"After the Qualifying Series contest in Australia last year, I missed out on qualification and lost my major sponsor," French surfer Justine Dupont told the WSL. "I asked myself; what do I love about surfing? The answer was that I prefer to do what I love and I love riding big waves."
It was that decision that led Justine to make history at Nazaré, riding some of the biggest waves of her career. Dupont started her big-wave season in Hawaii, then returned home to warm up in some monsters at Belharra, France, before decamping to Portugal for two months.
"I had great support from Red Bull," said Dupont. "I was in a good frame of mind and I didn't have to worry about getting injured before the contests. We had two months and the goal was to approach it step by step. Unlike Belharra, I didn't know the wave and, because it's a lot more challenging, we wanted to take our time."
In winter, Nazaré acts as a specialized big-wave training camp and has become famous for the support and welcome it provides for athletes. Justine plugged into that network, sharing space at Red Bull's base and enjoying the unique camaraderie.
"I had the chance to listen to the world's best big wave surfers. I soaked up advice from Maya Gabeira, Carlos Burlé, Ross Clarke-Jones, Eric Rebiere and Sebastian Stuedtner, to name just a few," she said. "More than that, all the local bodyboard chargers, Alemeo for the rescue training, the Car Sur training centre, Lino from Nazaré Water Fun and so many locals made me feel at home. Their support was crucial."
When Dupont wasn't surfing, she was working on her jet ski driving, safety protocols, rescue tactics and fitness strength. It also helped that the size of the swells gradually increased during her stay, leading up to last week's ginormous run of waves.
"We improved quickly, way quicker than we thought was possible," said Dupont. "I ended up catching some really huge waves and even now I can't even really believe it. Also my boyfriend, Fred David, scored a huge barrel. It was his only wave that day, as he'd been driving and doing safety the whole time, so I'd like to think the ocean gave him a present for all his hard work."
One of Justine's most memorable waves was one she surfed with Ross Clarke-Jones. "I'd like to say, I did not drop in on him, it was my wave," she laughs. "He even said sorry afterwards. We were rescued by the same ski and on the way out we were both hooting. He said it was his best wave of the day and that he was stoked to share it with me."
With her time in Nazaré done, for now, Dupont chatted while driving back to France, before flying straight to Sydney for the Australian leg of the Qualifying Series.
"Now my first priority is having fun and doing what I love, and the second priority is the contests," she said. "I'll do the first two events and see how it goes. It's more difficult as I don't have a sponsor for the tour, but hopefully that changes soon and I can do it all."