It was a moment I had observed a thousand times before. The moment of unrelenting pressure – the 85th minute of a football match with the scores level, the final kilometre of a gruelling road cycling stage, the last lap of a tight 400m swimming race. As a sports writer, it is my great privilege is to watch the world’s top 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 at Malua Bay, New South Wales. Over the top of my wetsuit was a bright yellow rash-vest, distinguishing me from other competitors. Yellow, green, red, blue – blobs of colour for a beachside panel of judges to score as we battled it out in the two-metre chop.
Ever since I was a child, growing up on Canberra’s outskirts, I have been entranced by the south coast’s waves. Quarterly beach holidays saw me in the water, inevitably falling off a surfboard. But the calm lakes of the national capital are not a natural breeding ground for professional surfers. Stints in Washington DC and London, neither ocean-adjacent, did little to improve my prowess on the board.
That changed in March last year, when the pandemic saw me flee for my homeland. Two weeks in self-isolation at a family beach house turned into 18 months of morning surfs, and, eventually, the start of my competitive surfing career.
Having reported on the Malua Boardriders, a surf club reborn to help the local community heal from the black summer bushfires, I was gently encouraged to enter the monthly surf-off. By May I had plucked up the courage, only for my confidence to be shattered on debut by a lacklustre score of 3.14 (surfers are rated out for 10 for each wave).
In the pressure of the moment, I had exhausted myself paddling for every possible wave – and failed to do anything notable on those I caught. As I trudged up the beach dejected, an onlooker offered some advice: “Only two waves count.”
My wounded pride, the pandemic and a trip to cover the Olympics delayed my return to competition. But in November, inspired by Australia’s heroics at the Tokyo Games (including Owen Wright’s surfing bronze medal), I was back and determined to show some improvement.
The conditions were tricky – large, shifting peaks and a powerful cross-beach rip. I managed to take off on a couple, but found myself caught in close-outs. Without the benefit of a high-tech communication system, the Boardriders were deploying coloured flags in the sand to mark the progress of time. When the green flag was replaced by yellow, I knew I had five minutes left – and nothing much on the scoreboard.
This was it: my moment of consequence. After a decade of judging athletes in these moments, alternatively praising and criticising from the safety of the press box, it was my turn. I might not have had to face a media inquisition afterwards, and the hopes of a nation were most definitely not on my wetsuit-clad shoulders, but as the clock ticked down the pressure felt real enough.
A peak formed in the distance, heading straight for me. I launched myself into it, taking off on my final wave of the heat. Either way it would be decisive – a fall would end my hopes of improvement and consign me to another walk of shame. As I came down the wave’s steep face and angled to the right, I realised that a small barrel was forming – the holy grail of surfing. I lurched inwards, pushing my head, then my body and eventually my board into the wave itself. It would have been ugly to watch from the beach, crude and inelegant. But it worked. At least momentarily, I was in the heart of the wave.
Minutes later I walked up the beach, head held a little higher than last time. It was not until I reached the car park, and checked the live scoring app, that I was greeted with the good news. My final effort had been awarded 4.97 – the best wave of the heat. My combined score of 8.14 was enough to secure a spot in the semi-final. My run faltered later in the day, finishing last with a measly score. But I was elated all the same.
Trying and largely failing at something new offers a potent dose of humility. And in those final minutes of the heat, as I waited for nature to test my limited surfing ability, I felt deeper empathy for those I analyse at Olympics, World Cups and world championships. It was a rush to be in that moment, needing to perform under acute time pressure. But most of all I felt proud that I had willingly put myself in that environment, where failure was all-but assured and any success guaranteed to be fleeting at best.
It recalled something an Olympian had once said to me, about being unable to control the performances of competitors and the need, therefore, to take heart from personal effort – win, lose or draw. At the time I thought it was a mundane observation – now I appreciate its profoundness. Whether on the world stage or in the waves of Malua Bay, all any athlete can do is try. In the moments that matter, it is the trying, rather than the winning, that count. My 4.97 wave was just the cherry on top.