When contest surfing restarted in fall 2020, Johanne Defay decided to drive her van to the European Countdown events. It was a rare chance for Defay to travel the coastline from France to Portugal, camping and surfing along the way. During the MEO Portugal Cup, Defay camped in the parking lot at Ribeira de Ilhas in Ericeira where the event took place.
It was a characteristically down-to-earth move from Defay, 27, who has made a habit of following her own path throughout her career. When she lost her principal sponsor at 19, Defay crowdfunded her way to events. When it came time to choose a coach, Defay turned to a triathlete and ultra-runner rather than a former professional surfer. It's a unique approach, and that's how she likes it.
"Johanne has had an atypical course in surfing and in the early years, she could only count on her close entourage, when other surfers had strong sponsors," says Simon Paillard, her coach and boyfriend. "She has made her own choices and stuck to her course -- even in difficult times."
Her individualism has worked for her. In her six years on the Championship Tour, Defay has never finished below the top ten, and in 2016 and 2018, she finished the year ranked fifth in the world. Along the way, Defay has won three CT events and a European Championship. And if sponsors have not rained cash on Defay, she has found a deep satisfaction in achieving success her own way.
Sometime before her second birthday, Defay's parents moved their family from Puy-en-Velay, an inland city in southeastern France to Réunion Island. A doctor and a nurse, they wanted to escape the cold of northern European winters. Located in the Indian Ocean off Africa's east coast, Réunion boasts a tropical climate, coral reefs, and volcanic, black-sand beaches.
Waves rifle across the reefs in Réunion's clear waters and thanks to the island's volcanic origins, dramatic mountains rise steeply from the coast. Unlike mainland France, there's no winter weather in Réunion. "You're always barefoot, and you're going to the beach every day," says Defay. There's waterfalls to explore, palm trees waft in the breeze, and lagoons teem with wildlife.
"You can go up to more than 3000 meters (6000 feet)," says Defay. "We call it L'ile Intense - the Intense Island. It's really raw."
Almost as soon as they arrived in Réunion, Defay's father began surfing. "I got into surfing around seven years old with my dad," says Defay. "From that point, I just never stopped. I really liked to be in the ocean." Defay began competing at age ten, and quickly discovered a talent for contest surfing. In 2009, at age 16, Defay won her first of three European Championship titles in the junior ranks.
Growing up in Réunion, Defay learned to surf hollow reef breaks from an early age. The island receives its waves from storms that blow up from the Roaring 40s to the south, so lefts are common there. As a regular-footer, Defay developed a powerful backhand that has served her well throughout her career. She says even now that she feels more comfortable going left; her surfing feels more intuitive.
"After watching her on Tour and traveling with her, Johanne's an incredible backhand surfer," says four-time World Champion Carissa Moore. "She's a really strong surfer, and she charges back hand."
Because of its unique location at the crossroad of Africa and South Asia, Réunion has a culturally diverse population and Defay values the tolerance her upbringing there taught her.
"I realize how lucky I was to be around all these different people and it opened my mind," says Defay. These days, travel means not only discovering new waves, but also exploring different cultures.
By her early teenage years, Defay had committed her full energy to surfing. Motivated by a passion for competing, Defay began traveling to WQS events at age seventeen. Her pursuit of a spot on the Championship Tour occupied the next three years and she scooped up multiple event victories in the junior pro ranks.
"Surfing competitively is really something that drives me and makes me happy about my days," says Defay. "I'm working toward something and that makes me feel really good - and satisfied."
In 2013 Defay had her best year yet, when she won five events and finished second at the six-star Swatch Girls Pro at Hossegor. Defay also took home the European Championship title. Added up, her results secured her a slot on the Championship Tour for 2014. It all looked to be going according to plan.
On paper, Defay's career was on track, but behind the results, things were more complicated. As she was scoring the best results of her career, Defay struggled to find the financial support she needed to continue competing. As she traveled to QS events, her expenses added up quickly. Even when she won an event, Defay could not always cover the cost of getting there.
At the end of 2013, Defay's then-sponsor Roxy did not renew her contract. The brand's decision came as a surprise to her. Defay says now she lacked the perspective at 19 to navigate the setback. She took it personally. She heard rumors that the brand had dropped her because she wasn't pretty enough. "I wasn't like the perfect, tall blonde girl who could sell a lot of bikinis," she recalls hearing. The rumors stung.
"It was just purely business, but I didn't understand at the time," she says. "Because when you're nineteen, and just a girl, and you hear that you don't look a certain way, and that the surfing that you've made so many sacrifices for is not enough, it's a little traumatic."
Characteristically, Defay does not like to complain about the setbacks. "I don't always want to go back and be like, ‘poor little girl,'" she says, laughing. But it's taken time for her to put her experiences in perspective. "I understand the brand's position now," she says.
Determined to compete on the CT in 2014, Defay turned to crowdfunding. She also received support from an unexpected source. "Jeremy Flores helped me on my first and second years on Tour," says Defay. "He helped me financially start my year and to pay my tickets and accommodations in Australia, which was awesome." Flores helped her learn some of the breaks on Tour, and Defay also benefited from advice from Bianca Buittentag and Pauline Ado.
Despite the challenges of funding her career, Defay thrived on Tour. She hit her stride at the Fiji Pro where she made her first quarterfinal. For the remainder of the year, Defay never finished below fifth. At both Trestles and Hossegor, Defay made the semifinals. Thanks to her consistently solid performances, Defay finished 2014 ranked eighth in the world. She also won the Rookie of the Year award.
Her successful CT début reinforced Defay's determination. The following year, Defay won her first Championship Tour event at the Vans U.S. Open at Huntington Beach. She defeated Sally Fitzgibbons in the final. It was the first time a French woman had won a Championship Tour event since 1992.
From then on, Defay decided she would set her own course and do things her own way. After two years in the top ten, she felt confident in her future in the sport. Defay had successfully turned the setback of losing her main sponsor into something positive.
"In some ways, it gave me freedom to really choose how I wanted to manage my career, and how I wanted to be an athlete," she says. "I was really into the surfing world and I really needed to step back and understand what I was doing and how I wanted to do it."
Choosing Her Own Path
One of the decisions Defay made was to continue living on Réunion Island. "It's been forbidden to surf for the past eight years, so I can't practice as much as I want," says Defay. The prohibition on surfing came after a series of shark attacks in the waters around the island. Recently, surfers have begun returning to the lineups, despite the continued ban, but Defay does not have the same access to waves that a surfer in California or Australia might.
Still, the decision feels right to her. Her family is there, and her partner lives there, too. "I make so many sacrifices for surfing and for my career," she says. "It is already enough for me." It's important to Defay to feel at home when she is not traveling to compete, and she has shifted her training to fit the restrictions on Réunion.
"I'm not the kind of athlete that is going to sacrifice my family and my relationship for my career or my performance," she says. "I don't surf as much as a lot of people on Tour, but it has worked out."
In search of the right support, Defay sought coaching advice from an unlikely source. Her coach, Paillard is a former triathlete and he currently competes in ultra-running. Paillard's background in endurance sports leads him to emphasize mental strength as a foundation for competitive success.
"My experience has shown me that the mind is the most powerful lever, so you have to train your mind as hard as you train your body," says Paillard. "I wasn't there to teach her how to surf, but just how to use her potential."
Together, Defay and Paillard have designed a training program that combines a variety of activities. In the course of her training, Defay has demonstrated a deep well of athletic talent. "When she trains for running with my training group, she surprises a lot of people with her abilities," says Paillard. After four months of cycling, Defay completed a 213 kilometer (132 mile) tour through Réunion's mountainous terrain.
"In the surfing world, a lot of people think that only a surfer can help you improve, but I don't agree," says Defay. "I think my experience really shows that you can have someone come in with a different point of view and fix a lot of things outside your surfing that will then improve your surfing."
Training with Paillard has given Defay a structure to her athletic life that she feels she needed and that surfing alone does not give her. Defay has also learned to be more concentrated during her work-outs. "I think that triathlon and ultra-running are two sports where you really need to be disciplined and give it 100%," she says. Defay has tried to bring that same focus to her own career, even if some people in surfing have wondered what she was doing.
"I really made some hard choices about what I thought was good for me, but not everybody felt the same," Defay says. "Now I'm here, and I'm on Tour, and I'm the only French and European girl on Tour, and I think that's because of the choices that I made - and that I made them work."
Her results reinforce that assertion. Since her first year on Tour in 2014, Defay has finished in the top ten in the world rankings every time. Along the way, she has won three events: Vans U.S. Open at Huntington Beach in 2015, Fiji Pro in 2016, and Uluwatu in 2018. Not surprisingly, her best results have come in lefts. The only surprising part is that her results have not brought Defay more sponsorship support.
"She doesn't really have the backing I think she deserves," says Moore, who describes Defay as a close friend. "I've always been kind of baffled. Like, how?! I think she's a great role model and an incredible surfer - she's just super relatable - and a brand would be so lucky to have her."
What Comes Next
Looking ahead, Defay hopes to continue her career through the 2024 Olympic Games, which will take place in France. "I have the opportunity to live an Olympic Games in my own country with French fans and everything," she says. "I think that would be insane!" By then, Defay will be 30 years old, and she feels like time is flying.
Though Defay loves surfing and competing, she has begun to feel torn between continuing to live for her sport and chasing other dreams. "I'm not sure if I want to have surfing as my priority for the next ten years," she says. The Covid gap year has shown her the importance of family relationships and life experiences outside of sports. "But I really want to live a few more years for surfing," she says.
As she continues her career, Defay also hopes to spend more time mentoring young girls who want to surf. "I think surfing and competition has really helped me to be confident in myself," she says. Defay wants to share her experiences with other women and with younger girls. She hopes she can help them learn to trust their instincts the way she has learned to trust her own.
"I feel like now that I'm a little older, I have the time and step back, and I'm really proud of my path," says Defay. "Not everyone was really betting on me, and I didn't have a sponsor at some times, but I never gave up."