Bianca Buitendag on Growing Through Pain

Bianca Buitendag gets vertical during Round 3. 2015 began as one of the worst in Buitendag's life, but ended up being one of her best. - WSL / Kirstin Scholtz

Most of us live in chapters, and last year at this time, Bianca Buitendag was starting a whole new one in life. The sudden and tragic loss of her father shortly before the event at Bells Beach shattered her world. Nothing would ever be the same. Ultimately, not even her surfing. Buitendag learned a lot through the most difficult year of her life, and somehow, through it all, she even found triumph, finishing the year ranked No. 4 on the Jeep Leaderboard, her highest yet.

Buitendag's 2015 Exclamation Point
Bianca Buitendag attacks Honolua Bay on her backhand for a 9.87 during the Quarterfinals.

Good news first. Last year was Bianca's third year at the elite level -- "enough to call yourself experienced" -- and it felt like the kinks of early Tour-hood had been ironed out.

"I finally felt this quiet confidence," she said. "I know what's coming -- what the stops are, what the waves are like -- and I'm not that nervousness about it anymore. Even knowing stuff like the way from airport to the house and where the supermarket is makes it easier."

Bianca Buitendag watching Round 3 unfold. Buitendag confident poise in 2016. - WSL / Brett Skinner

So Bianca charged into the 2015 season. But before the second event, tragedy struck. Her father passed away suddenly.

"I really had a smooth-sailing childhood so when this happened my whole world changed," she said. "But I'm grateful for it in the sense that my whole outlook on things changed... You really get this sober shock of what matters I wouldn't be able to get anywhere else except through pain."

Bianca Buitendag gives Johanne Defay a congratulatory hug after her Round 4 win. What matters: Buitendag and good friend Johanne Defay embrace after their Round 4 matchup at the Roxy Pro Gold Coast. - WSL / Brett Skinner

For Bianca, what matters now are genuine conversations and setting meaningful priorities.

That translated to her surfing as well. She spent some time back in South Africa building on that foundation by surfing outside the "competition box" as she puts it.

"There's not as much of a chance to learn if you have the pressure of competition all the time," she said. "Being able to surf at home without a judge watching you does something to your spirit as well."

Bianca Buitendag was eliminated in Round 4. Buitendag putting her new approach to competition on display at the recent Roxy Pro Gold Coast. - WSL / Kirstin Scholtz

With things more in perspective than ever before, two things have become crystal clear.

The first are her ambitions as a competitor. Obviously she'll be going for her first World Title but the way in which she wants to get there has changed.

"I've been working on more ways to get up and over rather than just carving," she said. "I want to get more vertical, getting the fins out a bit more. I've decided I'd rather be an exciting surfer than a consistent one."

The second is that real victory is something that happens outside the water.

"I meet people in the lineup with such diverse backgrounds and so many of them have victories in their personal lives," she said. "Now it's [the surfers] who have overcome personal challenges that inspire me."

Watch Bianca Buitendag and the rest of the Top 17 compete at the Rip Curl Women's Pro Bells Beach March 24 to April 5, 2016 LIVE on the WSL homepage or the app.