Sally Fitzgibbons - Surfing - AthletesVoice
Sally Fitzgibbons - Surfing - AthletesVoice


My real-life Rocky movie

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My real-life Rocky movie


I love my second places.


I look at the three of them and think, ‘Man, I was so close to being the champion of the world and I missed out.’


It was brilliant just to get there. But it was demoralising, too.


If I could chat to my 19-year-old self, it would be to say, ‘Calm down, get a bit more perspective and patience and don’t see failure as that big end-of-the-world type feeling.’


It took a while to rebound but now, when I look back, I’m happy to really use those second places as confidence.


Nineteen-year-old me would definitely have seen things differently. She’d have said, ‘Are you kidding? That was the moment! You were going to be the champion of the world! Isn’t that everything?’


When you’re so immersed in it, everything you do in the sport is like everything that defines you.


So it’s about decoupling it now, because there are so many crossovers in surfing. It’s a competitive endeavour for me, but every surfer will attest that it’s also this spiritual connection to the ocean.


Every surfer gets drawn back to the water because it’s a reflection of whatever emotion you’re feeling at the time.


I spend every day in the water. It’s like a true companion, the ocean. It’s unconditional love. I mean it. From when it’s stormy and ten-foot of mess and wash to the most groomed, picturesque days: I get to appreciate it in all of its moods. It’s brought so much to my life.


But, in the competition sense, it always reflects back where you are at in that stage of your life and how much you can deal with at the time. The pressure moments are only there because of something meaningful to me and the 18 women on tour.


The fact they – we – are all wanting to become world champion is what makes the stakes so high.





I used to watch the Rocky films on repeat. This is like my own movie.


I’m leading the World Surf League going into the last event of the year. So, it’s like I’m coming into the crescendo of any movie – but this story is mine.


I think about winning. Especially going into next week, I’d say it pops into my mind every couple of minutes at event time and maybe every ten minutes in my daily life.


It might just be the smallest thing that sparks it. Every morning when I wake up, I’ve surrounded myself with one element so as not to lose that connection or thought process of where I’m at on tour.


So every day I have some element – whether it’s a favourite board in the corner, or a jersey, or some moment from an event that’s inspired me – that’s pretty much in my vision or right next to me when I wake up. Just to normalise them.


When I was younger I almost had a defensive reaction to succeeding, so I’m making myself feel OK with the fact that I’m ready to be in that position.


Nerves are a privilege.


Pressure just means you’re on the right track, you’re close to something. I have the most fun when it’s backs-against-the-wall and it’s the most challenging. That’s one of my strengths.


To be at home for a few weeks where it’s most grounding and just to be connected to my home breaks is brilliant for my preparation. We have such a big stint away in America and Europe and you’re really switched on for eight weeks straight.


You can’t shake it. You can’t not think about it. You’re waking up every morning and packing your kit bag, so to get home and actually have a block to say, ‘This is training, purely to better myself, get that added power, more strength,’ means I can go to Hawaii feeling kind of fresh.


It’s pure bliss when they clear the line-up and you’re just left there in your jersey, with your opponent. It’s something that’s hugely rewarding for a surfer, for people to groom the line-up and it’s just your own canvas. That calmness and enjoying the time in the jersey has been the big difference for me this year.


As a person, it’s really cool to feel that growth. I’ve felt that in the most pressured moments this year I’ve been unwavering, whereas I didn’t have that strength in previous years.


The closer you get to something you really want, you’re bound to run into a few emotional barriers. That’s the fun of it for me.


I’m embracing it instead of shutting the door and pretending it’s not there. I’m quite happy to feel those feelings now and that comes more from a drive for those internal rewards.


To win the title is obviously a massive external one, but there was a lot of growth that had to happen this year to even have this opportunity.





As a kid, I’d be with my brothers in the surf. I’d pretend there were 10 minutes to go and I’d be trying to get this wave to win the world championship.


I was eight, nine, ten and I was a pretty small kid, so it was a pretty far-fetched scenario.


But subconsciously I always had that pathway in place, and then committing to it as I got older was pretty awesome. It’s hugely rewarding to look back on how far I’ve come, and it’s purely from having that inner belief for all those years.


The time I came closest was 2014 – the last title that Steph Gilmore won. Just like this year, there were a lot of different scenarios going into Maui, and I went into a quarter-final heat and missed a score in the end by a 0.1.


It was kind of crazy to go through the whole year and miss it by so little. Afterwards, I just paddled off into the abyss, into the bay, just disappeared and had a little time to myself.


If I could chat to my 19-year-old self, it would be to say, ‘Calm down, get a bit more perspective and patience and don’t see failure as that big end-of-the-world type feeling.’


No doubt it took time to rebuild, but I’m in a much stronger place now, and I get quite excited by those pressure moments because you get your next clue on how you want to work and build on that. But whatever happens, by no means do I see this as a finish line.


I’m 26. It’s a crazy, crazy opportunity at this point in my career.


I’ve overcome seemingly insurmountable things in my career, like my burst eardrum or when I cut my foot. I definitely thrive when things feel impossible.


I try to be pure in the surfing that’s authentic for me. I’m not trying to surf like anyone else any more. As a kid you’re trying to surf like the greats; you want to emulate Layne or Steph or whoever’s been before you, but then you find your own groove, the purity of your own performance.


You just want to surf like you.


That feeling you get when you are so stoked to be in the water ?? ?: @ymke

A post shared by Sally Fitzgibbons (@sally_fitz) on




Wave choices are funny things. You can be a couch coach and go, ‘Why did you pick that one?’ But you were seeing something at the time and just backing yourself.


In Fiji, there was one moment where I was up against Tatiana Weston-Webb in the semi-final and I felt like I surfed a really structured, sound heat for what the conditions were doing. I had priority and I looked at this wave and it just didn’t seem like the wave that I needed or wanted to catch.


I didn’t take it, and she ended up getting the score by such a slight margin.


I sat out there and the heat ended and there wasn’t another wave for about 45 minutes and I was thinking to myself, ’Hmmm, what are the chances of that? That that one came at that time?’ 


It made it really present that there are so many things out of my control. It was one of those A-ha! moments where I’m like, ‘The ocean really is gonna do its thing.’ After all these years, I wasn’t upset with myself.


That was just the decision I made. I backed my instincts and she surfed her way to the score.


It’s hard when you’re actually in the moment to move on so quickly, but I sat out there and I was like, ‘Well, to be in this title hunt you have to move on quickly’. And I did that really well in the European leg, just accepted the result and let go.


That midway part of the year was that defining moment where I could have been, ‘Not again!’ and got a bit down on myself. I was proud that I didn’t.


It’s a sport built on experience. You’ve got to go through the situation and the experience to then be able to critique it, coach it, learn from it.


I’ve overcome seemingly insurmountable things in my career, like my burst eardrum or when I cut my foot. I definitely thrive when things feel impossible.


There are also patterns and feeling and instinct. The greats always talk about their intuition and their connection with the ocean. It’s just time in it and awareness in it. Obviously everybody’s got that crazy natural ability. That’s why they are on tour.


There’s this image of surfers that we’re always hanging out under coconut trees with guitars and singing around the bonfire together. But surfing has got the same attributes as the other elite sports – all the hunger, the desire, the aggression, the energy around an event is at the other end of the scale to the spiritual element.


The Bay is the ultimate pressure cooker. You’re left in your own space for ten or 15 minutes between sets, sometimes, and it’s whoever is most comfortable in their own space. Sometimes you just get one opportunity – but that’s no different to a sprinter flying halfway around the world for their ten seconds.


It’s all in those moments.


No where I'd rather be than in the big Blue?❤

A post shared by Sally Fitzgibbons (@sally_fitz) on




If you haven’t really tuned into surfing, this is pretty much like the Super Bowl ending.


It’s rare that there are so many possible world champions – five! – going into the last event. There’s a lot of scenarios and they’re all super-exciting.


There are years where I’ve shut myself off from all that, but my desire is to win the event and to win the title. I want to surf every wave to my capabilities, be at my best, surf all the way through and hopefully win the event.


The world champions have alternated each year for the past decade or so. When I was getting all my second places, the third placegetter was just kind of skipping over the top of me, like a hurdler. So, the champion was changing, they were exchanging titles, and I was sort of in the mix each time.


It’s interesting, because I feel like I was part of most of their titles. I can remember where I was and what I was doing each time.


Seeing someone like Tyler Wright win last year was a fresh face and it’s good for the sport because it symbolises how many amazing champion surfers there are on this tour – and the one who does believe and uses all their energy to keep on the path all year is so deserving of the title.


If I win, I can’t wait to feel what that would be like, but it’s not something I can try to predict. I can see it, and feel it, but it’s almost like a good surprise party.


I just want to be in the moment, so that if it arises I can just feel what I want to feel. From what I’ve seen from the past champions, it’s pretty extraordinary. You won’t forget it.


If 19-year-old me was watching, she’d say, ‘I told you so. I told you if you just hang on there and just want to learn from these experiences instead of putting your head in the sand, then you can make it.’


But I had to pull my head out of the sand, and want to grow and learn. And I have.





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