Sally on Love, Life and the Endless Fight for Women Surfers
By Sam Squiers
Prepare for a defining week for Women’s surfing.
This week’s Fiji Pro will challenge the best women surfers in the world in a way they’ve never been able to be tested on the ASP Tour platform before. Expect also to see Sally Fitzgibbons front and centre of the action.
The 23 year old is fresh from her first Tour win this year at the Rio Pro in Brazil and is itching to take to the notorious reef break voted in the top 10 challenging waves in the world.
“Fiji’s like beauty and the beast because it’s such an idyllic setting but the wave itself at Cloudbreak and Restaurants can get really solid,” Sally told us enthusiastically.
The women surfers are rarely challenged in big surf like this and it’s about time they were.
“We haven’t been tested too much in the big wave department . I know it’s within all the girls and I think you’ll find that everyone is so competitive and young and they will definitely step up to the plate.”
The new stop is part of a shakeup by ZoSea Media Holdings, the private Californian company that’s taken over surfing’s governing body ASP. It’s one of three new locations on the tour designed to showcase the best of the women surfers.
“It’s great to finally have the platform to perform on and to have that belief of ‘hey why don’t these girls have the chance to show what they can do at Trestles or Fiji or Honalua?’
Behind the scenes it feels like that professional approach, it feels like we’re being taken care of.”
The women surfers have gone through an agonisingly frustrating period of being forced compete at uninspiring events with poor conditions, bad surf or thrown in when the waves aren’t good enough for the boys.
The new ASP has made an effort to see the girls also compete in quality surf, not just the dregs from the men, but Sally admits there’s still so much work to be done to change attitudes.
“It’s still very much a debatable topic. I know they try to make it an even playing field, but just having that from within the culture in its beginning stages that we would get the left over waves it is hard to break that mentality. I think it still has a long way to go,”
“Without having something like a coin toss, it’s never going to be exactly equal.”
Sally expresses an infectious passion for her sport. The quality of women’s surfing has been a sleeping giant – not something that’s just miraculously stepped up this year.
“Every time we’ve had a great day of swell they go ‘oh this is the best women’s surfing we’ve ever seen’ and we’re like ‘we’ve been doing this for awhile, we’re just been given a chance to show you’.”
Small changes in the structure of events are changing and behind the scenes the little things can make the biggest difference, like ensuring the women have their own lockers available at events that are shared with the men.
“I think it came to a head last year at Brazil (Rio Pro) just walking in and being like ‘oh are we surfing at this event? Where do we put our gear?’ It’s something that makes you feel like an after-thought.”
There’s no doubting the growth of women’s surfing and the popularity of the competitors. Sally leads that charge. The youngest qualifier for the World Tour, Sally made her debut in the big time in 2009 and has quickly become a surfing household name. Just a quick glance at her social media accounts will give you an idea of her popularity with a staggering 176,000 instagram and 94,000 twitter followers.
Sal’s also known as one of the hardest working surfers on tour but finishing runner up three years in a row from 2010-2012 and finishing third last year has seen her come agonisingly close to her dream of a world title.
She’s currently sitting in second position in the rankings after 4 of the 10 events, but ‘the bridesmaid’ is no longer a tag for Sally but a badge of honour.
“It’s something that I definitely look at as proud of the achievement. When I was younger I was like ‘oh no I’m so close, I’m not making it, I’m failing and then as I developed as an athletes I thought, well I wouldn’t change it because it’s something that’s set me up for being so passionate about what I do and just setting me up for longevity in the sport,”
“When I was first on tour I thought, I work the hardest, I surf the most, I train the hardest and I should be the winner and then I didn’t take into account how many uncontrollables there were in my sport.”
That’s what’s to admire about Sally – that incredibly positive attitude, which makes her the ideal role model for young Australians and a great ambassador for women in sport.
Growing up in Gerroa on the New South Wales South Coast, Sally has been a passionate St George Illawarra fan all her life and now follows one particular Dragon, forward Trent Merrin.
“We just met at a couple of functions and also being able to have training sessions with the Dragons, I’ve been training with them, it just evolved from there.”
The pair is rarely seen together but Sally has opened up about their relationship.
“I guess as an athlete you’re quite selfish, you’re always thinking about what you feel, how your body feels, what you’re doing next and it’s hard to let somebody in especially with all the travel, it’s been a really welcome distraction, to focus on somebody else and having that appreciation and knowledge of what makes the both us tick,”
“It’s been really cool so far to just be able to have that extra someone.”
But this week, it’s not in the clouds but in Cloudbreak where Sally’s head is at, as she, and all her peers on the World Tour, write a new chapter in women’s surfing history.
The Fiji Pro gets underway May 25 – Check out the swell forecast for Cloudbreak for the Fiji Pro here