows what your path was and where there was more space on the race course. It really helps you do better next time. That’s how the data really helps me. I sail with a compass but sometimes you’re not allowed to have that in a race. Data shows the heeling and how fast you’re going and information like that. In the swell and the waves, it’s hard to see if your boat is flat or not. If the data shows you’re heeling, you can’t really argue with that. You can trust it. Even a coach is sometimes hard to trust because there are emotions involved.  If they say I was late starting, I want a video to show it. But if you’re late, you’re probably not even on the video, because if he was filming from the side, he couldn’t even see you. So that’s where data helps.

W: Tell me about the future. What’s the big vision? Beyond the Olypmics, what do you see for yourself in the next five years, and the next 10 years?

M: I’m not sure yet. The goal was always Paris 2024. It was Tokyo 2020, and then it was 2024. I’m 28 now and I used to think that when I’m 30 or 29, I’ll start my proper career. But I’m still learning so much, about myself and the mental aspects I talked about. I might not get that in another environment. It makes me question stopping after 2024. I’m still quite young and I’m still eager to work very hard and to learn. That being said, I’m not sure if I would do another campaign in the Laser. Maybe this is the time to switch boats. But there are so many questions because the trial is still going on. It makes it hard to confirm anything yet. There’s also the America’s Cup in October 2024, where I’ll be sailing in a team. I really like training and performing in a team. In my training team nowadays, it’s a battle because you’re a teammate, but you’re also competitors, which makes the environment pretty different sometimes. There’s a love hate relationship between the teammates. Now, when I’m training for the America’s Cup and I’m with those other three girls, we have the same goal. It’s making me think I might be ready for a double handed boat. I’m actually still studying but I paused my studies three or four years ago. I’m studying maritime engineering, so I will continue with that. Then we’ll see what happens.

W: There’s a long way to go, right? And there are so many different things you can still do within sailing itself. There’s so much variety. I don’t think it’s time to call it quits yet if it’s something you love and enjoy doing.Maxime, what is happiness for you?

M: The easy one is winning, but I know now that winning is just short term. Short term dopamine. I think what makes me happy is when I see the progress I’m making, not just sailing, but as a person. For example, in relationships with a partner, with parents. Sometimes I look from above and I see myself growing and that makes me happy. Being able to learn something makes me happy.

W: That’s a great place to end. So thanks a lot, Maxime. I wish you best of luck for January in Argentina, which is going to be very interesting. I hope you make it, but even if you don’t, it’s all about giving your best, which I know you will. Thanks for talking today.

M: You’re welcome.