Australian surfing royalty Sally Fitzgibbons speaks to DMARGE about her latest career goals, setbacks, the impact of social media on athletes’ performance and what to do when you feel like “the sky is falling.”
“Someone’s always going to have an opinion on what you’re doing: from how you’re eating breakfast to how you perform, to how you warm down, to how you wear your shorts; it’s so constant,” Sally Fitzgibbons told DMARGE recently.
Fitzgibbons – born and raised in the sleepy seaside town of Gerroa on Australia’s New South Wales coast – was talented at a variety of sports growing up.
She represented her state and Australia 14 times, winning gold at the 2007 Australian Youth Olympic Festival in the 800m and 1500m. She also showed promise at touch football, soccer, athletics and cross-country. But all of this eventually became secondary to surfing.
When Fitzgibbons was 14, she became the youngest surfer to win an ASP Pro Junior event before following that feat up with an International Surfing Association under 18 world title a year later in Portugal.
She went on to make history at 18, when she won the Qualifying Series championship faster than any other woman ever, setting a record by closing out the 2008 series in the first five events.
Fitzgibbons continued this remarkable run of form when she joined the Championship Tour (CT). She finished her first ever season as the World Number 5. Fitzgibbons then came runner-up three years in a row – in 2010, 2011 and 2012.
She recently sat down for a chat with DMARGE about her goals, the changing face of the World Surf League, what it’s like being under constant media scrutiny, what it means to be a Breitling ambassador and her advice for the next generation of Australian athletes.
The first topic Fitzgibbons tackled was designing a watch that can withstand the wrath of the ocean (“it takes no mercy,” she told us), as well as sharing how excited she was to see the release of the new Breitling SuperOcean earlier this year. As Fitzgibbons explained: “It’s taken a few versions to match it as it’s a super sleek and stylish watch – but also one that has to be that reliable when you’re in the water.”
“You don’t want to be thinking, ‘is this thing going to fall off?’ It’s cool to have something that’s good for the gym and good for the ocean, but also something you can come straight back onto land with that can fit in with all your outfits and look great there too.”Sally Fitzgibbons
Fitzgibbons, who is part of the Breitling Surfer Squad, told DMARGE: “The sport of surfing isn’t a niche anymore. It has expanded into so many environments [and] it’s cool to be that bridge [between them].” She also said: “Whether it’s the beach clean-ups or spending time with Kelly and Steph [Kelly Slater and Stephanie Gilmore], to me it’s something really powerful.”
“Wearing a Breitling timepiece is a constant reminder of that – it’s not just a beautiful looking watch, it’s a story; a connection. When you’re out there competing alone, with two minutes remaining in the heat and you look down at your watch, whether it’s that energy of Steph and Kelly – that feeling of being together as a squad – [it helps].”
“That’s in a sense our modern-day armour. It’s a way to express ourselves, it’s part of the jigsaw in your own personal development. That kind of style influences you to feel positive and confident walking out that door.”
Speaking of confidence, we asked Fitzgibbons how she copes with setbacks – and what her advice would be for the next generation of athletes now breaking onto the tour. She told us: “People go through the wash cycle, then they stop to go: ‘I’m going to give this little bit of self-care back.'”
She said it’s not helpful to compare yourself to others with this crazy pace of life, but it’s better to find your own groove. That said, Fitzgibbons admitted: “It does feel like the sky is falling after setbacks.” But having a plan, trusting the process and taking care of yourself “can minimise the highs and the lows.”
Diet is also key, Fitzgibbons said, especially as an athlete who is often travelling around the world. “You want to have this set regiment,” Fitzgibbons told DMARGE. “Everything in life pushes against that. You can be travelling to a different country or culture every other week, so to think you’re going to get the same salad is not the case.”
It’s better to have more of a framework and to plug in the best options as you’re going along, Fitzgibbons said. It’s also useful to have “default options” for when you’re most hungry, so that you’re not reaching out for junk, and so that you can stick to a plan of eating with purpose and intention.
In terms of snacks, Fitzgibbons is a fan of fruit, nuts, Greek yogurt, a cup of tea or a chai, she told us. Then when it comes to lunch she likes to go for some “nice lean protein” – whether that’s fish or chicken – and to look at the plate’s real estate, to make sure there’s a bigger amount of vegetables (that the other elements), a little bit of starch (“whether it’s rice or sweet potato”) and a little bit of protein.
Next up is training. Fitzgibbons told us she loves outdoor running and biking, which she says are great sports for seeing new environments (especially when you are travelling). She’s also a fan of body weight exercises, swimming, agility work, fast-paced exercises and squat holds, pushing around a bit more weight and building up her strength base (especially in preparation for long point break waves like Australia’s Snapper and South Africa’s JBay).
Finally, when it comes time to prepare for Hawaii there is a lot of underwater work to prepare for the demands (and hold downs) of heavy water.
Fitzgibbons also spoke to DMARGE about the mental pressures of competing at the top level: “You walk down that beach to achieve something that may or may not happen. You devote your life and put all your time and energy into something that may not give you what you dreamt of.”
“Dealing with those expectations within yourself can get really exhausting. You do have the storm clouds. Young kids coming up go… ‘Oh, no I want to become a pro surfer and chase my dream – it’s always going to be sunny and palm trees and riding waves and big smiles.’ But in actual fact, a lot of the time it can get really grindy. That’s why it’s important to have that mindset – and that framework – and those people you can reach out to.”
We’re already making progress in this area, Fitzgibbons told DMARGE. She said the biggest thing that she’s noticed improve during her career so far is the sheer saturation: “There’s been a huge push to get it over the line… to get those stigmas out the back door and just have people going: ‘Oh, ok this is accepted, I can talk to people.’ For me a big one is listening to podcasts as well – it’s quite an outlet – especially when I’m training.”
“I love listening to other athletes’ stories, realising, ‘Oh, you experienced that in an Olympic final, you had the same nerves,’ so that’s been a big change.”Sally Fitzgibbons
Fitzgibbons says the biggest challenges for young kids (“the ones coming up now still gathering their thoughts and feet as they walk into our chaotic dust storm”) is going to be the scrutiny. She said: “I remember how fast it is coming out of your teens into your early twenties. Everything from opinion and appearance to desires and the way you talk – everything is different. And someone’s always going to have an opinion.”
“I didn’t grow up reaching for my phone. I was a country kid. A lot of the time that’s why I found myself outdoors working out on a training session or going surfing, or running on a headland – no cars, no phones no big city lights. So when that [social media] came across to me I was like, ‘I don’t really gravitate towards this,’ but I made a bit of a pact that I would share one thing in my day that made me really happy, like a vibe or some little bit of joy.”
“I was psyched for about 15 years. Every day, no matter what, there’s enough stuff staring down on us, so my small part was… I would share stuff that made me smile that day. Over the years maybe I made a couple of other people smile too. I always saw it as more of an avatar – not your whole being, you’re not sharing everything.”
Fitzgibbons said she has boundaries and a healthy relationship with social media: “I’ve never been addicted, but I know the pressures of wondering if people like your stuff.”
“Even if you’re not competing, you’ve still got this thing that is still judging you and you’ve brought it home with you.”Sally Fitzgibbons
“It’ll be interesting to see where it goes. My perspective is having a healthy boundary and only sharing things that I feel like… no matter what – even if someone put it on a giant massive billboard – I’d still be stoked with it.”
In terms of Fitzgibbons’ goals for the future, she told DMARGE: “I feel it’s in recent years all changed. The whole rules – how to even win a world title – how many events you’re doing and the travel has kind of turned into this relentless barrage.”
“I’m still finding my feet,” she told us, explaining she is in a way starting again; getting “refreshed again” and “maybe that’s a positive becuse after all these years everyone says the monotony is what makes you feel like you’ve had enough.”
Fitzgibbons also hasn’t given up on chasing a world title. She told DMARGE: “If I keep showing up, keep pushing towards keeping my body at that level and keep my surfing relevant… If I can keep my hat in the ring I still have the capability to be on top. But at the same time, the level is so high – you can’t let your spirit get beat up because from last year you [were] in the top 5 and applying yourself just the same and pushing your surfing a little more and results don’t follow on back of that.”
Fitzgibbons didn’t make the WSL’s final 5 cut off this year (that five will battle it out for a world title come end of season). Despite this, she told DMARGE she wanted to keep showing up and performing at all the opportunities that are available to her – whether that’s something like the Olympic Games or the first ever women’s event at Pipeline (both of which she did in the last year or two).
“It shows you a new experience. When you move into a new phase of your career, having being around a while you need to find that feeling of not going ‘Oh, is this what ends my run, just by the system change – is my surfing still relevent?’ Those questions sneak in. Instead you need to ask: ‘What’s the next season got?’ I’m still so engaged in it.”
“I feel it’s not my time to step off the gas yet. My goal is still lofty and to win Olympic golds and world titles and to be more prominent in these new waves for the women’s tour. Everything sort of leads towards that.”Sally Fitzgibbons
From Pipeline to Tahiti, Fitzgibbons told us there’s still so much to learn, remarking on how quickly “things have escalated.” Talking about Tahiti, which is home to some of the scariest waves on the planet, and which has been approved as the Olympic surfing venue for the 2024 Olympic Games, Fitzgibbons said: “To be out in those lineups now is a bit of a surreal moment. It’s dreamy to talk about but bloody hard to do – [to] sit in the lineup and think you’re going to hop on one of those set waves and it’s all going to go to plan. It’s just not the case; you’ve got to put your time in.”
As inspiring as that is, we’ll take Fitzgibbons’ word for it, and stick to surfing 2ft Bondi for now…