IIt was a moment that I had observed thousands of times before. The moment of relentless pressure – the 85th minute of a high-scoring football match, the last mile of a grueling road cycling stage, the last lap of a tight 400m swim race. As a sports writer, it is my great privilege to watch the world’s best athletes in the cauldron of intensity that is elite sport. These are moments of truth.
Suddenly it was my turn. On a sunny Sunday last month, I was in the waves in Malua Bay, NSW. Above my wetsuit was a bright yellow rash-vest, setting me apart from other competitors. Yellow, green, red, blue – splashes of color for a panel of judges by the beach to score as we battled in the two-meter choppy water.
Ever since I was a child and grew up on the outskirts of Canberra, I have been fascinated by the waves of the south coast. Quarterly beach vacations saw me in the water, inevitably falling off a surfboard. But the calm lakes of the nation’s capital are not a natural breeding ground for professional surfers. Stays in Washington DC and London, neither adjacent to the ocean, did little to improve my prowess on the board.
That changed in March of last year, when the pandemic saw me flee to my homeland. Two weeks of seclusion in a family beach house turned into 18 months of morning surfing and ultimately the start of my competitive surfer career.
After reporting on the Malua Boardriders, a reborn surf club to help the local community recover from the black summer bushfires, I was gently encouraged to participate in the monthly surf-off. By May I had regained my courage, only to have my confidence shattered at first by a lackluster score of 3.14 (surfers are rated 10 for each wave).
In the pressure of the moment, I had exhausted myself paddling for every wave possible – and I hadn’t done anything noticeable on the ones I had caught. As I trudged along the beach, dejected, a spectator gave me a tip: “Only two waves count.”
My injured pride, the pandemic, and a trip to cover the Olympics delayed my return to competition. But in November, inspired by Australia’s exploits at the Tokyo Games (including Owen Wright’s bronze medal in surfing), I was back and determined to show some improvement.
The conditions were tough – big shifting peaks and a powerful rip across the beach. I managed to take off on a couple, but got stuck in some closures. Without the benefit of a high-tech communication system, the Boardriders displayed colorful flags in the sand to mark the passage of time. When the green flag changed to yellow, I knew I had five minutes left – and not much on the scoreboard.
That was it: my moment of importance. After a decade of judging athletes at such times, alternately congratulating and criticizing from the security of the press gallery, it was my turn. I may not have had to deal with a media inquisition afterwards, and the hopes of a nation certainly did not rest on my shoulders clad in wetsuits, but as time went on the pressure sank. felt quite real.
A peak formed in the distance, heading straight towards me. I jump in, taking off on my last heat wave. Either way, that would be decisive – a fall would end my hopes for improvement and doom me to another walk of shame. As I descended the steep face of the wave and tilted to the right, I realized that a small barrel was forming – the holy grail of surfing. I rocked inward, pushing my head, then my body, and finally my board into the wave itself. It would have been ugly to watch from the beach, rude and inelegant. But it worked. At least momentarily, I was in the heart of the wave.
A few minutes later, I was walking to the beach, my head a little higher than the last time. It wasn’t until I reached the parking lot and checked out the live scoring app that I was greeted with the good news. My final effort was awarded 4.97 – the best heat wave. My combined score of 8.14 was enough to secure a place in the semi-finals. My race faltered later in the day, finishing last with a miserable score. But I was still delighted.
Trying and largely failing at something new offers a powerful dose of humility. And in those final hot minutes, as I waited for nature to test my limited surfing abilities, I felt a deeper empathy for those I analyze at the Olympics, World Cups and World Championships. . It was a rush to be in this moment, needing to play under acute time pressure. But above all, I felt proud to have voluntarily placed myself in this environment, where failure was almost guaranteed and where any guaranteed success was fleeting at best.
It reminded me of something an Olympian once told me, about the inability to control the performance of competitors and the need, therefore, to rejoice in personal effort – to win, to lose. or draw. At the time, I thought it was a trivial observation – now I appreciate its depth. Whether on the world stage or in the waves of Malua Bay, any athlete can give it a try. In the times that matter, it’s the attempts rather than the victories that count. My wave of 4.97 was just the icing on the cake.