The Australian wonderkid already looks like one of the most dedicated athletes surfing has ever seen. She was the fastest person ever to qualify for the ASP World Tour in 2009 and in just her second year finished runner up, gnashing at the heels of Steph Gilmore. After a cover shoot on the North Shore of Hawaii, Sally filled us in on where she’s at
You must have got started early as you’re just 20 but have achieved so much in surfing already. Who got you on a board in the first place?
My three older brothers and my dad all surfed, and we lived right on the beach when I was growing up. It was the cool thing to do for all the kids, to be hanging out down on the beach all the time. From when you were small you’d be out on boogie boards and messing around in the water, so when I saw my brothers learning to surf I was like, “I wanna try that, that looks so much fun”. They started pushing me out on a long board when I was six, so I guess surfing’s been a big part of life right from the very beginning.
And you loved it right from the start?
I think the thing with being in the water everyday is that there’s so much to learn about the ocean and then surfing itself. As a kid that really excited me, waking up and not knowing what the waves were going to be like each day.
I read that you were also competing in athletics at a national level as a teenager, alongside surfing professionally?
I wanted to be a professional athlete so bad, and I just thought if I have a go at everything, eventually I’ll have to be good at something! So I started trying all these things, and I ended up actually being able to do them all. And I was like, “Oh what do I do now?!”
You knew from the start that you wanted to be a professional athlete?
Yeah, from when I was really young, I just couldn’t believe that people could play sports and get paid for it. I was like, “Wow, that’s a job that you can do Dad?” And he was like, “Yeah if you work hard you can do that.” So I was like, “I’m gonna do that then.” I was nine, and my parents were like, “Whatever, she not actually going to do that”, but I’ve made it! I’m still a bit like “Jeeze, look at me” sometimes, haha.
Was there a point when you had to make a decision to focus on one sport?
I got to 16, and I was doing a lot of long distance running, and it was too hard to keep both the athletics and the surfing up at such a high level. Running was really good, but somehow I knew I had to surf. I had to choose going to the beach and surfing all these amazing waves around the world. I thought, “I’ll have a go at this, and if it doesn’t work out then I’m sure I can go back to the running.” That’s how I ended up where I am.
You’ve made records for hitting the Pro Junior and the World Tour so young, advancing through the rankings at an unreal rate. How was getting involved in the global comp circuit at such an age?
My career did start young but I feel that up until now it’s been a really natural progression. I started competing at home in the Grom comps, then went up into the under 12s, then the under 16s pretty quickly. Then at 14, I figured that the other events were there locally anyway, so I may as well do them for practice. That’s when I started doing a few Juniors and that progressed to the WQS. So every time I was moving into doing a full year of something, I’d already done a few events the year before which was awesome practice. It’s meant I’ve gone into a lot of stuff feeling quite comfortable.
You felt pretty in level headed about the experience?
I put pressure on myself to perform, but I’ve never put pressure on myself to get a certain result in a comp. I think I found that good place, just working hard, and it was a really natural progression. So then I figured, “I’ll have a crack at the WQS this year” and it started so well that I qualified really early on, by June, so that bit was pretty fast paced I suppose.
A pretty mind-blowing jump!?
Yeah, I was like, “Wow, I’m going to be on the World Tour next year”, but then there was actually six months of waiting to go. It was actually a little draining. I was so excited for so long in the lead up to it that when it finally came around – I’d maybe overtrained a little – and I ended up being injured for the most part of that first year, it’s crazy how stuff works out. I think it’s all been for the good though, I’ve learnt so much.
What was the reaction of the rest of the girls when you hit the tour?
Well I was pretty young, and a few of the older girls were a bit daunting to me, so I had to earn a bit of respect. I remember after that first year a couple of the other girls actually had a chat with me. And I went home and was like, “Wow Dad, I had a conversation with such and such – and you know, I think they enjoyed it, I think they’re finally accepting me on tour!” Dad was just laughing at me so hard!
It’s almost like you’ve grown up on the Tour…
For sure, and I’ve met so many amazing people along the way. It was so interesting at the age of 18 to be told you can travel the world on your own. It’s almost like a school, you learn and find your way until you feel comfortable and confident where you are.
Is it hard then to get in the water and compete against your friends?
It’s such an interesting vibe, as we all get on well, but then you do have to turn around and go out and compete against one of your best friends. It is strange. But all of us are just so competitive and so hungry to win and achieve greatness, so competitiveness just comes out naturally in the water.
With the travelling, do you ever feel that you’re so immersed in competition that you miss out on getting see new places?
The priority is the contest, and if the waves are good you’re not going to get to see much of the culture or the countryside. You’re going to surf all day, train, eat and sleep – and that’s not much different to home. But you do have flat spells, which give you the opportunity to take a real look around. I‘m sure that the more I travel and the more comfortable I get with being in all these different places, I’ll get to look around a little more.
So 2010 was awesome for you, finishing runner up on the ASP World Tour in just your second year on it. How are you feeling going into 2011, are you feeling pressure to better your results?
2010 was a really exciting year, coming off injury I had a spark and wanted to compete in lots of events and do both tours. I guess finishing at the top of the WQS and also being in a world title race, I was actually close to my dream. I wasn’t that far off, if just a few small decisions had been on the flipside, I guess I could have been grasping a world title.
So you’re feeling pretty pumped for this season?
Yeah, I don’t feel that I need to change anything too much, it’s just building on what I’ve learnt, and going out and attacking it, and having fun. I think it’s important not to read too much into the whole points system. I think some people get a bit blasé, thinking I just need this many points to get this ranking. I try always to go into an event to win it, if it doesn’t happen, or if something goes wrong, I take that onboard, and then I fix it.
Red Bull took you to Peru for a girls’ training camp last year with an amazing cast of surfers, (Sofia Mulanovich, Carissa Moore and Maya Gabeira). How was that?
We have a camp with the whole Red Bull team once a year, but last year they tried to make it a bit more personal, so we had an all-girls camp with our own coaches. We had Sofia with us and we were on her home turf so she knew the place like the back of her hand and we surfed fun waves all day. To get to learn from girls like Maya [who is also interviewed in this issue - see page 66] was a real opportunity too.
Mentioning Maya, is big wave surfing anything you’re interested in getting involved in?
I haven’t done that much big wave surfing at all, but I really admire what the big wave surfers do. It’s a different element to surfing and it takes guts for sure. When the opportunity arises I want to have a good goat it, but I’d want to have done a lot of training before, I’d want to go in prepared for the worst. You’ve got to be ready to glue your feet to your board and not fall off. I guess I’m more attracted to high performance surfing at the moment, and I still have so much in that still to achieve. Once I’ve mastered a few of the things on my goal list, then I’ll probably take a look at the big waves.
Do you follow a pretty strict regime to keep fit for surfing?
The number one goal is always to surf when the waves are good but there’s loads of other stuff to do when the forecast is flat. I tend to work on building strength to get more power to be able to push more water around. Leading into a contest I take extra care of my body, making sure I’ve not overdone it, pump the fluids in, have good foods and nutrition. I do everything I can to keep my body at its best so I can get the best surfing out of it.
And after a contest, do you let loose and party a bit?
I love going out to party and hanging with friends, but I don’t drink at all. I like to get up early, and I don’t want to wake up with a headache. But still, with contests you pour so much energy into them that it’s important to have a couple of days off to kick back and relax when they’re over.
With your high profile position as an athlete, are there any causes you support or messages you’re trying to spread?
I support the Arrive Alive Campaign, teaching people to be safe on our roads and the Drugs Aware Campaign. Both campaigns strive to teach people, especially young kids, about “healthy highs” in life. To get out there and be active and forget any bad decisions they might have made involving drugs.
So to wrap up do you have any long-term plans for the future, for your surfing career or anything else?
I’m a bit of a grandma now, (in the 20s club, haha), but I’ve really just started my career. I think surfing affords such an amazing lifestyle that you can have longevity in it. You’ve got people like Layne Beachley – or Kelly Slater with ten world titles – who have been through decades of surfing. I want to go for as long as I can, chasing that illusive world title. It’s such a fun game and you never stop learning, so I’m gonna be swinging around this world a few more times I think.
With thanks to Roxy. Sally is sponsored by Roxy, Red Bull and Etnies