Sage Erickson's road to success has been a bumpy one. Her Instagram feed may showcase the sunny life of a Championship Tour surfer, but her journey to the elite ranks -- and off it, and on it again -- reveals not only her perseverance, but also the tenacity it takes to build a career. When Erickson won the Vans US Open of Surfing -- her career-best result -- earlier this month, it was more than just a trophy. For the 26-year-old Californian, it was confirmation that she belonged among the world's best.
For all but one of her five seasons on the CT, Erickson finished outside the top 10 and had to rely on her Qualifying Series (QS) ranking to keep her spot. In 2013, however, her backup plan didn't deliver. Not only had she lost a big sponsor, but she was back on the lower-tier QS, grinding her way through and reconsidering what she wanted. "Losing my major apparel sponsor was one of the biggest hits to my confidence I've ever taken," she said afterward. "I was with a brand for nearly 10 years, they were my support and backing financially, so without that I felt really lost throughout the year.
"A lot of new pressures came along with that change in my own head. [But] it made me find my own two feet and ask myself what I wanted out of my career and who I really was.
"It pushed me to share my lifestyle through social media and with people in a whole new way. I feel when we are in our hardest times in life and are most vulnerable to ourselves we grow the most. I wanted people to ride that emotional ride with me."
That vulnerability may be why, in part, the response to Erickson's win in Huntington Beach was so emotional, for her and her fans. As she came in from the water her friends chanted her name, she jumped up and down and hundreds of people pressed in closer for a glimpse of the new hero. Now, having jumped three spots up the Jeep Leaderboard, to No. 6, the next few events could be pivotal for both Erickson and the women at the top, fighting for World No. 1.
The difference for her this year -- between ninth place and sixth -- may be coming to the surface now, but the effort to get there started long before that hot, sunny Sunday in HB. "I would say that I have a natural peace about me in the past two years," Erickson said, shortly after winning the US Open. "I've put in a lot of hard work and time, and if there's any time for me to shine, it's at this point in my career. So I feel like it's all the elements coming together. My coach, my friends, my family, my parents and my boyfriend. I'm really happy in life and that goes a long way in competing."
Not to mention the mind-body connection. If fitness is the core of any athlete's success, she upped the ante there, too. "I really stepped up working out," she said. "Having a strong body has made me feel confident. And loving surfing and competing, being in the water a lot more and loving the whole atmosphere -- whether it's grumpy and competitive, or happy and friendly." While Erickson isn't a Title contender just yet, her ascent this year signals a shift in a landscape that's traditionally been stacked with the same names. It's also the culmination of a shift for her personally, in which she's coming into her own, in earnest.
Of course, if Erickson wants to stay at No. 6 -- or keep on climbing -- it's only uphill from here. Next up is the Swatch Women's Pro at Trestles, starting September 6, then the European leg -- Cascais and France -- and finally Maui, the last event of the season. At the very top of the rankings, Tyler Wright, Sally Fitzgibbons and Courtney Conlogue are battling for the Title. But just beyond them, there's a secondary battle, for the future contenders, who are on the cusp of breaking through. Before her win in Huntington, Erickson was hovering just outside that with flashes of Semifinal brilliance here, or a Quarterfinal there.
But her win at Huntington set the stage for the final phase of the season, shaking up the rankings and showing that there are no point leads too great for breakthrough performances. "I've been waiting for this moment for a long time," said Erickson. "I've had quite a few pivotal people in my life who have believed in me, and it's taken me longer to feel that in myself. I finally believed, and this is what I got."