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


What I’ve learned about determination

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What I’ve learned about determination


Determination. Mum says she saw it in me first.


We’d go down to the beach every afternoon. It’s about 250 metres from home along the grassy headland, and one day when mum was walking me in the pram, I hopped out and said, ‘No, I make my own way to the beach’, and I pushed my pram up the hills, with my little boogie board in it. 


They’re pretty steep hills – I don’t know how I did it! 


I’ve got three older brothers, and if the boys were doing something, I’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s what you do’. So you’re just in the background plotting away, I guess, plotting your next move.


One of my first memories of overcoming challenges was when I was a little runner. You’d run for your primary school, then regionals, then state.


As an eight-year-old, my training was to run a lap of our back oval, which is a really hilly, shonky, up-and-down 400 metres. I’d think I was Cathy Freeman because I’d just burn around the back grass, doing a lap. Maybe even two. After that, I’d be, ‘Phew, that was pretty good. I’m ready to do the cross country’. Yeah, that was it.


I had a little bit of the natural-talent thing happening in those early years to get towards state titles, but there was this defining moment when I was about 12 and I was training more than I ever imagined I possibly could.


I was doing tougher sessions, every day. So I thought, ‘Ok, I’ve got this’. And I went to state and I got, like, 50th, and I was like, ‘That’s pretty far back, there’s tumbleweeds coming around the corner with me’. Then I was like, ‘Man, OK, I’ve gotta work harder’.


The sessions increased and I pushed myself and I went back the next year and I got like 57th. I thought, ‘Oooooh, that sucks, that’s not super-cool either!’. At that moment, my mum said, ‘You don’t have to keep doing this if you’re not into it’.


‘Nah, I got this,’ I replied.


So I went away and trained harder.


The next time, I tripped over on the start, rolled around in the gravel, got back up and thought, ‘No, that’s not the end of me’, and finished the course, and came 11th. And I was like, ‘I’m doing this, I’m doing this!’. I just kept discovering myself, what I needed in my system to push towards the goal I’d set. I wanted to get on the dais.


And so it went on. Each year I went back. It was a gradual process I went through. Eventually, I ended up on top of the podium, and became a bit of a keen runner, represented Australia, and I think that kind of channelled the determination that I still have inside me today.




going all-in

Athletics was the benchmark experience for all the sports I tried – surfing being the last left standing now. It’s kind of crazy what you radiate as a competitor. Sometimes you don’t really feel it until you step out of it.


I’ve seen the people who gravitate towards me and the stories they tell me, and the love and the warmth and the fact they’re cheering me on.


Every day in the surf, no matter where I am, it’s almost like the more obstacles I face, the bigger this wave of support. I think people can relate to my story. They kind of go, ‘I feel that’s ours’. They give me a pick-me-up at times when I feel like, ‘Ok, oooh, this is a bit of a grind, and it doesn’t feel great to lose or bow out in round two’, or any of these little bits.


But the overall perspective is that I’m proud of how I must carry myself. That’s reflected by the fans and the people who have come with me on this journey for 10 years. It’s what they tell me through their stories and how they relate to what I do.


Going through school and sport, I always had to have the processes in place. I never showed up and just went, ‘Oh, I’ll see what happens, I haven’t really trained for this or thought about it; I’ll just have a go’. I was in there, all-in.


Even if I got a sniff or a whiff of something that was three months away I was like, ‘Right, OK, what are we doing here? I need to get these sessions in, and once they’re in and locked and loaded, then I can be free as a bird. No matter what happens in that race or surf event, it doesn’t matter because I have tried my best’.


I didn’t like the feeling of not applying myself – that I wasn’t trying my best.



redefining ‘reward’

I love riding my own internal waves. Everything does seem like, ‘Whoa, I feel like I’ve been through a lot to get to this point’, and it’s almost like you want to tip over the edge to say, ‘I feel like I deserve something, deserve some reward.’ That’s the human system you’re brought up on: you do something good, you get rewarded for it.


What I’ve loved about my journey is redefining for myself what reward is. In your younger years you’d say, ‘I didn’t win a trophy. I didn’t come first. I didn’t get a reward’. And then it became so apparent to me that, ‘Right, to be in this system and to be in a sport at the top level, what I do as a challenge and a job day-to-day, I find that I’m really heavily rewarded’.


The experiences I’ve had, and the people I’ve met, for me that’s redefining what that reward may look like. It’s ingrained in us that every event is key, so you go into every event with the goal of winning. It’s a very narrow focus.


So every time I might get forced into the box of feeling that way or tearing myself down over just one heat or just one 30-minute snapshot, or all my confidence layers peel back and I go, ‘I’m so vulnerable, I don’t know if I can do this, because I’m feeling the pressure’, I have to go, ‘Oh, that’s only a moment’.


I have to go way broader and look at what I have done and what I have been rewarded for. And I’m like, ‘Man, I get rewarded every single day’. So it’s just redefining what it looks like.


No matter what happens in that race or surf event, it doesn’t matter because I have tried my best.


What happened at Honolua Bay last year, it’s just a moment in time. When it becomes just the fabric of your DNA of your journey-as-self, as the athlete/competitor, it strengthens you, because I didn’t give it the opportunity to define me.


Everyone else has to create the story in their mind of what they’ve watched. They may see it and go, ‘She’s missed the world title again, or she’s been hard done by, or she deserves to win it’. But I just feel like everyone on the Tour deserves to win it. Every one of my opponents, they’re going through their paces, and they want to improve and perform. That’s just the game.


So I just put it down to a moment, and I’m definitely better off for it. I feel my surfing has evolved and it’s getting to such a cool place that it’s really exciting to go into the water – even for every practice session.


If I didn’t evolve and I had a similar process to my first few years on tour, for sure I could see myself maybe being burnt out and not being in the zone. I’m really still in the zone. I show up to these events and I love being around my competitors; I love being in the environment and seeing what it takes.


The best thing is I’ve learnt to be able to take my jersey off. You wear it around all day, your hypothetical ‘jersey’. You’re thinking next heat, or next location, and it’s not easy, but I’ve learnt to take the jersey off and be able to catch up with my friends and not be thinking of that one wave that I might have surfed and made a different decision, because they’re the bits that can definitely tire you out.


From my level of feeling and engagement and what this sport gives me and what the lifestyle gives me, I’m very fulfilled. I can see how you get to Mick Fanning and Kelly Slater’s stage of 20 years on tour and go, ‘What just happened? Is it really 20 years?’.


For me, the show rolls on. I’m still part of the story and I’ve watched the story for too many years now to miss an episode; you’ve got to be there to watch it unfold. When I go through most days I’m like, ‘Man, I felt alive today’, and that’s the sign of a pretty mad day.


In my next life, it might be a different routine, not this one. Going to work might be nine-to-five or something like that. But for now, this one’s pretty sweet. I’m loving it.





What motivates me most now is just mastering my craft. It blows me away that you can do something like ride a board for 22-odd years and still feel like a beginner. So I’m just very grateful to have picked a passion project.


With all its uncontrollables – everyone goes, ‘Aaaah, you can’t control the ocean, it must get so frustrating’ – I’m like, ‘Yeah, but it gives you an infinite amount of possibilities and stories in your own mind’. And to be able to go back to something every day and see it differently, that’s something that’s very meaningful for me.


These days I think I’m way more in tune to listening to myself. If I’m going to sleep and I’ve watched some sporting event at midnight that I shouldn’t have, then maybe in the past you’d go, ‘I’ve got to be at the surf at this time, and do this session at this time’. Whereas sometimes, I just let it go now. I trust I’m going to do the work.


The only rush is in the tide. Seriously, I won’t go to sleep if I know the tide and swell is going to be on at first light. I’ll just be there. The best part is just letting go and being set on whatever the tide and swell says.


I just trust that I’m going to do those sessions. Whether it’s your extra land session, your cardio session, weights session, at times you’ve got to give yourself a nudge like… aaaaand go!  And then… aaaaaand, now!


I don’t have a full-time trainer on board; I always want to be the one in charge. So I have all the information I need from the best people around the world and I’m constantly looking for more. But I just know that it’s more powerful coming from me saying, ‘I’m going to train at this time and it’s a hard session’, and you just do it.


That’s more powerful than someone making you do something all the time. So I’ve just flowed with it, and the more I do that the more I end up at the surf, and all the people hop out and it hasn’t even been breaking and it just starts breaking and it’s three-foot and perfect and no-one’s there, and I’m like, ‘How good is this?’


You look around and you didn’t plan it. Stuff like that’s happening more and more.





I obviously replay in my head what happened at the end of last year. I go to the bits I’m proud of, more often, but sometimes the other ones slip in. Like, ‘I can’t believe this happened, or this or that’.


I go back to those moments a lot and just think how I want to feel next time I’m greeted with a moment like that. I know that I need to be attacking and surf the way I want, on my terms, and not just for a score.


It’s about, ‘What’s my best surfing for that event?’ Or, ‘What’s my best approach to that wave?’ I definitely want to just display that. For me, that’s victory, that’s a yellow jersey, just to be in those moments.


I had a couple at Snapper, and it is the hardest feeling when the waves are there and the opportunity is there, and you go down in the heat. But that’s what keeps bringing you back to the sport. Constantly.


What motivates me most now is just mastering my craft.


I see it no matter how many titles people have won. It could be Steph Gilmore, who’s won six, it could be Kelly, who’s won 12. What brings all of us back is that it’s no easy feat to be under the most pressure you can create in your own head, and externally, and to perform the way you wanted to and trained for and visualised.


I’m not shy about saying it just hurts when you don’t. When you think of certain moments you’re like, ‘Ouch, that was one of those moments where you put yourself out there, you put everything out there, and it was kind of like a KO’. 


You feel emotionally and physically exhausted. You kind of grieve over the moment a little bit, too.


I couldn’t go back to my performance board for a few months after I got home from Maui. I just had to ride a twin fin, and the best healing place I found at home was just in the ocean.


So I rode a twin fin and surfed with friends and swam in the ocean a lot, and was just home there. I just had to tell myself, ‘It will take some time’.


It is motivation, and you use it that way, but sometimes I’m open about the fact that I just go, ‘Oh, imagine if that had happened differently?’ I think a lot of people do that, and think: ‘I wonder what it would be like if that thing I was visualising happened?’.


But I know there’ll be other moments ahead where I can definitely give my best, and that’s all you can do. Everyone says, ‘You tried your best’, but you’re still not going to automatically feel great about that.


It’s going to hurt. It’s something you want and it’s meaningful and you put all your effort into it. When it doesn’t happen, it’s back to ouch. Then it’s about whether you can pick yourself back up. So that’s the cool part.


Stoked✌???: @sachaspex

A post shared by Sally Fitzgibbons (@sally_fitz) on




One day this past summer, I looked at my regular-dimension performance board and went, ‘It’s time!’


I couldn’t draw the lines that I wanted to – I guess purposely – on the other boards I was riding, and I just had this craving to lay into these big turns.


The waves were pumping and I was like, ‘Yep, here we go – rock and roll!’ So I picked up my board and sprinted down to the surf and surfed for, like, eight hours. 


That was pretty beautiful.





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