Editor's Note: Courtney Conlogue is a fearless competitor, and if you needed a reminder of that she provided one right on queue during Day Two of the Rip Curl Newcastle Cup presented by Corona, knocking two-time World Champion and current ratings leader Tyler Wright out of the event. This was evidence of the grit which has characterized Conlogue's time on the Championship Tour, and could foreshadow her biggest year yet.
It was a cold and overcast day, which is to say, typical weather for Bells Beach in April. Six-to-eight-foot sets roll through the lineup for the 2019 Rip Curl Pro final between Courtney Conlogue and Malia Manuel. Just over ten minutes into the heat, Manuel leads and dreams of her first ever CT event victory. Conlogue needs a nine to win.
A clean one comes through. Conlogue has priority and she is not going to let this chance pass her by. She speeds down the wave's face, her board chattering over the water's texture. A swooping bottom turn launches Conlogue up to the lip and she links together a series of strong, sweeping turns, one after another. Fearless, Conlogue whips into the close-out section, and rides it out, the white water exploding around her.
The judges like it. Conlogue receives a perfect ten. Manuel has an eight on the board and needs a high seven. But as the clock ticks down, the heat slips away from her. The momentum has shifted to Conlogue and she takes the win, her third at Bells Beach.
In ten years on the Championship Tour, Conlogue has built a reputation as a gritty competitor. She has won twelve CT events in her career and finished second in the world on two occasions. When conditions get rowdy as they did at Bells in 2019, Conlogue is at her best.
"She's damn fierce," says surfboard shaper Tim Stamps, who has worked with Conlogue for the past ten years. "She's really powerful and she doesn't back down from anything. She's gnarly."
Born and raised inland, Conlogue had no obvious path to reach surfing's elite ranks. So, she set out to forge her own. An improbable success story, Conlogue has built her career from a combination of prodigious athletic talent, full speed ahead energy, and an unstoppable drive to succeed.
Growing up in Santa Ana meant driving to surf. Conlogue's dad Richard learned to surf while serving in the Navy. "He ended up taking his surfboard on the ship as he traveled," she says. On Saturday mornings, Conlogue would call around for the local surf reports. "My dad would go, ‘where do you think is good today?'" Then the whole family would pile in the car and head to the coast. They searched for waves from Ventura to Trestles and surfed whatever conditions they found.
"I think doing that made her well-rounded,," says Stamps. "When you're driving to surf, you're probably going to spend all day at the beach, which is partly why she can surf for like, six hours at a time."
Between the ages of six and twelve, Conlogue surfed each weekend with her family. "We were weekend warriors," she says. "I never started surfing every day until I was on Tour." She and her brother Ryan and sister Charleen would go to school five days each week and spend the weekends surfing. She recalls entire days spent at Lowers, savoring every last minute in the water before sunset.
"At the end of the day, my brother, sister, and I would run up the hill from Lowers," Conlogue recalls. "My mom and dad would give us incentives like, first one to the top gets to pick where we eat dinner -- it was the only way to get us to the top."
At age nine, Conlogue began competing. It suited her. "She's always been just this gnarly competitor," says Stamps. "I wouldn't want to get her in a heat, because she's the gnarliest little sea tiger." At age 11, Conlogue was youngest surfer to compete for the U.S. junior national team at the ISA junior world championship event. She finished eleventh. Three years later at 14, Conlogue competed as a wildcard at the Maui Pro, her first Championship Tour event.
"I think she has always been at the top, and sometimes, it's harder that way," says Brett Simpson, a former Championship Tour surfer and current U.S. national team coach. "To have early success, you can be let down, but to me, she has always surfed like the underdog."
Despite her achievements in the water, Conlogue continued to attend school full-time. In high school, Conlogue received a scholarship from A Better Chance to attend Sage Hill Academy, a private school in Newport. "It was pretty much like going to college," she says. During her final two years at Sage Hill, she added two mornings of surfing to her schedule each week, waking up at 3:45 a.m. to surf and make it to her first class at 7:45 a.m. After school, she ran track and cross-country and practiced martial arts.
"I'd study until two or three in the morning, you know? It was a lot of effort," she says. "But I think with that, you end up realizing how much you want it."
If there's one thing to know about Conlogue, it's that she has an insane amount of energy. "I guess my personality is like a shot of espresso," she says. Competing in multiple sports, attending an academically intense high school, climbing the ranks in surfing - Conlogue managed to do it all. In 2009, at age 17, she scored her biggest victory yet at the U.S. Open at Huntington Beach.
Two years later, Conlogue qualified for the Championship Tour. Then it was her dad's turn to run. They had made a bet. If Conlogue made it on Tour, her dad would run a mile on a track.
"I'll never forget him, on New Year's Day, running a mile with my mom on the track," she says. "I thought it was so amazing that my dad followed through with it and I'm just so grateful for my family every day."
The Fiercest Sea Tiger
In her ten years on Tour, Conlogue has won twelve events and she finished second in the world in 2015 and 2016. She has built a reputation as a relentless competitor who thrives in unruly surf. "She's pretty gung ho at charging, and she's willing to take those chances," says Simpson. Conlogue credits surfing with her dad for her fearless approach. "We'd be pulling into close-out barrels at massive El Porto, just getting steamrolled," she says.
She finds joy in pushing her boundaries, and Conlogue has won events at some of the most challenging breaks on Tour, including Cloudbreak, Bells Beach, and Margaret River. Take the 2017 Fiji Pro, for example. In the finals, Conlogue faced Tatiana West. As a goofyfooter, West held an advantage on the left at Cloudbreak, but Conlogue managed to beat her. Again and again, Conlogue just plain went for it. Her determined, all-in approach won her the heat and the event.
"I've always loved big waves," she says. "It's a lot of decision-making - a lot of making the right decisions at the right time - and following your intuitions. It can really test you."
That affinity for bigger surf helped Conlogue win Bells Beach in 2019. It was a good start to a crucial year of competition for her. Following Bells, Conlogue sat third in the rankings. She was set up well for a title run and to compete for one of the coveted two U.S. Olympic team slots. Since her first trip to the ISA Games as a junior, even before surfing became an Olympic sport, Conlogue had dreamed of going to the Olympics.
But already at Bells, things weren't going according to plan. During the previous event on the Gold Coast, Conlogue suffered a concussion. The symptoms lingered. Then came a second concussion at Margaret River. Conlogue's tenacity made it impossible for her to stop. With the Olympic selection on the line, she was even more determined to keep charging.
"There were symptoms throughout the year," she says. "It was an Olympic qualifying year and I was just pushing for the title. It takes a lot for me to not keep going."
In October at the Meo Rip Curl Pro in Portugal, Conlogue hit her head again. The injury came with just over fourteen minutes left in her third round heat against Nikki Van Dijk. Conlogue went to smack a close-out section and fell hard. Locked into contest mode, she switched boards, ran down the beach, and immediately paddled back out.
But she wasn't okay. At the end of her heat, Conlogue belly-boarded into the beach, pressing her hand against her forehead. "I didn't fly home for eleven days, because I couldn't," she says. The third concussion put an end to her 2019 season and ended her hopes of Olympic selection, at least for now.
"The first two, I definitely felt them, but I was thinking like a knee injury, you strap it up, put a brace on it, and keep going," she says. "The third one was the one that told me that I needed to slow down. Legit."
Back in California, Conlogue turned her formidable energy to the recovery process. "I'm just a goer and a doer, and I don't like to sit around for eight or ten hours and just sit, still," she says. That was one sign to Conlogue that something was wrong. Her days are normally action-packed. She forced herself to slow down.
"The symptoms I was having, I knew I needed to take it more seriously," she says. "We only get one brain, and I kinda like the way mine works."
Learning patience proved a big challenge for Conlogue as her recovery did not follow a straight line. "That's a weird thing about a concussion, you can't see it," she says. In pursuit of normalcy, she did biofeedback training, meditation, and spent time in a hyperbaric chamber. She paid extra attention to nutrition and spent time simply breathing. Conlogue focused on recreating normal routines and all the small daily habits that add up to a life. "It was a rollercoaster," she says.
The postponement and eventual cancellation of the 2020 Championship Tour events gave Conlogue more time to recover. She used her forced down time to make art. "Right now, I'm working on mastering waves - not only with surfing them, but also painting them," she says. Conlogue travels with charcoal and a small watercolor set. When she began to add more physical activity back into her life, Conlogue learned to rock climb. She found the mental focus it requires improved her with lingering concussion symptoms.
One day last spring, while out with her mom Tracey, Conlogue saw a long line of people. It wrapped around the block and beyond. She realized they were all waiting to receive help from the local foodbank. Determined to help, Conlogue created Paddling with a Purpose, a fundraising challenge. She set a goal of paddling from Catalina Island to mainland California, a 32-mile trek across open ocean. With help from Jamie Mitchell, Conlogue created an eight-week training program.
With the paddle project, Conlogue helped herself, while also helping others. The consistent training and the mindful repetition of paddling helped ease her concussion symptoms. As she paddled, she raised money for Feeding America, a network of foodbanks in the U.S., and A Better Chance, the organization who provided her scholarship in high school. Together with her brother Ryan and her friend Landon Holman, Conlogue completed the crossing in August.
"I was paying it forward," she says. "There was only so much I could give, but through action and inspiration, I know how significant that ripple effect can be."
That same spirit of giving back has led Conlogue to work with the U.S. junior national surf team, where she received some of her first opportunities to compete internationally. While in California during the Covid break, she led a clinic for the talented young girls on the team. "The girls don't get to see a lot of the pros," says Simpson. "It was just so special, because she has so much knowledge." There were plenty of laughs, too, as Conlogue mixed fun with the hard work.
"Hands down, I wanted to help the young girls," says Conlogue. "They're the next generation and it's just good to be part of inspiring them and giving them some tools - and a little levity and training."
To Be Unbreakable
Conlogue is climbing the walls. She flew into Sydney four days previously, and is now spending the required fourteen-day quarantine in a high-rise hotel. The room is spacious, but it's still a hotel room, indoors, a long way from the waves. With her boundless energy, Conlogue does not spend time indoors easily.
So she gets creative. Slipping on her climbing shoes and hanging her chalk bag from her waist, Conlogue sets out to complete a circuit around the room. Like Spider-Woman come to life, she finds hand- and footholds in the windowframes. She wraps herself around the doorframe. Normal people walk on the floor. Not Conlogue. Or at least, not Conlogue stuck in quarantine in a hotel room.
After almost a year away from competition, Conlogue can't wait to get back to it. After long months of work, she has finally put her injuries behind her. She has a fresh stack of finely tuned boards from Stamps, and she's as fit as ever. Conlogue sees competition as a test of her training and her mental strength. She is ready to see just how she stacks up.
"I'm kind of up against myself in heats, and I'm seeing how hard I can push myself" she says. "It's a chance to see what I'm made of, how I can evolve, and how I can make myself unbreakable."