"I got the call-up 48 hours before the event," says Felicity Palmateer, talking about her invite to the Pe'ahi Women's Challenge. "I made the snap decision to go, and that was the best decision I have ever made."
That's because it has kickstarted a desire to be serious about her fitness and training. It also reignited her love of competition to the point where she has decided to go back to the Qualifying Series (QS) full-time, as well as commit to the Big Wave Tour (BWT). She is in a better place mentally and physically, and all because she backed herself to tackle Jaws.
"Looking back, I had know idea what I was getting myself into," said the 24-year-old. Palmateer grew up in Western Australia and, having spent years surfing in the powerful breaks of Margaret River, had discovered a love of big waves. In 2015 she became the first woman to tackle the Western Australian big-wave spot of Cow Bombie, earning herself a Big Wave Award nomination.
Yet, despite her pedigree, Pe'ahi (known as Jaws, in Maui) was next-level. "When I first laid eyes on it, I'd never seen a wave that size pitching that much," said Palmateer. "It draws off the reef so hard and throws so far. I was like, ‘How on Earth am I going to take off on my backhand?' But I was there and I had to go. There was no way I wasn't going to catch a wave, so I just put my head down and went for it."
Palmateer ended up finishing third in the Final, behind Paige Alms and Justine Dupont. "It was only afterwards I reflected on the fact that it was the first female big-wave event and that we had all made history," she said. "Hopefully it inspired young girls to get out there and charge big waves."
However, after the initial rush of adrenaline and publicity had died down, Palmateer discovered that the person she had most inspired was herself. "After Jaws I wanted to train harder and be more prepared, so I could go back to compete again. And in doing that I've become the fittest I've ever been and now have so much more confidence in the water. It has also made me want to go compete again on the QS and try to qualify. I've fallen in love with competing again."
Palmateer had a successful junior career, and after her first year on the QS, in 2011, she missed out on making the Championship Tour (CT) by just one spot. The pregnancy of Chelsea Hedges in 2012, however, opened up a spot for Felicity for half of the CT events that year. "I had a taste, but it was bittersweet because it wasn't the full Tour," she said. "And doing both tours took its toll."
For the next two years, Palmateer again missed out on qualification, and discovered that she had lost the intense desire to compete. With her sponsors paying her to travel the world as a freesurfer and model, she scaled back her competitive commitments, rode an array of different boards and simply had fun. Until Jaws stuck a big stick in her life spokes.
"Right now I'm in a better state mentally and physically than I have ever been," she said. "I am way more prepared compared to when I was doing well on the QS before. I just have to keep chipping away. I'd rather give it a crack and not have any regrets."