Sally Fitzgibbons is a surfing prodigy who has become one of the best in the world. A rare junior talent, she has stepped onto the senior stage to be on the verge of claiming an elusive world title.
Sally a lot of athletes try and steer away from their own sport when they’re not competing and yet here you are watching surfing. You’re not like that?
Yeah I’m just sports mad in general, especially when it comes to surfing. I can pretty much just sit and watch a webcast for hours. I’ll go out and do all my training then sometimes I accidentally find myself sitting there for five or six hours.
I guess that’s a learning experience at the same time though?
Yeah you pick up things for sure. Especially watching the guys. You always have a benchmark that you’re striving for so I feel like it does improve my surfing. And I feel like I’m really connected to my sport by doing that.
Surely you must get sick of it after a while?
That’s the thing. I don’t. I’ll watch junior competitions. Star Series events. I’ll watch them all. Surfing tragic. Haha
Ever get a little dangerous and change the channel?
Yeah but I’m always learning. I’ll look at other sports and try and take something from it. Whether it’s say golf or tennis or football or whatever I’m seeing how they cope with the pressure of competing. Especially in the dying stages and when the stakes are on the line I just try and pick up things from other athletes.
You mention pressure. Are you feeling any this season given how close you’ve been to the world title for the past three years?
Not really. I know the results have been the same each year but I genuinely feel like I’ve kept improving and that’s given me a lot of confidence. I’ve been number two in the world for a few years but I’ve had to keep stepping it up to retain that spot. I feel like my blueprint for competing is really solid.
You’ve been second in the world title three years running. Do you reflect on that with satisfaction, pride or frustration?
It’s a mix of all of them. I do focus on the positives but there are moments of frustration when it’s been a matter of 10 seconds here or one wave there. But that’s what makes the sport great and why we all love it I guess. But I do take pride in that record. I had three really consistent years and I feel like I’m just going to get stronger and stronger.
It doesn’t take much for best-laid plans to go astray in surfing does it?
There are a lot of variables in surfing and it is hard to control them. I’m finding that a bit this year. I’ve felt really strong and the results haven’t been where I’ve wanted them or where we may have predicted they’d be so I just have to go back to the drawing board. But I don’t mind being back in the pack a little. It means I don’t have the pressure of retaining that top spot. It’s all about cutting loose and going for it in every event now.
So what are you doing differently?
Not a lot. I feel like I’m one of the hardest trainers on the tour and I do everything I can to control the controllables. But surfing always throws up something. A little spanner in the works. And I know when I look back on those last three campaigns that it’s only been a matter of one little incident that could have changed a result and the overall placings.
Is this the year you reach the top of the mountain then?
I’d like to say yes. But I say that every year. I’m not a very good goal-setter. People say to me ‘pick the ones you want to win’ and I’m like ‘what? Is that a serious question?’ Because I go into every event wanting to win. I want to win all the remaining events on the tour and ultimately win the world title. Even if that becomes out of reach I’ll still be trying to win the remaining events. That’s probably the result of having three older brothers and always competing with them.
What about your background in athletics too? You were a national champion in middle-distance running for your age.
Yeah running is a gruelling sport. It’s really taxing on the body but the satisfaction and feeling of self-achievement you get from crossing the line first has been crucial. From a young age I had to teach myself to push my thresholds. I grew up in regional New South Wales so I did a lot of my training on my own. So I’d get programs off coaches and I’d adapt them to suit what I was trying to achieve. And at the end of every session I’d judge what I’d done. I’d be like ‘ok this was my workload and I came up with this result. Okay, I need to work harder or that was spot on.’ So all those things have helped me become a professional athlete and mould my mindset.
That’s incredible discipline for a junior runner Sally.
I think just knowing what I am capable of pushes me. Knowing that I can win these things and having that belief. Sometimes people see that as an aggressive approach. I get told I’m thinking about it too much but it just comes naturally for me. I’m built to want to win and put in the hard work to achieve that.
Do you ever stop?
Sometimes it can be hard to fit everything in around travel on the tour. But if I’m not competing I’ll usually try and do three surf sessions a day. I’ll do a bit of cardio and do a run, some cycling and a swim. So I’m training most of the day.
Do you think there will ever be a time when the surfing tour combines and men and women compete together?
I really hope so. It just feels like the best way to go about it with all the infrastructure already in place. We have an amazing level of talent on tour at the moment and it would be great if we had a chance to have a crack at the same waves the men get given.
Could there ever be a day when it’s just one tour and men and women compete against each other?
I think it’s important they maintain separate identities from that perspective. We bring things that the men can’t but I think our even really adds to the overall package. There is usually time in the schedule for it and I find more and more people are coming along to watch the women’s tour. It could add to the overall showcase. Hopefully it could end up like the tennis where the grand slam tournaments run simultaneously and they’re filling stadiums for the women’s matches.
Is it fair to say sponsors still aren’t necessarily backing female surfers based purely on their ability, yet they do with men?
I get that ultimately sponsors want to sell product and make money. It is business. But when you look at the men, kids are going to buy some of their signature board shorts because they are their favourite surfer. But with women, I feel like when females go shopping they are just looking for that really cute item. The nice bikini and it’s almost just a bonus that you are a great surfer. Female surfers don’t often get their name on the swim tag. Unfortunately it comes down to a division in what people want to purchase when it comes to surf clothing and hopefully in the future that levels out.
With all the events sponsored by the same companies who sponsor the surfers themselves, is there preferential treatment given in the scoring system at times?
Unfortunately with surfing there is room for human error in the judging system. Sometimes it just comes down to a judge preferring a certain style. There have been times where I’ve nailed the final wave and you can hear the crowd going wild and the announcer talking it up and then the score comes in and it doesn’t quite line up. But that adds to the drama of it. There are times when it goes your way and times when it doesn’t but I think that adds excitement. It brings out the passion in fans. I’m lucky I’ve got a great following and when a score does go against me I have people bending over backwards wanting to come and assure me that they thought the judges got it wrong. It doesn’t change anything but it almost makes me feel a bit better.
Do sharks concern you?
It’s something you try not to think about but it’s hard not to. I do a lot of surfing by myself so especially on those days when it is stormy and cloudy it does cross my mind. I’d just recommend safety in numbers so try and take a bunch of friends out with you. But you just try and put it out of your mind and hope that you’re not the unlucky one in a million that gets attacked.
They seem to stay away from world tour events though don’t they?
There’s been a few scares. There was one at J-Bay in South Africa and there was one at Santa Cruz. I think it’s just lucky that nothing has ever happened. I hope it never does. Maybe it’s just all the jet ski’s and noise going on that keeps them away.
What’s it feel like to be a role model?
It feels weird at times. I’m still so young myself. I’m pretty much the eternal grommet on tour bouncing around everywhere. But I do pride myself on the decisions that I make in life. Not drinking alcohol and just having that really clean and healthy lifestyle, I hope that rubs off on the kids and I hope they focus on sport and being healthy instead of partying too much.
You were a child surfing prodigy. Did it feel like you were destined to be prominent on the world tour?
I certainly had a dream when I was young of being a professional athlete and that just drove me. It didn’t matter what sport it was. Obviously when you’re a kid and you do start winning and you’re getting all these trophies and prizes you think ‘wow this is good fun, I want to keep doing this for sure.’ So my eyes sort of lit up when I got my first free wetsuit and I started winning some events but it wasn’t until I was 15 that I saw that path to the top and I thought yeah this is something I want to have a go at and focus all of my energy on it. I felt like it was time and once I saw that path to the world tour I didn’t really look back. In a way it just sort of naturally picked me and the lifestyle of it and travelling the world was pretty alluring.
When you’re so good, so young it brings its own pressure though doesn’t it?
It’s just the expectation people have on you to perform. But what a privilege to have people saying this kid is great at what she does. You’ve just got to make sure you have that support crew around you. I’ve been lucky in that regard. I think a lot of it is to do with your upbringing.
Is there a better feeling than nailing that perfect ride?
It’s just a pure adrenalin rush. Getting the one. Hitting that magic wave. Especially when you’re in that contest situation. Hearing all the cheering and the commentators going off. It’s what you live for and you just can’t wait for that next moment. It gives me goose bumps. Your heart rate is through the roof. One of my favourite moments is getting on the back of the jet-ski afterwards and looking around and going ‘yep, this is the ultimate.’
Guess that’s why they say “only a surfer knows the feeling.”