Heading into the Corona Open J-Bay, the spotlight will be on the two women closest to winning a World Title this year: American Lakey Peterson, in the Jeep Leader Jersey, and Australian Stephanie Gilmore, who trails her by just 55 points.
But not far behind Gilmore is someone else, who's a newcomer to the top 3 on the Jeep Leaderboard: Tatiana Weston-Webb, the Brasilian-American who surfs officially for Brasil. For surfing -- and particularly among the top-ranked women, where a handful of Australians and one Hawaiian have dominated the rankings for the better part of a decade -- Weston-Webb's breakthrough is a monumental shift.
But her competitive results are also a personal coup after a tough run in 2017. Her tumble last year (relatively speaking) to World No. 10 came after making a splash on Tour for two years straight. She had arrived on the WSL Championship Tour (CT) in 2015, armed with impressive confidence and refreshing candor, and finished the year ranked World No. 7. The next year, she did even better, winning her first CT event and rising to World No. 4. Winning a World Title became a question not of if, but when. But then came 2017 and suddenly, Weston-Webb was struggling to make it past Round 3. Though she bounced back briefly, it was a shocker after two years of an upward swing.
But, often times, losing offers the biggest lessons. And for Weston-Webb, who turned 22 in May, last season may have been her best, in terms of personal growth. This year, she has been a force with which to be reckoned, recovering from an early stumble to rise to her career-best. As she gets ready to rumble at Supertubes next week, here's a glimpse of what might be her secret to success.
World Surf League: You have been on a huge upswing in terms of results this year. How did you prepare for the season -- what changed?
Tatiana Weston-Webb: [Before the season started] I went to Floripa, Brasil, where my coach [Lenadro Dora] lives, and trained with him. He and I got closer, which is nice, because we didn't get a lot of one-on-one time [before that]. Yago [Dora] was on a surf break and Adriano [de Souza] was, too. I was down to surf [no matter the conditions]. We tested boards over those two weeks, and I got them dialed, and signed with Sharp Eye. So that was a big step with my equipment.
Then I went to Guarujá, where Jesse [Mendes, Tatiana's boyfriend and CT rookie] lives and stayed with him and his family and we had an amazing celebration for his birthday with his family and a nice time. Especially talking about our plans for the year. We already knew we were going to travel together. But if my parents were going to go, too -- that was a big decision for me. So now my parents aren't with me [on the road]. It was a big step in my life, as well. My mom went about it in the funniest way. She said, ‘You know when you wean a baby off your breast milk? It's like I'm weaning you off my life.' Brasilian parents want to hold you close.
How did you broach that with her?
It was pretty hard. But my parents are really understanding, and they love Jesse. My parents have been so solid for me, and I learned a lot over the past year, when I wasn't doing so well [in contests]. It was disappointing for them and for me at times, and for me that's not really so awesome as an athlete, to be around people who you want to always do great for.
My parents are smart. They won't say something that they don't need to say, and if they say something, it's out of pure emotion. But for me, I think it's important in my career and my life to have my own connection with my coach, and to have nothing interfering with that. Even though my dad came to Snapper -- he came, and then he knew, this is why she didn't want me here. Because I was focused on being a happy person regardless of my results, and living my life normally, or as normally a person can while being on Tour.
Heading into the season, what were your goals for the year?
I had a funny interview recently, and the interviewer asked me that. And I said, ‘Do I have to have any?.' Every athlete gets asked this question. For me, my goal is to be happy. To live a great life and to be a great role model. To be the person that Jesse needs me to be. Or the person that my parents want to see me be. My results aren't going to change me as a person. At all.
I was thinking recently, the feeling of winning is amazing. But realistically, how long is the feeling of winning going to last? The feeling of winning -- it doesn't last forever. And I know athletes are addicted to that feeling, because we keep wanting it. It's not just one time, we want to keep winning and doing better and better.
For me, the moment you win, you're stoked, and it realistically lasts for two days. But is that going to make you happy in the long run?
Have you always felt this way? Or it is something you've worked to cultivate?
It's something that I recently told myself. When I got on Tour, I had an amazing first year. And an amazing second year -- I finished fourth in the world. And then my third year, I finished barely in 10th. And this is my fourth year. You can look at someone like Matt Wilkinson, who can go for years barely requalifying, and then jump to second in the world. And maybe he's happier now? Maybe he's renewed himself, I don't know.
But for me, last year built my character so much more than the years prior, that I chose -- regardless of how I was doing -- to be happy. With my surfing, and with my personality, even if I don't get results. I think it's important for athletes to learn. Every surfer is there for the Title, but sometimes you're not going to get it. I don't want to ever come off like I think I'm better than someone else. But I want to be the person that's looking at the person next to me and thinking, I want to lift you up, too. I want to share that with people, but I'm really shy with people I don't know.
Sometimes surfing on [Tour] is really hard -- your life basically depends on what some guy thinks about your waves. But I don't want to harp on the bad parts. I want to focus on the good, and the people you're surrounded by, who become almost like family. In competition, you're always going to be surrounded by people that want to beat you. And I'm so grateful that I have Jesse around me all the time. Whether we lose or win, we're still each other's favorite.
What kinds of things were you focusing on for this year with Leandro?
With Leandro, there are a few technical parts about my surfing that I've been working on. Arm positioning. Sometimes my front leg straightens when I'm doing backside turns. I'm working on that. It's funny, because we're working our whole lives to become the surfers that we are, and we still have to change little things.
When it comes to that point of making a great surfer even better, we have to work on it a lot. I have been working on trying to make my front leg bent all the time, like Ace [Buchan]. He has the exact technique that I'm looking for. I'm looking forward to surfing like Ace one day.
Boards, it's actually been quite amazing, because I jumped on Sharp Eye in September of last year, and they worked like magic carpets for me.
And Leandro is also really mentally strong.
In what ways?
He's super positive. We are being really positive, energetic and feeling. We're trying to find a bigger connection between us and the ocean. It's not something you can master overnight. I've had that before, so it's going to come back to me sooner or later.
How do you open up those channels?
I'm still trying to figure out how to approach it. I had my sports psychologist a few years back. She was a linguistic practitioner, and she helped me so much. I learned a lot of great techniques from her, to tell myself what I'm feeling, and how I am going to imagine myself, and what kind of emotions I'll be feeling, and keep repeating it to myself. What I'll be seeing.
So I'm incorporating that with my own approach to putting together a plan that works. Some days you wake up and think, today's the day. I'm going to be freaking on! And then some days, you can wake up and think ugh, I don't feel so good. It's easy to [let that decide for you]. But you always have to decide, today's my day.
I've always been mentally strong, but I've faltered, too. I am the same person that got on Tour four years ago, but I've learned a lot more. My results [weren't as good last year], but my surfing has been the best it ever has been.
So, I'm working on surfing like nobody's watching, because that's when I surf my best.
Catch Weston-Webb and the rest of the Championship Tour surfers at the women's Corona Open J-Bay - Women's July 6 - 13. Watch live daily on Facebook.