The Knee Injury That Jolted Tyler Wright Into Action
Was only the beginning to the Women’s World Title climax at Honolua Bay.Read more
Tyler’s uncle stuck his head over the fence.
He owns the house next door in Byron, and was hosing the driveway when he spotted me. We talked morning surfs. We talked lawns. I asked how Tyler’s knee was. He told me she’d been dancing at her sister’s wedding the weekend before and it seemed just fine. Then he told me that instead of staying home and resting the knee she’d flown to Oahu, to the North Shore, to paddle out and surf some concrete tubes. A bit of Hawaiian rehab he reckoned. If the knee didn’t collapse entirely then she’d be ready for anything Honolua could serve up the following week when she surfed for the world title.
After the season Tyler had in 2016, dealing with a simple ruptured ligament had been a walk in the park. That year, as you might recall, Tyler’s brother, Owen, was laid out flat with a brain injury. The last thing he remembered was duckdiving under a Second Reef Pipeline roller and then… nothing. The lights were on but Owen wasn’t home. The doctors wouldn’t promise anything. Tyler freaked. She put her life on hold to stay with him, but he eventually told her to go and surf. She reluctantly agreed, returning a few months later with the world title trophy.
She started this season as the defending world champion – exhausted – but with her brother back surfing and beginning to resemble his old self. He’d even entered the first contest at Snapper, which everyone thought might have been jumping the gun a little, as he’d only been back in the water a couple of months. As it turns out he was fine. More than fine even. He won Snapper, and a weight immediately lifted from Tyler’s shoulders.
She’s continued to float through this whole season, although both Tyler and coach, Glen Hall, use the term, “bludge”. She managed to win the event in Brazil, but even then her surfing and her demeanour around contests didn’t possess the same purpose. It appeared that after the emotional rinse of the previous year she was decompressing, and if she was then she’d earned it. And she certainly wouldn’t be the only world champion a bit low tide on motivation the following season.
But it’s been a strange old race on the women’s tour. For while Tyler didn’t get out of third gear, neither did anyone else. The only time there was a clear favourite for the world title was way back in the very first event of the year. Steph Gilmore won Snapper in a fashion that had most watching on ready to hand her the world title on the spot. It was the performance highlight of the year, and from there it became a little scrappy. Nobody got on a roll, the lead in the ratings changed hands a bunch of times, and as the season closed it was set up for someone to come from the pack and steal the title.
When Tyler blew out her knee in Portugal, tearing her MCL three-quarters of the way through, it seemed like she was done. No sense risking it for a dead season. The injury, however, did just the opposite. The injury jolted Tyler out of her complacency. She needs a little adversity to conjure her best, and the knee that had threatened to rule her out for the season became the thing that might just help her win it.
And so it came down to the final event at Honolua with five girls in with a shot. Sally, Tyler, Courtney, Steph and Carissa with just a couple of heats between all of them. Sally had lead going into Honolua, and having finished runner-up three times, was the sentimental favourite, but folded on the first day. Courtney followed the day after. The clouds parted and suddenly there it was for Tyler, a world title – a second! – that she couldn’t have even dreamed of a month earlier.
We catch up with her two weeks later, back on Oahu, sitting watching from the veranda as her brother Owen surfs Pipe, the wave that laid him out two years ago now. She’s offering some candid assessments of a strange old season with her feet up on the table, hands behind her head, watching Pipeline do its thing without a care in the world.
TW: Can you hear me okay? I recently discovered that I mumble. Apparently. People have been telling me for years but I never believed them. I was talking casually the other day and someone said to me, “Do you know you mumble?”
SW: Someone recently described me as “the bald guy with the nasally, whiny voice.” The bald part I copped, but I’d never heard my voice described as nasally or whiny before. I was kinda rattled.
At this point photographer Steve Sherman walks in and congratulates Tyler on her title. He whips out his camera for the obligatory world title shot and asks her to hold up one finger. Tyler replies like lightning, “Two!”
SW: Was being world champ everything you expected?
TW: Yep. [Thinks again] Yep. It’s weird because you don’t actually feel that different. I understood that life didn’t really change in the way people think it might. You still go home, you still wake up in your own bed, your dog still licks your face and things don’t really change in a day-to-day way. I got more comfortable with it though.
For many people when they win a world title it’s a hard jump to make.
I think I’m more comfortable in my career and even in my own skin than I was before I won a world title. I think it’s just cause it was always expected of me that I’d be in this position, but when I walked into the career at 16 it always felt a bit too big for me. And now that I have done it, it feels so settled… so settled, calm and cruisey. [Tyler jumps up and points out to sea] Whoa! That was fucking huge! That whale was the size of a house! [She sits back down and composes herself] Sorry. Got a bit excited there.
That’s generally the opposite for most world champs. They find the role of being world champ pretty daunting and even exhausting. That’s why people have trouble winning two in a row.
I can see that and I can understand that and I think that’s where I got lucky in that I went through so much before I won the title, went through so much bullshit, that things just got easier afterwards. That was the difference. The whole journey I went on made things easier once I got here. That’s what I put that down to. I’ve always said I was committed to going for world titles, I’m signing on the dotted line, I’m ready to commit to every part of this, whatever that entails.
The timing of your titles is interesting. You’re the women’s world champ at a time that’s never been more important for women’s surfing. Do you get a sense of that? That you’re the front woman for the band?
That’s funny because I always considered Steph to be the front woman of the band and it’s only been dawning on me recently that I guess I’m in the position I’ve always seen her in. I find myself often asking what my 14-year-old self would think of certain situations, and I find that really cool. That’s a good reference point to have. I had Alyssa Spencer, a 14-year-old from America, hanging with me in Honolua just to be there and see what world title prep was all about, and it was great to have conversations with her and find out what she found interesting and what she saw going on – see what was happening through the eyes of a 14-year-old.
Snapper this year must have felt really different to Snapper last year. Last year nobody knew what was going to happen with Owen. This year he won the contest.
Crazy different. I think emotionally I was still a bit of a shit-show. Yeah, I was still processing what had gone down the previous year, but even though I lost in the quarters at Snapper I lost doing something new that I was trying. But I got to see Owen win and we got to chair him up and to be there in that moment.
I remember the countdown to Owen winning the final. He was leading and there were no waves coming and he had it in the bag, and I think I remember describing the look on your face as you ran past as like a kid running for the Christmas tree on Christmas morning.
I was freaking out. Totally.
Was that closure in a way? You’d spent so long worrying about your brother and looking after him.
Nah. He did so well and he’s been on such a journey, but for me it wasn’t until later into this year that I could put it behind me. Seeing what he does here [at Pipe] puts my mind at rest, but no, it took a bit longer than Snapper for me to put those thoughts away.
Your Wild Ark trip to Africa in the middle of the year seemed like an eye-opener. It’s a little wilder than Mogo Zoo out there.
That was insane. The animals, the whole African experience was just incredible. It was deadset one of the best things I’ve ever done. I freaked out. It was so different to our world. It was on another planet. I loved it.
Did you find your spirit animal out there?
I don’t know. I think they’re all so precious. The elephants were really cool, the leopards… and the hyenas! They blew my mind. I thought they were these little scrawny things but up close they’re huge. They have these huge chests but these stumpy back legs. What they do, whenever they get attacked from behind they drop their bum so they can only get attacked from the front, where they are huge. They’re these staunch creatures and they say hyenas are the best trackers in the animal world. They follow stuff for days.
After that you went and surfed J-Bay and watched the men’s contest. Micro was telling me you watched every heat and pulled them apart and he commented how much you’re a student of the game now.
It’s a craft for me. It’s something I want to get good at, and for me I spent so many of my younger years finding out who I was as a person, I placed more value on that than anything I did in the water. It’s why I’ve got that self-belief now because I feel I know exactly who I am, and as a result I have so much more space in my mind to take things in and learn. I can take it in and order it and categorise it. I get to shift and play with them and file things away. Sorting out who I was as a person first has allowed me all this space now. I’m pretty settled in who I am and it means I have capacity now to look outside of me and observe, and go back and develop new ideas. For so many years I found I was so far off the mark and in elite sport like this you don’t have to be off the mark by much. If you miss it by an inch, you miss it by a mile kinda thing. With Glen and his guidance it’s been incredible. I can focus on the stuff that will actually improve me. The things that fucking matter. And it’s sick, his approach isn’t solely about surfing either. He looks at it 360 as well and that suits me as a person. He doesn’t let me get so distracted by all of this [pointing to the waves] that I forget about life.
That’s why you guys work.
I think he has this cool understanding that as much as it’s about doing well, it’s about being happy and healthy otherwise it’s fucking pointless. If I’m not into this, why would I do it? The only goal he has is to get to every year and be ready to go around… and every year he’s achieved that.
He told me about a conversation you guys had in Portugal where you admitted to him that you’d been “bludging” this year. That you reckoned you were, what, running on about 60 per cent?
Probably. It was all understood. That’s the thing where we work really well together. Until I’m ready he’s not going to mention shit. After Portugal it took a shift and it was becoming less about others and more about me, and that shift I had to make. I had to do it. I’d had a lazy year.
When you say others, you’re referring to Owen there?
I suppose there was no way you could go through another year as intense as last year. You needed to decompress.
And Glen knew that. He could have been pushing me from the start, but I would have turned around and snapped. And he knew that and it’s the cool thing about balance and the way he approaches things. I personally needed a little bit more time and he knew that, but when Portugal and France came around things shifted in a sense and it accelerated. Everything fast-tracked.
The other thing Micro and I discussed is that it seems you almost work better with some adversity to push back against. Something to get you out of bed in the morning. In that light, the knee injury in Portugal almost became a good thing?
For sure. I never viewed it as a bad thing. It took down all the bullshit. I wasn’t even bullshitting myself… I knew I was being lazy and being honest with yourself is a key part to it. After a week I was so over being hurt. It was funny, he did have to push me a little bit. I could still technically do all the turns, the turns were there, they just hurt so it was pain management and having that mindset to keep going.
If you were further behind in the ratings, would you have just sat the year out and got your knee right?
Nope, we talked about that. With Mick and Owen we had good conversations about that and it did enter into the conversation, but they asked if you sit out how are you going to feel in two months when someone else is holding the trophy? How are you going to feel in five years? We had conversations about all of that and at the end of it I was okay with going for it. At the end of it I settled on what I wanted to do and I wanted to compete. I like the idea of being in the water, that’s awesome and I’ll be a better person if I’m in the water, win or lose, and I’d rather do that than walk away. We did it… and we did it in fine form I thought.
In the lead-up to Honolua and the world title, I liked the idea of you heading to Hawaii and surfing the North Shore for a couple of weeks. Both as a psychological boost for you and your knee, but also the psychological effect it must have had on the other girls in the title race.
I know if I’m in the water twice a day my frame of mind becomes strong, and training and surfing and doing what I did here, everything else became a non-issue. The knee, the title. The training and surfing consumed everything else. The whole aim was to get me physically, mentally and emotionally prepped and we did it successfully. The crew I had for Maui and that set-up was also insane. Just how good and how different that was for me. You see a lot of people talking about the anticipation and the waiting, all this shit, but why? Tomorrow we win a world title, but today we’ve got things to do. We weren’t waiting. We were working. We got so much shit done in Maui and the weeks before it. The sessions before the event ran we got shit done.
Action cures anxiety.
The world title will always take care of itself. And that whole experience became enjoyable. I got the sense some other people wanted it over and I was like, why? I was loving it. I was in Maui, I’m hanging out with good people, I’m getting things done and when it comes to the pressure and the world title they get taken care of in their own time. I commented on how excited I was. I usually am pretty calm but that whole week I allowed myself to feel however I wanted to. I was super excited so I went with it.
What was the vibe like between the five of you?
It was what you would expect. Five going for the title – two were newbies, three of us had won – some were tense, some were relaxed, some were just doing what they do.
Some were playing golf.
I hate golf. But Glen and Caleb [Tancred, the Aussie grommet staying with them] all they do is talk about golf and we were staying on a golf course, so every afternoon they were out there. It became part of the day-to-day life with those guys.
Wasn’t Micro actually on the golf course when Sally lost?
He was. I called him. I was like, “Glen, if the number one seed loses, does that mean I go to first seed?” I just heard the word, “Fuck” then, “Hang on, I’m coming back now.” I was watching a movie at the time, it had Jessica Chastain in it. It still had an hour to go. It moved my schedule forward.
Was the title suddenly real with Sal losing?
Nah. It was real before that. On adjusted ratings I was in a better spot. It was already very real. I understood she was in the yellow jersey but I was in a better spot once I made the quarters.
The way Sal lost, in a slow heat without waves, was kind of heartbreaking to watch. How do you reconcile that as friends? How do you shut that out and keep doing your thing out there?
I think that’s the nature of professional sports and the positions we’re in. That’s the nature of it.
What’s the relationship like between you and Sal, both being south coast girls and all?
You know, I think we grew up together but we’ve gone down different career paths. I’m much more underground and she’s out and about. I like doing my stuff in Currarong. We’re very different characters and it’s actually really cool we’re from the same town – we dead-set live less than 500 metres from each other – and I think it’s good. We’re very different but have something very cool that connects us.
What about when Steph started dropping nines and started to loom as your biggest challenge for the title?
A hundred per cent! I don’t trust her. She’s dodgy!
Did that add pressure?
Nah. I wanted to surf against her in the final. Oh my god… the mind games would have been amazing! That’s what I want! I want that! To run for titles with her. If it didn’t go down the way it did, me and her meeting up for the title would have been so funny. But it played out the way it was meant to.
You and Micro looked like you were trying to keep a lid on it when you paddled out to surf for the title in the quarters.
Cro didn’t even know! He knew shit was going down, and that was the cool thing. I knew and he didn’t. I’d read the scenarios a month ago. When we were on the cliff before I paddled out he’s doing his thing and everyone was suddenly really excited up on the cliff. The whole mood changed when Courtney was losing to Nikki. I said to Micro, “Fuck mate, the way they’re all carrying on you’d think I’d won the title already!” It was a cool moment. He stuck to what he teaches, and figured if I kept winning they’d have to give the title to me at some point. As soon as I entered the water I had a shit-ton of things to think about, so I had no time for anything else.
The quarterfinal that won you the title was surfed by the book.
It’s all in the strategy. It’s what we spend days and weeks on. For such an intense situation, to go back and run a strategic heat almost without fault, I feel that’s a direct reflection of what we work so hard on. Flipping the wave under her and converting that, that’s the kind of thing we work our asses off on. That’s not an accident.
You were pretty subdued after you won. Just a heart punch up to the cliff. Was that for your mum?
That was for my Mum and aunties and uncle. It meant a lot to have them there. Last year I didn’t have family there when I won in France. To have my Mum there and my family there on Maui was huge for me.
And now you’ve only got four more titles to catch Steph.
It’s funny, people have asked me that before, how many world titles would I like to win, and being a smartass I said, just one more than Steph. I don’t have a number though. When I got serious a while back I realised there were only two goals I had with my surfing. One was to fulfil my potential by the time I retire.
And what was the other?
To be really, really good.
Visit Ripcurl for more stories on Tyler Wright’s x2 World Title.