Which sport is the most physically and mentally demanding?
It is difficult not to have a bias when trying to take an objective view on which sport requires the greatest amount of all-round strength and stamina. Added to any particular personal prejudice is also the need to define what you mean by 'all-round strength' and 'stamina'. Furthermore, surely it is a case of horses for courses and any attempt at comparison becomes irrelevant. However, you have to start somewhere when trying to answer this question and it is clear that some sports require far higher levels of generic strength, mental processing ability and stamina than others.
There are very obvious Darwinian differences.
While a marathon runner has undoubted stamina, the sprinter will have more muscle mass and impact power. Karate champions make instant decisions and can handle themselves in a fight, but may not be able to swim far or at speed. The weightlifter may be able to lift a truck, but cannot run too far or fast. How do you compare the explosive and tactical ability of the rugby player to the relentless demands required for sailing in storms, with a boat on its side, climbing masts and dodging icebergs?
Who is the strongest all-round uber athlete?
With any given physical activity is it a simple case of stronger and slower or weaker and faster? Or is there a particular sport that requires an all-round uber athlete? It doesn't stop at just the physical level either. Clearly while the body is under maximum stress with glucose being diverted to the muscles, cranial blood supply at point of black-out combined with extreme pain - this is going to be to the detriment of concurrent mental agility. Is it therefore important to also take into consideration the ability to think and 'option appraise' while under extreme pressure?
Many sports require clear strategic and tactical thinking to outwit opponents as well as deal with what the elements throw at them. As Dame Ellen MacArthur explains some sports also require the ability to handle complex systems, process data, make sense of it and understand likely outcomes. The price of getting any of it wrong is certain death. This example serves to make a point. Breaking the record for single-handed circumnavigation of the world when the closest other human company is someone in orbit is maybe too big an outlier for the purposes of this argument. But I hope the point is made nonetheless.
So you look at what others have suggested as the worlds fittest sports and you see lists that include badminton and softball and you try not to smile (too much). Don't get me wrong I am not suggesting that these sports do not require the highest levels of strength and fitness, because I know that they do. I also see sports such as rugby sevens and waterpolo included at the top, and a major part of me agrees that they should be ranked way up there. However, they do not compare in anyway with the combined athleticism, mental and physical strength required to race and win at windsurfing.
Why windsurfers are probably the top athletes
There are naturally a number of different windsurfing race classes, the fastest of these being slalom. World Champion Jenna Gibson (pictured) is currently the world's fastest female slalom sailor and is literally streaks ahead of the competition. Getting a windsurfer to go fast requires the ability to handle the largest possible sail in any conditions and despite any impact. This requires well-honed ability, knowledge of the craft combined with raw strength.
There is a specific need need for explosive and controlled power during high wind manoeuvres - involving the whole body. However, even when apparently plain sailing, a huge amount of aerobic stamina is required to maintain maximum speed. This is because higher velocities can be achieved through pumping the sail and via constant dynamic leg control to maintain board balance, sail trim and steering.
Windsurfing pioneer Graeme Fuller, the author of the seventies classic Let's go Windsurfing, a champion competitor himself and first person in the UK to master the waterstart, and who also helped the sport become an Olympic event told Total Health; "Most athletes from other disciplines accept that windsurfing is about the toughest sport". He says that a poll was carried out amongst all competitors at the Athens Olympics to find the lead athletes, and the over-arching opinion came back to the windsurfers.
As Ferdinando Loffreda further explains in 'Preparing your body for windsurfing' , "You are a piece of wire that transmits energy". He goes onto describe the necessity for full gym workouts, swimming training, running, cycling, but as all windsurfers know - there is no substitute for windsurf training than windsurfing itself. It has to be said that many windsurfers (mostly when the wind isn't blowing) will also do triathlons for fitness, play rugby for joy, do martial arts, run, swim and cycle for fun. Some have also been known to play softball.
Finding one's place in the world
So, for all-round raw strength, relentless endurance in all conditions, impact, mental agility and let us not forget 'fun', windsurfing is the obvious contender for the top slot. However, we must not forget that the sport has many aspects and is not just the privileged arena for the super-fit. In more gentle conditions and without the need to compete, windsurfing like other forms of sailing is spiritual exercise that restores a balance with nature. As the famous philosopher, Alan Watts says, "Sailing is Taoism in perfection". Or, as Dr Stirling says in his article Sailing for Recovery, "A leaf on the breeze has no intention of it’s own, it goes where the wind takes it. Similarly, a human being achieves nothing in opposition to natural forces. It is rather through a surrender to the elements and an allowance of the greater will that one finds one’s place in the world."
The greatest strength arises from natural synergy with the elements. Athletes who can master the complexities of the art art also acquire the highest all-round strength.