Isabella Nichols (AUS) is the defending World Junior Champion, but after a rule change lowered the Junior Tour cutoff age, this year she's been in bigger leagues, climbing her way up the Qualifying Series (QS). Age 18 is now the cutoff for competing on the Junior Tour (down from 20), and Nichols had to change gears quickly in the off-season. But so far, she's been embracing the change and adjusting quickly, and is ready to tackle the competition at this week's Los Cabos Open QS6,000 -- an important points-earning opportunity for the road to elite qualification.
Growing up in Coolum, Australia, Nichols began surfing at age 9 and realized she wanted to become a pro surfer four years later. Now, after winning the 2015 Australasia Junior Tour and World Junior titles, she's back in Mexico and ready to do battle. She's currently ranked No. 23 on the Women's QS leaderboard, and is aiming to make the Top 7, which would qualify her for the Championship Tour next year.
The WSL caught up with Nichols as she prepared for the Los Cabos Open of Surf to talk qualifying for the Championship Tour (CT), and her experience growing from Pro Junior champion to QS competitor.
WSL: You won the World Junior Championships in your last year as a Junior competitor. Who did you have in your corner helping you throughout the year?
IN: It was a good moment for me winning in my last year. Definitely one of my favorite victories and I'm hoping for more moments like that in the future. I had my coach Tim Just who worked as both a trainer and coach, and I've also started working with Phil McNamara in conjunction with Tim. Both are helping me a lot in all aspects of my surfing.
WSL: Going into Los Cabos last year, you had two wins under your belt already in Australia. How was it to win a third and keep that momentum away from home?
IN: I didn't go into the year expecting those results to follow but they did and I just went with it. The Junior win in Mexico was an added bonus which was pretty exciting. Last year was my first time to Los Cabos and it was such an amazing place. There were so many cacti, which definitely stood out (laughs), but it was such a fun place to hang around. The weather was amazing and the food was awesome.
I didn't go into the year expecting those results to follow. The Junior win in Mexico was an added bonus which was pretty exciting. I planned to target my focus on the QS event in Cabos though it went the other way.
WSL: Was the QS a focus of yours knowing your Junior years were numbered?
IN: I planned to target my focus on the QS event in Cabos and to focus on the QS tour in general for the year, though it went the other way for me last year it was totally sweet both ways.
WSL: And now that you're a full-time QS competitor heading back there, what's the biggest difference you've noticed between the two levels of competition?
IN: Less traveling is the biggest difference. I've had so much downtime at home which is incredible. I love spending time at home with the family even though I love to travel, it's my favorite thing about surfing as a career. There are so many new places I've visited since starting to travel with my surfing and there are so many incredible spots still on my bucket list.
Less traveling is the biggest difference. I love spending time at home with the family even though I love to travel, it's my favorite thing about surfing as a career.
WSL: Picking up a major sponsor is key for this kind of career. When did one recognize your potential and give you a shot?
IN: Billabong came into the picture midway through 2014. It was such amazing timing because it was becoming expensive to travel around the world without some sort of support so gaining their backing was an incredible feeling and confidence-booster.
WSL: Though it's early on in the year, do you map out points knowing what you can come away with in rankings or keep that out of mind?
That kind of thinking doesn't work for me. I'm trying to take a different approach where I'm focusing on surfing my best and having fun.
IN: That kind of thinking doesn't work for me actually. Going in thinking about the whole point system and qualifying and all of that. I'm trying to take a different approach where I'm focusing on surfing my best and having fun.