Life has been wild ride for Penelope Armstrong, the 38-year-old from Devonport who overcame a major health scare to win the world stand-up paddle boarding title in Fiji last week.

The former nationally-rated freestyle swimmer has a wide ranging CV which includes a battle with the bottle, a life spent hurtling around the globe, a Las Vegas wedding, and even a brush with the mob. Armstrong, the national sales manager for an Onehunga-based food importer, chats about her life and the rise of paddle boarding which she predicts will join the likes of skating and surfing in the Olympics.

Congratulations on the world title...

I totally claimed it with a fist pump at the finish...I was on cloud nine.


Tell us about your gold medal event.

It was the technical match racing in sailing, on a 4km course which takes about 20 minutes. It can be aggressive - there is a saying, rubbing is racing. People crash and bash into you. I had a bit of contact with the French girl (silver medallist Olivia Piana) in the final.

You overcame major health odds...

I was third in the world championships in Mexico last year but was exhausted and noticed I looked pregnant in photos. It was an ovarian tumour, 7kg, the size of a rugby ball. It was a grey area - not cancer but not benign. I had the first major operation on December 4 and turned up to the March nationals in a fair bit of pain and unfit. I hadn't been able to train since August but finished second. A week before they were leaving for Fiji, the girl who qualified first pulled out and they offered me a user pays trip. I needed another operation in late April, and I've got to have a hysterectomy next year.

Did you fear for your life?

I had multiple meltdowns, and called my mum crying which was tough on her because she's had cancer several times. It (death) goes through your head, but I never feared I was going to die.

25 Nov, 2016 8:30am
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Travel looms large in your life from an early age...

My older brother and sister got a great world tour, but I was too young to remember much. We lived in South Africa and England for a year each, I remember bits of Greece, snake charmers in mum and dad had a big canvas bag and I would hang in the middle of them.

And you remained a traveller...

A friend was on super yachts in Europe and said I should come over. I told her I couldn't - a shopping problem meant I spent all my money on clothes. She suggested I go to the Australian outback because there aren't any shops there. So I did for four years, working as a jillaroo, in cotton fields, as a potato grader, watermelon picker. I ended up in Hillston and worked for the mafia in their vineyards, a guy called Pat Sergi...

Moving on...

...then I ran away to France, and joined the super yachting industry for seven years as a chef. It was a rock and roll lifestyle...I was doing a bottle of vodka a day in the last year. You make so much money it is hard to walk away, but I knew I needed to stop doing all that stuff.

Can you spill the beans...any famous super yacht guests? Who were your favourites?

My favourites were people you have never heard of. Of the famous ones, the only genuinely nice person who wasn't a real disappointment was (Hollywood star) Penelope Cruz. She was down to earth, very caring. Put it this way - I have never watched a Nicole Kidman or Denzel Washington movie again.

How did you discover paddle boarding?

I was working for a brewery in late 2013 who had free tickets to the Takapuna beach series...they still hold them on Tuesday nights, with up to 800 people turning up. That's where it started for me. My brother had given me a really old lungs hurt, my arms were falling off, and I thought this is fantastic. I became obsessed, wanted to compare myself to the top women. A few months in I met John "Armie" Armstrong...

Your husband to be...

He's a legend in the paddle board community. We married in October last year, in Las Vegas, just after I was diagnosed with the tumour. We couldn't afford the Elvis ceremony...we got the $75 el cheapo job.

Is there something you would change in paddle boarding?

It's a professional sport overseas. The girls who came second and third (from France and the USA) get funding from their federations, sponsorship deals, prize-money. It will get into the Olympics, although it won't be people like me who go. It will be kids who are 10 or 12 now. It's one of the fastest growing sports in the world and huge in America and Europe. They have amazing youth training programmes and I hope we don't miss the boat. High performance funding is not available to people like me or Sam Shergold, who is in his early 20s and won gold in Fiji. The country hasn't realised there is more to life than a handful of sports.

You sound so confident about Olympic status...

Competing organisations are trying to take it over internationally. The canoe federation wants paddle boarding on rowing lakes, a 200m flatwater sprint. Surfing wants it in their new wave pools, for it to be a surf race, a technical race. I don't know what format it will be, but it will get into the Olympics, probably in 2024.