Editor's Note: From set waves to setbacks -- and everything in between -- the women of the Championship Tour have stories to tell. Check back each month to learn more about your favorite surfers as we bring you the human stories behind the heat scores.
This was going to be Sage Erickson's best year yet. After falling off the Championship Tour in 2018, Erickson had fought her way back for the 2020 season. She was looking forward to competing at Teahupo'o and getting back in the mix. She had plans. Winning plans.
Then came the pandemic. Events were delayed, then canceled. Erickson was forced to put her ambitions on hold. Of course the cancellations disappointed her.
"I felt like last year, coming into this year, I was surfing the best that I've ever surfed," Erickson told the WSL. "I left last year feeling super motivated and fired up to be back on Tour. It was so sad."
But this is not the first setback that Erickson has overcome in her competitive career. Back in 2013, she had fallen down the rankings, and failed to qualify for the Tour in 2014. Undeterred, she packed her board bags and hit the road. By the end of the year she was back on Tour.
In fact, Erickson has fallen off the CT -- and subsequently requalified -- twice in her ten-year career.
"I don't know if there've been many more people who have been as resilient as Sage," says former pro Tom Whitaker, who coaches Erickson. "She's come on and off Tour a lot -- and that to me, is just strength and backing herself and her mental game."
Erickson grew up in Ojai, California, a small town located east of Ventura that's surrounded by open space. Erickson lived with her mom and grandmother, who owned a coffee shop. One of her long-term goals is to buy her mom a house.
"I don't come from financial opportunity," she explains.
An early affinity for the outdoors translated seamlessly into a love for the ocean.
"There's kind of a sense that the ocean is uncontrollable, and I find that I feel pretty secure in that," says Erickson. She learned to surf at age ten and began competing in local events in her teens.
"Competing pulls the best out of me, as a person and in surfing," she says. "I'm a better person because of it, let me tell you!"
A look at Erickson's career trajectory shows both her determination and her ability to rebound from setbacks. In 2010, Erickson finished equal third at the Oakley World Junior Championship in Keramas. It was one of her first major international results. She also reached the top ten in the 2010 Qualifying Series standings.
From there, she steadily improved. The following year, Erickson jumped to fourth in the QS and secured a spot on the Championship Tour for the first time. In 2012, Erickson won the QS -- another first for her. That achievement ensured that she stayed on Tour, despite her 13th-place ranking in the CT standings.
Then her momentum stalled. Erickson failed to requalify for 2014, despite doing double duty competing in both QS and CT events. For some surfers, that might have been the end of it. But not for Erickson.
"I think falling off, you can feel discouraged, like you're not good enough," she says. "I've been able to learn to disconnect from that and train my mind to look at the best of the situation."
In what has become a pattern in her career, Erickson fought back in 2014 and made it back on Tour for the 2015 season. A second overall victory on the QS in 2015 kickstarted her most successful competitive seasons so far, and Erickson stayed slotted securely in the top ten on the CT for the next two years.
"Everyone looks at it from the outside, like, it's the best job," says Nathaniel Curran, team manager at Channel Islands Surfboards. "But you know, sometimes you just want to be home with your family."
Erickson's resilience is built on a foundation of science and faith. Curious and open-minded, Erickson soaks up ideas from a variety of sources. She's read widely in sports psychology, including Steven Kotler's "The Rise of Superman," and she is not afraid to put herself under the magnifying glass.
"You need to be honest with your reality," Erickson says. "So it's positioning yourself to be able to do that in a self-loving way -- which, it's an interesting thing to navigate."
That honesty leads Erickson to look constantly for ways to improve -- whether it's an aspect of her surfing technique, her heat strategy, or her fitness. Erickson's glamorous surfer girl image makes it all look easy, but she is happiest when she's pushing her boundaries and putting in the hard work that winning heats requires.
"She should leave me alone more," Whitaker says with characteristic humor. "She is always asking for things, and it's all positive. It's all, ‘I want to get better.' She loves to grind."
When the setbacks come, Erickson believes her Christian faith helps her to stay positive and to keep her career in perspective. She expects challenges to come her way and her faith guides her toward embracing the process.
"There's good in everything, and if there's not in the moment, it eventually comes back around in a different way," she continues.
After falling off Tour for a second time in 2018, Erickson considered stepping away from competition. She had options. "It was comfortable to know that my life wasn't over, because I wasn't on Tour," she says.
Her sponsors were willing to support a shift in focus to travel and video projects. In spring 2019, Erickson took a trip to Fiji, where she stayed with a local family and explored the eastern coast, which was entirely new to her. Though she had been traveling for years, Erickson realized she had rarely explored the countries she visited or connected with their people in any meaningful way. Her trip to Fiji altered her perspective.
"I just loved actually embracing the culture and the people, instead of just reaping the waves and then leaving," she says. "That experience was soul-giving."
Still, Erickson found that she wanted the pressure that competing provides. The promise of equal prize money and the support she felt the WSL offered to the women's side of the sport motivated her. And she couldn't help but feel that she'd left things unfinished. For all those reasons, Erickson wanted back on tour.
It did not come easily. By early summer 2019, Erickson sat 25th in the rankings, a long way from the top six finish on the QS that she needed. Though she valued the experiences she had gained from travel and from experimenting with alternative boards, Erickson had some catching up to do.
The Vans US Open of Surfing at Huntington Beach offered her a chance to do just that. For the first time, the women's event carried 10,000 points. With a strong finish, Erickson could rocket up the rankings and put herself within striking distance of qualifying.
As she walked down the beach, Erickson had a lot riding on the outcome. "I remember having so much anxiety," she says. Erickson is typically energized by competing. This time around, she struggled to keep her focus, as she felt the pressures created by her own expectations and her desire to requalify.
Erickson also carried a heavy emotional weight. Her grandmother, one of her closest relatives had passed away two weeks previously. The U.S. Open had always been a special event for Erickson because her family makes the trip south each year to watch her heats. This time, her grandmother was missing from that tight circle.
"I spent about three-fourths of my life living with my grandma," she says. "I was so used to her being down there for those events and I just had to tap into a whole other place emotionally."
On finals day, Erickson steadily worked her way through the draw. Putting her strong backhand to use, she dispatched first Malia Manuel, then Tatiana Weston-Webb. As waist-high lefts slid under the pier, Erickson was in her element.
"She's got one of the top five women's surfing backhands in the world," Whitaker believes. "She's gifted with just that natural talent to go left."
In the Final, Erickson faced a formidable competitor in Courtney Conlogue. The two women were long-time rivals. They had grown up competing against one another, first in NSSA events, and later as professionals.
As she prepared for the Final, Erickson imagined her grandmother there with her.
"She was up there, sitting on the pier watching with some popcorn," she recalls.
With a seven and an eight, Erickson beat Conlogue to win her second U.S. Open. She also moved up into the top five on the QS leaderboard.
"The mental toughness there -- it takes a lot to win those events," says Curran. "I've been right there on the beach with her and seen her just be so focused. She's dug so deep to come out with two wins at the U.S. Open."
Requalifying was now within her reach. Erickson flew to Spain to compete in one of her favorite events. An equal fifth at the ABANCA Galicia Surf Pro confirmed her spot on the 2020 Tour.
One Crazy Year
Everything seemed to be falling into place for Erickson. She was back where she wanted to be. She would have the chance to compete for equal prize money. She had a new wave to learn at Teahupo'o. She couldn't wait for the 2020 season to begin.
In past years, Erickson typically booked what she describes as "humble" places to stay when she traveled to contests. For 2020, she "splurged" and reserved nicer accommodations for the season-opener at Snapper.
Then COVID whirlwinded through all our lives.
"2020 has been one crazy year," says Erickson.
By summer, Erickson realized she even missed staying in hotel rooms, which had been such a routine part of her life over the past fifteen years.
With characteristic optimism, Erickson has tried to make the best of these strange days. She's a long-time artist who draws her own graphics on her boards. Intent on working with her hands and looking for an outlet for self-expression, Erickson took a ceramics class.
While at home, she has also looked for new ways to connect with her community. She held an event at a local surf shop with a raffle and live music. Curran describes her as a "people person."
"She'll just be on the beach, just talking to everyone," he says. "I think people are kind of sometimes just blown away that Sage Erickson is just out there chatting with everyone."
The time at home has allowed Erickson to direct more energy toward the people around her than her usual competitive life allows. That means doing more to encourage young girls coming into surfing. Erickson says she now routinely reaches out on social media and chats up girls in the lineup.
Erickson has also taken time for reflection. Her hard-won resilience as an athlete and the optimism her Christian faith gives her have helped her navigate the unique challenges of the pandemic. But she remains humble.
"2020 is a learning year for me," she says. "I think a lot of people should also take that mentality. It's just taught me to sit back and understand things that I don't know about -- there's so many challenges going on in the world."
Her motivation undiminished, Erickson is looking forward to the future - whatever it might bring. If Erickson has her way, she'll spend 2021 traveling around the world, competing on the Championship Tour. But if not, she's pretty sure, she'll be just fine.