My Interview with Sally Fitzgibbons, Olympian & One of the World’s Most Successful Surfers

My Interview with Sally Fitzgibbons, Olympian & One of the World's Most Successful Surfers

Sally Fitzgibbons is a true legend in the world of surfing, known for her incredible talent, fierce competitive spirit, and unwavering commitment to excellence. With numerous championships and accolades under her belt, she is widely regarded as one of the best surfers in the world today.

One of the key factors that sets Fitzgibbons apart from other surfers is her dynamic and versatile style. She is equally comfortable riding small, fast waves as she is navigating massive, heavy swells, and she is known for her incredible speed, power, and agility on the water. This has allowed her to consistently outperform her rivals and earn top spots in some of the most prestigious surfing competitions in the world. However, Fitzgibbons’ success is not just due to her natural talent – it is also the result of her unwavering dedication to the sport. She spends countless hours training and perfecting her technique, working tirelessly to improve her skills and stay at the top of her game. Her commitment to excellence is a powerful source of inspiration for other surfers around the world, who look up to her as a role model and a symbol of what can be achieved through hard work and perseverance.

Perhaps even more impressive than her surfing skills, however, is Fitzgibbons’ commitment to making a positive impact on the world. She is a passionate advocate for environmental conservation and sustainability, using her platform as a professional athlete to raise awareness and inspire action. She is also a vocal supporter of gender equality and other social causes, using her influence to help bring about positive change in the world. All these factors – her incredible talent, unwavering dedication, and commitment to making a difference – make Sally Fitzgibbons one of the most inspiring surfers in the world today. Whether she is catching waves or advocating for social and environmental issues, she serves as a shining example of what can be achieved through hard work, determination, and a commitment to excellence.

In this interview, I speak to Sally Fitzgibbons, olympian and one of the world’s most successful surfers. We discuss the mental and physical strength needed to surf, how to deal with success and failure, how surfing connects us all with the ocean, and how she’s now building a legacy through her philanthropy.

Q:  How did surfing come into your life? 

[Sally Fitzgibbons]: I live in a small country town, there’s about 500 people here in summer, and around 300 in winter. It’s a small town, surrounded by the ocean. Everyone this environment has produced, even as adults, has had to learn to shape their own time and space – and find contentment in nature. It’s a green-hills-meeting-the-ocean vibe, you can just melt into it.

As a kid, I always had a fascination with movement – I’d go for runs, bike rides, and explore the rock shelves. Inevitably, we’d end up at the beach – and all the kids would be there – you’d pick up a boogie board, and before you know it, you’re skimming around on the break. The older (and bigger) kids would go further out into the water and I would think, oh man! I’ve just lost all my buddies! I built up the courage – and went out there with them to take on the bigger waves – as they started to outgrow their boards, I get them as hand-me-downs! I didn’t have the best equipment and just got coached by my Dad– but that fuelled me to overcome the challenge and keep-up. My sense of competition comes from having brothers – I wanted to always do better than them! that was the fuel to the fire.

There was no point in that journey where I thought – ah! I’m going to make surfing my life! I’m going to travel the world and compete for 20 years!

It’s quite beautiful how everything unfolded.

Q: How did you develop your relationship with the ocean?

[Sally Fitzgibbons]: Surfing put everything into perspective. We’re so large in our own worlds – on land, we’re marching about…. Everything’s about our schedules, cars, homes…. All these materialistic things. You are the king (or queen) of your castle. When you step off land into the ocean, you’re at the mercy of the most powerful energy source there is – you can paddle out into the water with a picture in your mind of what the surf might be like and what waves might come, and things can change… the wind… the tide… the swell… in Hawaii, I’ve paddled out into a 2 feet swell in the morning, and a few hours later, it’s 20ft, it’s really something to behold.

I was a kid, I didn’t really have the language for fear – it was just awe! I remember just going into the waves and wondering what I was capable of…. Whether I had a limit and how far I could go!

You have to learn to harness fear, adrenaline and fight-or-flight in surfing. You are sat in that state for such a lot of time – whether because of the waves or the competition. You have to harness your energy so it doesn’t go out like a sparkler.

Q: How do you mentally prepare for competition?

[Sally Fitzgibbons]: I think we’ve all lost it – were bonkers. You go to these competitions and I wonder whether you need short term memory loss just to survive – you might have been utterly petrified the day before, or had your head broken by a wipe-out. The reality is – you can’t accomplish anything unless you’re all in emotionally, physically… you have to put it all on the table. You can’t just put a little part of you out there in case you get hurt… guess what… everything about competition will hurt. The losses hurt… a huge wipe out hurts…. Breaking a board and getting hit on the head, that hurts. The more you do it – the more you build a mental scar tissue that you can lean on – That’s the ‘stuff’ that lets you pick up the pieces and go again.

I think a lot of this preparation starts in the playground- but as an adult, the stakes are higher… your income… your ego.

Q:  How do you manage ego as a professional athlete?

[Sally Fitzgibbons]: Surfing is a wild ride… and when things happen, you do wonder whether it was you, or your ego. There’s just enough in your control where you think you should be able to perform or deliver on any given day –  but when you really sit and think about it, you’re basically trying to be predictive text for the ocean.

You could be sitting out there – you’ve warmed up – you’ve mapped the line-up – and you’ve mentally prepared for where waves are going to break – you could have all that knowledge, but when you paddle out – everything could be completely different. The ocean is unpredictable like that. There’s definitely a mental distance to cross between the component of a victory which was you or the ocean. If I look at the losses… often they happened at the most inconvenient times, right? It’s where I needed one more nudge… one more wave… it can be so frustrating, but you have to superglue your heart back together, get training, and get back out there. That’s what it takes to really compete and win at this sport.

In my life, I fell in love with the process first – they sometimes call it the grind. I fell in love with movement, with training, with everything between the competitions – and falling in love with that was instrumental to me because now, when things don’t go right, and I feel vulnerable or emotional, I can dip into that state – and maybe get straight back in the water, put on shoes and go running until the hurt goes away, or maybe get to the gym. I’m always getting ready for the next performance – almost by default.

Q:  How do you cope with the lens of public scrutiny?

[Sally Fitzgibbons]: For any athlete – the media are a double-edged sword. I really appreciate the media- I love sports, and am always watching them on TV and I love the talk-back shows, learning about players, athletes, and their stories. When I’m out on a run or a bike ride, that’s what fuels me, I love hearing about how other athletes approach their sport. What you can’t easily block-out though, is that there will always be people with opinions on how your career is going, what you should do, and not do. When I started on the World Surf Tour, it was the infant years of Facebook and Instagram – I started using those platforms really just to share pictures of where I was, like a postcard home – a way to share my journey and the cool places I was getting to see. I have – in a way – developed an ‘avatar’ of myself online. It’s something I feed, but it’s not me. I’d never put my whole being and life online – but I do feel like it’s allowed me to develop a closeness to people and a way of expression that otherwise I would never have had. I’ve posted close to daily for the last 20 years, it’s like a diary… and it’s me… I’ve done every post and caption based on something real I was feeling on that day. I’m really lucky to have a positive community around me – there’s always some negativity in any timeline, right? but I want my community to be a safe-space for all generations from the young girl who’s just picked up her first board, all the way up to the 80-year-old that’s been surfing forever and a day.

There’s a new generation coming through, but I don’t feel anywhere near done yet. I love the game, and there’s so much I still want to achieve!

Q:  When did you decide to give back, and how?

[Sally Fitzgibbons]: I started going to the beach with my mum & dad, they’re the sole reason I had the environment which allowed me to connect with the ocean. They moved here, they raised a family in a small town, quite far from the city, back when the roads were still bad – and I tip my hat to them – they did an amazing job raising our family. I still work with my Dad to this day – he’s my right hand man!

We sat down at one point and put pen to paper – we realised there would be so many parents who are father-daughter combinations just like us, who went to the beach and maybe couldn’t’ afford coaching and equipment. We wanted to reach them – we wanted to help them on their journey to becoming a confident or competitive surfer. So, we wrote a few apps together. We’ve got Sally’s Surf School, Surf Coach and others that let you map waves, the beach and your score. We wanted to break down barriers and have all that accessible to everyone. I didn’t start out with all the elite bells, whistles, academies and all those things – I started with hand-me-down surf boards and a bit of imagination!

Today, there are a huge number of female surfers coming through – the world is their oyster. When I started, it was rare to see another female in the line-up and it was hard to get respected as a competitor and not get hassled out of waves. Today, it’s a much better environment for women in the competitive world. Seeing all these amazing female competitors really puts a smile on my dial!

I want to leave this place, and this environment, just a little better if I can – I’m not going anywhere – and hopefully I can watch these kids grow, compete, and maybe I can commentate on their experience and be a part of the surf world that way.

Surfing really connects people – it’s powerful.

[Vikas: Is some of this also linked to that primal relationship we have with the ocean?]

[Sally Fitzgibbons]: Our relationship with the ocean is beautiful – you frequently see people at the shoreline, just in prayer or meditating… connecting with the ocean, letting the waves wash over them… maybe bodysurfing a little wave. Being around the ocean is our connection to something bigger- you can just lay in the ocean and let your worries wash away. I wish people got the chance to experience that regularly – it’s just beautiful.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be? 

[Sally Fitzgibbons]: One of the beautiful things we do as human beings is dream – but dreams don’t always come true, right? Even in my own life, there are parts where I was so close to achieving some dream, and it still didn’t quite happen – yet – I still have desire to keep going.

I think we’re measured in life by the work we do – and when things don’t go to plan – it’s natural that people don’t’ see the courage it takes, the internal relationship you need… you need to keep your spirit intact, and you need to protect yourself, and preserve yourself. You need to pass those skills on – and make sure, whatever field you are in, that you realise that we’re all on the same emotional journey. When you meet people and feel that beautiful energy sometimes, that’s when you’re connecting with that journey, with everything they’ve been through.

I don’t know what my legacy will be – but I hope that I go through life being the best person I can be, and I hope that in all the different opportunities, interactions, challenges and adventures I’ve had, and am yet to have, that I continue to be my best self from start to finish.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.