LET ME INTRODUCE you to one of my favourite human beings. I know that is a big statement but, on a chilly day on the South Coast of NSW, I met a soul so bright, so full of energy, holding an all-expansive love of life and her sport, that I couldn’t help being caught up in her enthusiasm and her story.
This is 23-year old Sally Fitzgibbons.
Sally is one of the most formidable female surfers in the world but, more than that, she’s a also woman with a generous heart, intelligence, a seriously down to earth attitude, a signature smile and a tireless discipline you can’t help but admire.
Sally’s got it all; and rather than finding yourself envious that she’s won both the genetic lotto along with having athletic superpowers, she is an athlete who truly deserves any success she achieves.
Up at 4am, Sal is in the midst of competition season. She’s squeezing in hours of gruelling pre-dawn training, endless surfing sessions, a barrage of media requests, an intense sponsor schedule and the stress of a world championship tour, yet here she is sitting on a rock by her home break in Gerrora, NSW, casually telling me where it all began.
The makings of a surfing champion
“I started surfing when I was really young,” says Sally, “when I was about six or seven years old with my three older brothers and my dad, who all surfed. I had to graduate from the boogie board, but I kept nagging them and eventually they started to push me onto waves at Seven Mile Beach. I’d jump up and it felt like I would surf those waves for days; it was an incredible feeling and I was hooked from there.”
Sally’s competitive side was quite obvious from an early age, too. “When I was eight-years old,” she recollects, “I said to my mum, my dad and my brothers: ‘I am going to be an Olympic gold medallist, or a world champion. I am going to become the best in the world.’”
It hasn’t been the easiest journeys for Sally – she’s suffered setbacks, injuries and a cruel series of second places – yet her focus hasn’t faltered and she’s never become defeatist. In fact, perhaps her attitude is a bigger achievement than any trophy; she’s never lost sight of her goal nor been distracted. As well as persisting to become a better surfer, a better athlete and a better person, she’s full of humility, appreciation and a love of surfing that goes well beyond the competition.
“The feeling of catching a wave is like this rush of adrenaline and it’s something that is almost peaceful,” she says. “You truly do have that blank canvas on every single wave to paint a picture; it’s an art form and expression of how you are feeling.
“I am definitely in the right sport because every single day I love what I do and I’m so passionate about it, so it never gets dull. Although there are days when I am sore and I’m tired, there are definitely tough moments, but the overall picture and setting that goal of becoming world champion just motivates me every single day.”
Sally Fitzgibbons' competitive streak
Much of Sally’s competitive streak can be traced back to her relationship with her brothers, with whom she still regularly surfs. “I’m still very competitive with my brothers, and always have been, whether it was racing them to the back fence when we were younger, or around the natural loop of our town,” she says. “I would train every single day to beat them… but they would have that natural ability and they would always beat me. I’d come back to my parents in tears, saying I don’t understand, I’ve trained, but I think all those things just built me into that natural competitor that I am, and made me want to work hard and work towards these goals I set for myself. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without my brothers.”
I ask Sally that, if she had a life mantra, what would it be? “Living your passion and never giving up,” she quickly responds. “It’s a journey; you are going to have ups and downs and that’s what makes the win feel all the more special, because you’ve overcome all these things, parts where you feel like you may stop or you can’t keep going or these unfair moments, but that’s what makes you become this all round champion and athlete.
“I’ve had the near misses, a lot of second places and runner-ups to that world title, but that’s just put the fire inside of me to keep going. To get to second in the world, I do register in my mind now that that is a phenomenal achievement, but being the athlete I am, I’ll probably never be satisfied until I get that number-one spot.”
Quizzed on what would be the most special part of winning the world championship, Sally’s face lights up and sincerity floods through her. “I think those special moments, the wins especially on the world tour, it’s great to get the trophy, the prize money and the points, you’re doing well, but the best thing is connecting with the people I love, connecting with my family, my friends, they’re watching and cheering every step of the way. Bringing that joy to all the people I love is the most special part about winning for me.
“I feel like it’s not just me. Yeah, I’m doing the training and I’m on the wave, but it’s a whole team, it’s team Fitz, between mum, dad, the boys, and then our network of family, friends, coaches, trainers – they’ve all put their hard work, their time, their dedication into my dream, so it’s just as much a win for me as it is for them.
Surfing the wave of success
So what would Sally do if she ever won the world championship? “If that ultimate goal came to life, if it came true, I would celebrate with everyone that’s ever said ‘Go Sal’, everyone from the mailman to my family. I’d really try to get everyone together and say ‘this is not just my world title or my accomplishment, you all contributed into me as Sally the person, and me Sally the athlete, and now me as Sally the world champion.
“I know that people say that it’s just an empty cup, but for me to raise that world champion trophy it’s a cup full of memories, hard times, good times, so many emotions and so many amazing connections to people. That cup will be the heaviest cup that I will ever lift, there are just so many people who have been along the way, on the journey with me.
“Everything that I do, everyday, is working towards that pinnacle of my sport and I know people say when you get there, ‘Oh it’s finished, it’s over’, but for me as that is just one chapter.
“I’ve made lifelong friends, memories and hopefully when I’m 80-years old in my rocking chair, or walking down with my long board, I’ll remember surfing a wave when I was 20-years old, right before I was chasing that world title.
“That’s what life is about, good times, good memories and pushing yourself to see how far you can go.”
While I’m interviewing Sal, I can’t help but comment on her constant smile. “Why am I so smiley?” she laughs. “There are so many great things to look forward to, there are just too many smiles to be had. When you are passionate, it consumes you, even in the times you feel like you’re not having the best time, I’m still really enjoying myself.”
As I have only recently started on my own surfing journey, Sally is someone I very much look up to, not just as a female athlete in a largely male-dominated sport, but as a great role model, someone who takes it all in her stride. She teaches those who follow her determination, drive and perseverance, and surfing is a sport that requires all of those qualities. And Sally has some great advice newbies, regardless of their age: “For people who haven’t tried or are just starting out… it’s never too late. You just have to have a go and don’t be afraid of the embarrassing moments you might face in trying something new. You can’t go wrong with it; you never regret going for a surf. It’s about having those good times and learning and laughing at those falls and before you know it, you will be a really accomplished surfer and you’ll be chasing bigger waves or driving up and down the coast creating memories for yourself.”
And with that, and a sparkle in her eyes, she says to me, “Let’s go surfing…”