Sunshine Coast native Keely Andrew will make the transition to the elite level in 2016 after just two full seasons pursuing the dream on the QS. But the 21-year-old rookie is a relatively late bloomer, with many of her peers having spent years on the Championship Tour (CT) already. Though she's been surfing since she was eight, the competitive calling came just under seven years ago when a school teacher noticed her talent.
"She did an inter-school comp and one of the teachers came up and said, 'Why isn't she doing competitions?'" said Keely's mom, Narelle. "We didn't know anything about competitions. We sought out a coach and it went from there."
The young regularfooter soon backed up her skills with results, placing second to now-fellow Tour competitor Nikki Van Dijk in her first major contest, the 2010 Arnette Australian Junior Surfing Titles. However, while many surfers her age were already globetrotting to various QS events, Andrew's family believed an education was paramount to an early start in professional surfing, requiring that she finish year 12 before competing overseas.
The delay, however, hasn't appeared to hurt her in the slightest. According to longtime coach, Tim Just (Fluid Performance), her talent was evident from early on, but he admits she had room to grow in strength and conditioning.
"When she came and saw me in the gym at first, she was this skinny, 17 year old and only about 48 kilos," said Just. "I asked her what her training was like and she said, 'Well mum's a runner, so I run every day.' We laughed. I thought, 'This is great, you've got such talent and you're weak. As soon as we make you stronger you're going to get even better.'"
And better she's become. Less than four years since they began training together she is about to enter her rookie season on the CT.
The ability to grow into an elite-caliber athlete was always in the cards for Andrew. Both parent and coach mentioned her athletic prowess, excelling at tennis, cricket (the only girl on her team until 15), football and more. But at 16 her parents forced her to decide what sport she was going to focus on. Much to the disappointment of her tennis coach, who thought she could have been No. 1 in the sport, Andrew decided to concentrate on surfing.
"She's always been really determined," said Just. "She's always keen to do whatever [training] we have planned for her. Even if the surf is pumping, she'll always prioritize the training. Sometimes we have to say, 'Look, stop training today, you've got to go surfing.'"
The intensity to train seems to come naturally for the rookie, whose sense of purpose in her career is defined by a quest for a World Title. That drive, according to her mother and coach, has been present since she started competing more frequently at 16.
"She would bring a photo of the World Title trophy and put it in front of where she had to do chin-ups. She HATED doing chin-ups," said her coach. "She said, 'I'm just putting that there so I know the reason I'm doing these [expletive] chin-ups.'"
She's approaching the CT with as serious a regimen and hunger as any veteran, but no training can fully eliminate the challenges of a rookie season. The grueling schedule, the pressure of the elite stage and the caliber of the waves will test Andrew more severely than she's ever been tested before.
"She's working with a sports psychologist and she's learning how to switch off between heats and focus on herself," said Narelle. "How to relax when you're in a heat so she doesn't really care about the other girls and just focuses on what she's got to do. She such a determined little thing (laughs)."
The student isn't the only one relying on some extra help. Just even called a sports psychologist friend of his in order to figure out a strategy to get Keely to paddle out at sizable Margaret River on a recent training mission.
When we got to the channel she looked at me and goes, 'Is that as bad as it gets?'
"She told me to give [Keely] a clear goal, even if it's just catch three waves -- I don't care how wide you sit, let's just catch three waves," Just said. "We paddled out wide around the peak and sat there for about an hour just watching guys on ridiculously long boards, like eight-foot guns, take off on the peak. We slowly edged over and I got a couple. And she saw that and said if I could do it then she could do it. She got a couple and I talked her into coming over to the right with me and just as we paddled over the peak we got the set of the day on the head. When we got to the channel she looked at me and goes, 'Is that as bad as it gets?'"
In addition to the pressures that come with competing against the best surfers in the world, Andrew is hunting a sponsor after Fox ended her contract on her 21st birthday despite having already qualified for the Championship Tour. But the resilience hasn't diminished and she maintains a unique ability to switch off the competitor when necessary.
"She's the first to point out when I'm kooking it," added Just. "She's pretty classic about her jokes, she'll go, 'Have you ever had an India?' And you'll go, 'What?' And she'll hand you a beer say, 'Here get it in-di-ya!'"
'Her frontside snap is going to say it all at Snapper,' said Just.
Between her tenacity, her talent and her ability to manage mental stress, Andrew could prove a serious threat on the CT in her rookie season.
And what else is there to say about Keely Andrew?
"Her brothers would like to add that they contributed to where Keely is today," said Narelle. "They recon that they made it tough for her when she was little."
"Her frontside snap is going to say it all at Snapper," said Just.