”Young Jedi” Fitzgibbons set to show off serious airtime when surfing resumes
Australian surfer Sally Fitzgibbons believes there will be a major change to women’s surfing when action restarts following the COVID-19 lockdown. As the sport gears up for its historic Olympic debut, she and her peers are ready to bring aerials to the fore.
Sally Fitzgibbons was never going to spend her lockdown sitting still. It is not in her nature. So, aside from writing a new app, masterminding a photo archive and relentlessly keeping fit, the Australian has also been spearheading a revolution in women’s surfing.
“I think aerial manoeuvres will make a huge push when we return to competition,” Fitzgibbons, the three-time women’s World Surf League (WSL) Championships Tour runner-up, said. “There will be a change.
“They are so hard. The ones you see in all the surf movies getting stomped are just so technical. I’ve always had such a fascination in them.”
The recent months she has spent confined to the wild New South Wales coast, several hours south of Sydney, have finally given her the chance to integrate aerials into her repertoire. Not that it has been easy, even for someone who has been competing at the very top for the past 11 seasons.
“You go through all these emotions, questioning how and what, and then there are the bruises,” she said with a long laugh. “But then you pull yourself back together and go again. With the competitive schedule the way it is, you don’t normally have that luxury of beating yourself up to learn stuff.
“You see some of the best [aerial] specialists in the world, like a Filipe Toledo or Italo Ferreira, the way they stomp them, and you think they have never been through the process of it being very awkward and getting hurt and the board hitting you every which way. You think maybe they just got them straight away because they make it look so effortless, but that’s the beauty in this sport. You can be inspired by the pursuit.
“I have made some huge leaps in practice, but I think the quantum leap is putting them regularly into your competitive repertoire and under pressure going to them, even though they are super risky.”
The analysis Fitzgibbons has been doing after each session – she admits to obsessing over “every little bit” – has had an upside for fans, with much of the footage making it on to social media. The 29-year-old is firmly of the opinion that it is part of her duty to share.
“Maybe five years ago people were thinking, ‘Oh, it’s a race to do it so you might keep it in your trick bag’ but the way it is now, it’s such a rare gem to get it all to align, so why not keep pushing the limit of women’s surfing and put it out there?” the Australian said.
“Then the next generation can watch them, and they are all doing the same. I really think it’s better to have it out there, living and breathing, because it helps us as a group to want to go out there and stomp another one.”
For Fitzgibbons, it is the mental side of the sport that is key anyway. You can get only so far with talent and practice. You have to be able to dig deep inside and find what is necessary at the right time. An 11-time WSL Tour winner, Fitzgibbons has always sought new tools and ways of “understanding a little more about what’s going on up top”. But ultimately, it comes down to the athlete.
“I do like to not have the team there all the time because that is when the fun stuff happens, you have to step up and work it out,” she stressed. “No one else can work it out in real time – you’ve got to trust yourself and back yourself. You have to choose your waves and react on the fly. The greats of our sport, the ones I look up to, have always been Jedis at that.
“I am still learning. I am a young Jedi.”
Passing her knowledge on to even younger ‘Jedi’ has been a focus throughout lockdown with Fitzgibbons in the final throes of releasing a coaching app. The intention has been to gather all the scraps of information and advice she has picked up over more than a decade at the top of her sport. The finished product will have stuff for everyone: from kids, and parents of kids, starting out to those on the fringes of the big time.
This unerring commitment to continually pushing at the boundaries of surfing helps explain the Australian’s infectious excitement at being part of the rescheduled Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. That, and the fact that she has been an Olympic-obsessive for as long as she can remember. The once highly promising middle-distance runner was even there in the stadium when compatriot Cathy Freeman brought Australia to a standstill by winning 400m gold at Sydney 2000.
As she has always hoped from the moment it was announced surfing was to be included at the Games, Fitzgibbons is convinced the famed Olympic spirit has already started to take effect on her beloved sport.
“It’s cool noticing our Aussie culture being built. It’s already brought unity and that’s really neat. Currently, we are in the midst of trying to pick a team name,” said the surfer who sealed a spot on the Australian women’s team alongside seven-time WSL Tour champion Stephanie Gilmore in October 2019.
“Big moment, picking your national team name. There is a lot of banter. There is a bird called the sandpiper, really ‘Speedy Gonzales’ little birds that are on the shore-break all the time, running in and out, and I like the ‘Aussie Sandpipers’.”
Before, unable to resist it, she added: “But I don’t know if it’s going to fly yet…”