Cascais Women's Pro

Pit Crew: Mathias Maallem, Roxy's Best-Kept Secret

Anna Dimond

Hossegor local and Roxy coach Mattias Maallem knows the French banks better than most. He grew up surfing them daily, scored a sponsorship with Quiksilver, and turned pro shortly after. But by his early 20s he was already transitioning from competitor to coach. Today, his role has a lot more layers and involves a good deal of managing. Maallem still calls France home, but he spends a good chunk of time traveling too, splitting time between Roxy's CT stars, Bianca Buitendag and Stephanie Gilmore, including several of the brand's up-and-comers.

Stephanie Gilmore (AUS) In 2014, Stephanie Gilmore won the Cascais Women's Pro -- thanks in part to Maallem's (left) on-the-ground support -- and went on to win her sixth world title. Next week, she'll get another shot there in Portugal. - WSL / Laurent Masurel

Humble, charismatic and passionate about his work, it's easy to see how Maallem has become the cornerman for some of the world's best. In the case of Buitendag, who lost her father in early 2015, he's become family. He too lost his father at a young age, and rushed to her side during her time of need.

Maallem recently came by for a chat at the WSL HQ in Hossegor, home of the Quik and Roxy Pro France contests, to talk about the highs and lows of what he calls the best job in the world.

Mathias, at home in France. Maallem grew up surfing Hossegor's banks, and it shows. - WSL / Eric Chauché

WSL: You're a coach now, but started as a competitor yourself. When did you start?
Mathias Maallem: At 10 I started doing little contests. I got picked up by Quiksilver and started doing the Juniors. Then I just chose a different path. I wanted to study and stay home, and be with my family, so I studied Sports Management. Quik asked me if I wanted to try coaching, so I started with Joanne DeFay and Maud Le Car. I was maybe 22 or 23 at the time. They were probably 18. Anyway, they qualified for the World Juniors that year, and became European champions. After that, the brand wanted them both to qualify for the Worlds. There were only two spots in Europe, and they both did. So I got very lucky at the start.

Johanne Defay (FRA) hits the lip during the Quarterfinals of the Cascais Women's Pro. Maallem got his start as a coach working with French surfers Johanne Defay and Maud Le Car when they were still on the Junior Tour. Both women went on to become European Junior Champs, which boded well for all three of them. - WSL / Damien Poullenot

After that, Bianca Buitendag's dad wanted her to become a part of Roxy Europe, so she started to get in touch with me. They asked me to coach her in Bali. That went well, so she started coming here [to Hossegor] to train. We got super close and that year she qualified for the CT. The year after she got Rookie of the Year, and last year she was in the Top 5. Everything went so well. We pushed each other.

What goes on when you first start working with an athlete?
It's a lot of trust. It's more social. It's important to have a good connection and to get each other. After that her father trusted me.

Bianca Buitendag prepares for her Round 4 heat. Bianca Buitendag's late father called on Maallem to help his daughter at a contest in Bali. Things went well there, and Maallem soon became a trusted coach and confidante for Bianca, who is now on the CT. - WSL / Thomas Lodin

How did Bianca's father know you?
The ex-team manager of Roxy told her Dad that he could trust me. The first time in Bali was just a trial. I wasn't nervous because I didn't think that far. Her dad was the one taking care of her surfing before. And then he kind of gave me the key after that.

After her father passed away, I had a similar story because of my dad. We talked about all those things. I loved her Dad.

After her father passed away, I had a similar story because of my dad. We talked about all those things. I loved her Dad because I was with him for five or six years. When you are away from your home and comfort zone you get to know people really well. So I was there with her and it's made us even closer.

The fact that Bianca was able to still compete after her dad passed was remarkable. She seemed more driven than ever.
Yeah, that morning I texted her. We talk every day, even when she's away. She didn't respond, so I was like ‘Hey sister. What's going on?.' That's when she called me and said that he had passed away.

Bianca Buitendag gets vertical during Round 3. Just days after losing her father, Buitendag returned to competition at Bells Beach, Australia. Maallem, who also lost his father at a young age, went with her. - WSL / Kirstin Scholtz

Straight away, I jumped on a flight to South Africa. I didn't know what to expect. I had two amazing days over there. You forget that when you lose someone, everyone comes together. We had two days of barbecuing on the beach, talking about her dad. I was kind of missing home too at that point. One morning she wakes me up and was like, ‘Brother, we are going to Bells.'

I knew she was tough, but not that tough. I talked to her two brothers and her mom and their feeling was, Life goes on. So we jumped on a plane and she competed.

I knew she was tough but not that tough. I talked to her two brothers and her mom and their feeling was, ‘Life goes on.' So we jumped on a plane and she competed. It's a long road to recovery. It's not easy. It's good to keep your mind occupied.

Bianca Buitendag (ZAF) does a bottom turn in Round 1. Despite all the local's insights, Buitendag was defeated in Round Two at last year's Roxy Pro France. - WSL / Poullenot/Aquashot

How is it that you two were able to connect on that level?
I think being away from home, it allows you to connect with people on a deeper level. We are there for each other's ups and downs. During contests as well -- your emotions go up and down. Now, she's my best friend. My sister and my best friend.

I can't fake things. Bianca, if I have something on my mind, she knows already. I can't hide my feelings very well.

How do you manage your own emotions in that role?
It's hard. I can't fake things. Bianca, if I have something on my mind, she knows already. I can't hide my feelings very well. If I'm sad you are going to know. If I'm happy you are going to know.

What are the expectations for your job?
I'm a perfectionist. I don't feel like it's ever done. This is where I want to stay. I try to make the best of every opportunity. I'm flexible because I'm young. I don't have a wife or kids. If someone asks me to go somewhere, I'm free. It allows you to see every aspect of the brand -- how everything works and how much it costs. I love what I'm doing now.

Maallem, pitted. Even when he was competing, Maallem thought about coaching as a dream job. - WSL / Damien Poullenot

It's not so much just being a coach or manager. You need to be the athlete's friend on the sidelines as well. Just be there when they need you. They have to be comfortable in order to perform their best. Like, Gabriel [Medina] is always bringing his Dad. During a contest I go early to check out the conditions. After it's over, I make sure the press isn't stressing them out too much. Steph is really relaxed. Bianca is relaxed too but she's intense. She is always asking questions. I feel like a manager or team coach is only like 5 percent of the reason a surfer succeeds. So I want to make sure I give them that.

You need to be the athlete's friend on the sidelines as well. Just be there when they need you.

With Steph, she puts a lot of pressure on the boards and the fins. Before a contest, that's what she's thinking about. But with Bianca, she doesn't care as much about that. She's more concerned with being on the right wave and conditions.

How does the cheerleader aspect of your job work?
It's pretty natural. They are so talented. I'm just honest. When I watch them, I'm so confident in them. When I talk to them after a heat, it's going to be positive. I trust the way they surf. They could be last or be in the Semis and my feedback will be the same.

Stephanie Gilmore during Round 2. Gilmore, who was injured for nearly half of last season, fared slightly better in France last year, finishing in Round Four. - WSL / Kirstin Scholtz

An athlete isn't stupid. They know where they are sitting. If you want them to give you their all you have to give them your all and respect them.

An athlete isn't stupid. They know where they are sitting. If you want them to give you their all you have to give them your all and respect them.

Is it ever difficult to deliver the tough love?
With boys, maybe. But not with girls. I'm lucky, I've always worked with really great girls. Most of the time they know already.

What about when an athlete isn't at their best? Stephanie, for example, hadn't made it out of the Quarters until Trestles.
Yes, but she's been surfing better than she ever has been. She's been working hard physically. There were a couple times that she lost some heats but she just needs to find that confidence again. She has everything, she just needs to step back. I'm just trying to remind her what she's capable of. It's frustrating because you see what they do, but they don't see it.

Stephanie Gilmore during the Roxy Pro France. Maallem is adept at delivering tough love, but says his athletes know perfectly well where they stand -- win, lose, or otherwise. - WSL / Kirstin Scholtz

What's the hardest part about your job?
People think that surfing is the best job in the world because they see them on the beach all day. But it's hard to understand how much work they put into it. When you are away from home and you wake up every day at 5:30 and you lose early [in a contest] -- as a manager, we know how much work they put into it.

When they lose, we lose. When everything goes right, it's the best job in the world.

When we see that, we know how they feel and we are in the same boat. When they lose, we lose. When you know they can win the contest but they lose, it's hard. When everything goes right, it's the best job in the world.

With the Juniors especially I'd imagine, they are so focused. Their lives aren't like those of most kids.
Bianca thinks a lot about all those things. She's super smart. The first year on tour, she said she felt like she was wasting her time because she had like two days of the contest and five lay days. So now she's on tour but she's taking courses online. She's studying accounting. She doesn't feel like she's wasting her time. Steph doesn't think that way. If there's a lay day she sees it as a day off. She goes and hikes or does tourist things.

What do you love the most about your work?
When they get to the top and you know how much they put in to get there, you are with them. You feel blessed just to be a part of it. It's the most rewarding thing you can find. When I was little growing up and the teacher would ask me what I wanted to be when I grow up, I would always say either soccer player, surfer or team manager. Even when I was young and on the team, I was always looking at my manager thinking he has the best life. He is doing everything we do as a surfer but he has less pressure. I'm team manager now and I'm super happy. I'm blessed.

Catch Stephanie, Bianca and the rest of the Top 17 competing in Europe starting September 24 at 8:00 a.m. local time.