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.
Sally Fitzgibbons moves fast. The high-energy Australian likely accomplishes more in a day than most of us manage in a week. A morning surf, a mid-day run, a trip to the gym, another surf - somehow it all fits into a single day for Fitzgibbons.
Since 2009, she has channeled her formidable energy into competing on the Championship Tour in pursuit of a World Title. On three occasions, Fitzgibbons has finished second in the world. At times, it has felt like falling short to her. But over time, Fitzgibbons has gained a clearer perspective on where contest results fit into her life.
With surfing's first appearance in the Olympic Games set for 2021, Fitzgibbons has put her full focus on improving her air game. When Fitzgibbons began her career, women's surfing prized consistency and grace. Now with teen phenoms such as Sierra Kerr casually boosting airs, Fitzgibbons is determined not just to keep up, but to excel.
"I want to be able to do whatever I imagine on a wave," Fitzgibbons says. "It sounds simple - doing my best surfing, but your best surfing is never one fixed place."
After more than ten years in the sport, Fitzgibbons has learned to define her best surfing her own way. She's committed to pushing her boundaries as a surfer and as a person. And in the process, she's willing to let the contest results fall where they may.
The Girl from Gerroa
Roughly ninety miles by car from Sydney, the small town of Gerroa sits on a headland with surf on every side. There's a coffee shop, a post office, a park, and plenty of wide open space. Growing up, Fitzgibbons felt surrounded by the ocean. "It's like you get an ocean hug," she says of her hometown.
Her family spent most days at the beach - "it was like daycare" - and when her three older brothers learned to surf, Fitzgibbons quickly followed. A self-described tomboy, Fitzgibbons could often be found climbing trees in her brothers' outgrown boardshorts. As the youngest of four and the only girl, Fitzgibbons spent many days chasing after her brothers.
"I was always being left behind, so I became really good at running," she says. "I was always running and running."
Fitzgibbons knew from an early age that she wanted to be an athlete. Growing up, she competed in multiple sports including soccer, track and field, and surfing. Fitzgibbons finds a joy in movement and it fuels her love for sports.
"I tried all these sports," she says. "It's like, what's the rules? It's all movement. How do we play?"
A fun what-if: If Fitzgibbons had not become a professional surfer, she would likely have competed as an elite runner. In 2007, she even qualified for the junior world championships in track and field.
But surfing always had a strong hold on Fitzgibbons. The coastline around Gerroa offers a variety of waves to explore and surfing's lack of structure appealed to her. "It was a place where you're doing most of the things off the back of your imagination," she says. Fitzgibbons still draws on a similar mindset when she thinks about her surfing.
"Even to this day, I just sit for a while and get a sense of what I want to work on in my surfing," she says. "It's just like, scratching that itch - and that itch was something that developed when I was like ten, on a headland where there was nothing."
Growing up, Fitzgibbons found few other girls in the lineup and she experienced plenty of tough love from the more experienced men she encountered. "No one was going to hold your hand," she says. That dynamic only served to reinforce her determination. She knew she wanted to be out there and she knew she wanted to succeed.
Joy in the Process
And succeed she did. Once Fitzgibbons turned her full attention to competitive surfing, she ripped her way through the junior ranks. In consecutive years, Fitzgibbons won both the ASP and ISA junior world titles. In 2008, at age eighteen, she won the first five events of the World Qualifying Series and wrapped up the WQS overall victory in startlingly efficient fashion.
By winning the WQS, Fitzgibbons earned a spot on the Championship Tour. In fact, she became the youngest woman ever to qualify for the CT, a distinction only recently surpassed by Caroline Marks. A fifth place finish in 2009 earned Fitzgibbons the Rookie of the Year prize. The future looked golden.
Her successes in the junior ranks and evident talent fueled world title expectations. But the next three seasons brought a string of near-misses as Fitzgibbons finished second in the world each year. These days, Fitzgibbons is proud of those second places, but at the time, in her early twenties, the disappointment hit her hard.
"There was this pressurized internal experience," she says. "It was such an emotional fall at the end. It was pretty raw. And it felt like, ‘oh I've lost it, I've lost everything.'"
Time and experience has taught Fitzgibbons to put less weight on outcomes. Every athlete has to learn to manage the rollercoaster ride that competition can be. Not even the best surfers win every heat and bouncing back from setbacks is part of the game.
With its unpredictable playing field, competitive surfing makes achieving that essential mental balance even more difficult.
"You do all your etch-a-sketches and you're like, there will be this many sets and this many waves. But reallllyyy- ," Fitzgibbons draws out the word and laughs at the absurdity of predicting the ocean.
"You don't know! And to actually put myself up for that constantly, to pour all this energy in - and then, I don't know if I'll actually get the opportunity to perform," she says in an effort to explain the unique mental stress that contest surfing imposes.
Recognizing the limits of how much she can control in a contest heat opened the way for Fitzgibbons to see competition in a different light. It helped that she thrives on the daily rituals of being an athlete. That love of movement Fitzgibbons discovered early in life has yet to fade, and it inspires her to keep challenging herself.
In fact, she's found that focusing on results means missing many things she loves about surfing that have nothing to do with contest heats. The opportunity to compete and a life dedicated to pushing her limits has become its own prize for Fitzgibbons.
"It doesn't have to fit into this perfect rewarding box," she says. "You are very much depending on everything being a success if it ends up with the world title trophy. But really, you're underselling it, because there's so much going on that is the reward."
Learning to Fly
When Fitzgibbons imagines her best surfing, she envisions taking to the air with practiced ease. If only it were as easy to do as it is to imagine.
"You talk to people who can do airs, and they can look so effortless," she says. "And all the guys will tell you, like, oh my God, it's taken so long. They've sacrificed in the onshore for like 28 million hours, just faceplanting and falling off."
In her early years as a competitive surfer, Fitzgibbons felt a pressure to be elegant on the board, stay on her feet, and complete her waves. Avoiding mistakes was the priority. Learning to fly means letting things get messy.
Fitzgibbons tells a story from this past year. The absence of contests has kept her at home, practicing in the onshores. One day after a session, a fellow surfer approached her in the parking lot. He'd noticed her trying over and over to land the same air. In three months of attempts, she hadn't yet made one. She told him she just had to believe that at some point, she would land it.
"You just have to have the mindset of wanting to take risks," says Bede Durbidge, who has worked with Fitzgibbons in his role as head coach at Surfing Australia. "Trying it 100 times and not making one - You've got to be in this uncomfortable space for a long time."
Working on airs has required Fitzgibbons to shift her mentality and unlearn some old habits. At the same time, it allows her to play to her strengths as an athlete. Her fitness keeps the physical demands well within her reach, while her abundant energy means Fitzgibbons is game to keep trying.
Perhaps most importantly, her maturity as an athlete means that she is not afraid to fail. To learn a new trick requires many hours of failing. For Fitzgibbons, the success is in the trying.
"She's playing to her strengths and she's exploring ways that she can reinvent her surfing," says Kim Crane, who until recently served as the high performance director at Surfing Australia. "You sense now in her energy that Sal feels quite liberated and really free."
In September, Fitzgibbons competed at the Tweed Coast Pro, one of the WSL's Countdown Series events. During her quarterfinal heat against Tyler Wright at Cabarita Beach, Fitzgibbons landed a clean air reverse. As she paddled back out into the lineup, her bright smile showed plainly the satisfaction she felt. All those hours boosting in the onshores were beginning to pay off.
"After developing something in the dark when you're freesurfing, I think the ultimate test is pulling the trigger when there's that one moment to do it," Fitzgibbons says. "So really, events for me, moving forward, are always going to be checkpoints - they're opportunities to try to do that surfing."
With the Olympic Games set for 2021, the timing of her evolution could not be better. As a girl in Gerroa, Fitzgibbons dreamed of going to the Olympics. When she committed to surfing, she believed she had let go of the dream forever. Now, she has her chance. As a proud Australian who loves sports, Fitzgibbons bubbles over with enthusiasm about the Games.
"It's the biggest sports party in the world!" she says. "It's like you've been at university studying, and you're doing your Ph.D. in sport. Like, hey, you've navigated your way all the way here. I just see it as such a cool recognition, it's beyond my wildest dreams!"
In 2017, Fitzgibbons led the world rankings with just one event to go. She had made the quarterfinals in every event that year. Yet again, the world title seemed within reach.
During her round two heat at Honolua Bay, quite suddenly, the waves shut down. In a moment almost too cinematic for reality, the skies darkened, and rain began to fall. Fitzgibbons could only watch as the clock ticked away her chances.
It would be easy to be discouraged by an experience like that one. Not Fitzgibbons. "I'm still frothy," she says.
Her love for the sport - and for the process of learning, trying, failing, and trying again - is evident. Look no further than her reinvention. Fitzgibbons is determined to fly high, and she's willing to keep trying, no matter how times she falls, and how long it takes her.
"It's like that moment, where you're working out a session, and all the waves are well offshore," she says. "It's not easy surfing, and it's cold. It's grindy. And I'm just going to go out and see what's there, and see what my story is for that session."
Fitzgibbons knows that when she comes in, she will be glad that she paddled out there and did it. She has found joy in the hard sessions and the difficult moments. After twelve years on Tour, Fitzgibbons says she's still stoked and she's fired up to meet whatever new challenges the sport has in store for her.
"I'm ready," she says, and it's impossible to doubt her.