When the women's Corona Open J-Bay resumes, Bianca Buitendag will be first in the water, facing Carissa Moore and Johanne Defay in Heat 1 of Round 3. Surfing this event as a wildcard, Buitendag is the only South African left in the draw, putting a big spotlight -- and a bit of pressure -- on the former Championship Tour (CT) surfer to perform on her home turf.
Buitendag first qualified for the CT in 2013, and spent four years there, hitting a career-high rank of World No. 4. Her run ended after the 2016 season, which she finished at World No. 12. Since then, she's made a number of wildcard appearances on the CT (she surfed six CT contests in 2017), and surfed intermittently on the Qualifying Series (QS).
After a year to re-set, she's again pushing her way up the QS, with an eye toward re-qualifying for the elite Tour in 2019. Along the way, she's been pursuing a Bachelor of Arts in finance and accounting management, and tried her hand at office life with an internship in the French offices of Roxy, her longtime sponsor.
During a recent conversation, Buitendag reflected on the role of surfing in South Africa.
World Surf League: How would you describe the state of pro surfing in South Africa?
Bianca Buitendag: To tell you the truth, I go home for two months out of the year, for the last six years, so I would not be able to give you an accurate answer. I just see the South African guys on the QS, or Jordy [Smith], occasionally.
It's important to have a competitive pool of surfers when you're growing up. You can't be the king of your own sand castle. And it was very competitive in South Africa when I was growing up. At one point, there was bit of a financial crisis, which led to there being fewer events, and fewer funds being invested in the sport.
I think at the moment it's picking up speed again, and there are so many more girls surfing, which makes me so happy. My only exposure to local surfing is when I go down to my local beach [in Victoria Bay], and there are 10 girls in the water.
Growing up, I was the only girl. So, after five years, 10 girls in the water, I'm very happy. I guess you could say, from that, it's been growing a lot.
Professional surfing in South Africa is important, but more important is the fact that sport -- or surfing, for example -- can get kids out of trouble, keep them in the environment of honorable and caring people. Because at some point, you're a product of your environment.
I regard myself to be in the top one percent of the most privileged people in my country. I grew up in a stable and loving home, with guidance and discipline, but most of my comrades are facing realities that you wouldn't wish upon anyone, their future is pretty much predestined.
And if they can get out of that, and can see different ways of living, the consequences of different decisions, and the power of your decisions, and then people in the water and surf communities care about them and invest in their lives.
I think surfing is more a redemption of humanity than it is important to be winning surf contests in South Africa.
Where is that kind of impact being made?
Even for small communities, surfing has huge power in that sense. I think that's what most South Africans on the Tour are trying to show as well. Jordy Smith's life story is an example of that. Mikey February is involved in many organizations that try to help kids get out of the bad influences and into the water to escape, or see another option, and see that you don't have to do what your dad is doing, or your mom.
You have the power to make your own decisions. But you can only see that through the examples of other people, which, most times, in the water, is not a bad place to start.
So surfing in South Africa, is a life and death thing. Not, am I winning a contest or not? That is huge.
When I go home, I see that, and it's a big shock. Almost like I don't care what my result was in the year. Surfing is saving 100 kids. And I'm complaining about my heat score?
Catch Buitendag and the rest of the Top 17 when the Corona Open J-Bay continues. Next call: 7:10 a.m. SAST July 13.