It takes courage to speak up about inequality, especially within the industry that’s creating it. I’ve always wondered why so few of the top female surfers on tour have stepped up and questioned the pay inequality that’s still rampant in the surf industry.
Of course they’re stuck in a difficult position — if they’re publicly questioning the financial backing of their sponsors, that might not sit well with said sponsors, putting their career in jeopardy.
That’s why it was especially refreshing to read this interview with Sally Fitzgibbons and disheartening to know that even she, near the very top of the women’s surfing totem pole, still has to deal with a wage gap. I think she also brings up an interesting point — that training (and perhaps also performance) can become compromised when surfers who are earning less feel they need to take extra jobs to make up for the wage inequality. That is, instead of just focusing on being an athlete, they are encouraged to split their attention and also take on more responsibilities to supplement their earnings.
“The challenges coming from the female side… you are aware there is not as much funding and the inequalities… we have been brought up to grab any opportunity and work so hard to make it a successful sponsorship or campaign. That work ethic has come from people putting us on the back burner. It is tough because you have all these extra commitments… you feel like your training gets messed around.”
Sally Fitzgibbons Tells All Before Heading To Hawaii
THE BEST THAT I CAN BE, LIVING LIKE SALLY FITZGIBBONS
Interview by Blaise Miller-Hill // Originally published on Coastalwatch.com
I walked into Surfing World / Coastalwatch headquarters on Monday morning not sure what to expect in the week of work experience ahead of me. All the guys were super friendly and very cool. I relaxed quickly and was soon filling out a little questionnaire about myself. I flicked over the page and read question 9, ‘your 10 favourite surfers and why?’ My pen was writing before I even realised it – there really is only one surfer for me… Sally Fitzgibbons! I think I filled a whole page on why she is my favourite surfer. Her determination, dedication, powerful surfing, healthy lifestyle, friendly nature and incredible smile to name a few.
In that moment, I never in my wildest dreams thought work experience would mean interviewing my hero. As if that was not enough Sally, being the generous person she is, even invited me for a surf next time she is in town. OMG! My excitement before the interview was obvious… eyes like saucers, sweaty trembling hands this was really going to happen for me! I took multiple nervous trips to the bathroom before I finally picked up my phone and dialled… “Hello this is Sally speaking”… I lost it, it was my dream come true. I absorbed every single word she said to me and went to bed that night a grateful, stoked grom for the opportunity I had been given by Surfing World and learning first hand Sally is everything I imagined and so much more.
Blaise: Do you ever regret anything you do?
Sally: Sometimes I look back on a bad wave I paddled for in an event and think about how my results might have changed if I waited for the next wave of the set. But they are all lessons to be learnt from. I think those shouldn’t be regrets, they are just a life lesson.
Can you tell me how you managed to play so many sports and still get your school work done?
Juggling all of my sports, running from one training session to another, and then jumping in the water for a surf did mean I had to be organised about my school work. But I used my love for all the sports to motivate me. When I was feeling under the pump I always made sure I had my school work with me. I would check in with all the teachers and not wait for the work to come. I harassed them a little bit and just made sure I was ‘on point’ and had all the work with me when I went away.
What was your first step towards competitive surfing?
It was definitely my three older brothers. Simon, who is just a year older than me, had a competitive instinct and wanted to start doing events… so I naturally went along. I started competing when I was 11 and we went up to the Rusty gromfest. It was a huge step to enter in the event but dad was really encouraging and so were my brothers.
How have your fears changed from when you were younger to now?
I guess I always had that fear of letting down my family and myself through my performances. I just wanted to do my best so bad that I had this fear that I wouldn’t get there and achieve what I wanted. I would think, my parents have sacrificed this… have taken days off work… spent this money for me to go, what if I don’t win. I learnt to grow from all those experiences. Losing is so tough, it just rips my heart out! But then I know the family and people that love me will be there no matter what. I think that fear will always be with me for the rest of my competitive career.
What challenges does being sponsored present? Is it annoying to have to spend a day at a photo shoot or do you just accept it as part of the job?
That is a good question. Entering into a male domain sport… knowing, I guess, the challenges coming from the female side… you are aware there is not as much funding and the inequalities… we have been brought up to grab any opportunity and work so hard to make it a successful sponsorship or campaign. That work ethic has come from people putting us on the back burner.
It is tough because you have all these extra commitments… you feel like your training gets messed around. When you learn to embrace it, as something you have to do to be an elite athlete, then it becomes a different day in the office. You show up and give it your best.
What made you realise that it was surfing you wanted to pursue above your team sports?
As I grew older the team sports fell away. The commitment and trainings for soccer and touch footy academy started to get really demanding. They have a no excuse policy, they don’t want to share you with other sports. That is when I gravitated towards the solo sports; running and surfing.
I love each sport for its individual merit… but in the end surfing was something I could see as more a holistic lifestyle, it had that travel and adventure element. I could see a pathway to the top as well. I decided to focus all my energy on surfing and if it didn’t pan out take up one of my other sports. It was a process of elimination really.
Do you ever regret your decision?
When I drive past some of the ovals on the weekend I have a craving for it… for a team sport. You can really get a lot out of training with a team. You learn a lot of discipline from team sports. I feel pretty versatile now and it is due to being through so many sports.
What is the worst injury you have ever sustained? And how did you deal with it?
This perforated ear drum has been pretty crazy. I busted it at the Fiji women’s Pro event earlier this year. I have never had any injuries to the ears or head… to come up out of the water and loose your whole equilibrium, all your balance, it was pretty distressing. I had this immediate, ‘something is wrong’ response. But I wanted to find a way to paddle back out for my next heat. To look back now I am pretty pumped that I could find my Aussie spirit… that spirit to get back out and try again. It has been five months now… putting on the helmet, the tape, the blu-tack and everything in the ear to keep it water proof, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It is one of the most memorable moments I will ever have in my sporting career.
What is your favourite place to surf overseas?
Fiji is one of my favourite places. It is a wave that challenges me every time I paddle out. I pick up so much new information from how it breaks and the different swell directions. It is a place that demands a lot of respect. I have done the eardrum, broken my wrist out there and cut my whole arm up. I know its power and how much it can toss you around… it will always be a wave that will challenge me and that is why I love it.
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Do you ever think about what you are going to do when you retire from the World Circuit?
I went through a bit of a shift leading into this year. I wanted to bring to life my visions for Live Like Sally. When the book came out I knew that was the first step, but I wanted to bring the bigger picture to life while I was still at the height of my career.
I have a lot of things working in the background but by the end of this year I will have my brand Live Like Sally up and running properly. And, at the end of the year, I want to go back into the schools and on a bit of a road show to target child obesity. It is not surf specific, it is general healthy living and how I have benefited from being a healthy active kid growing up. It is going to be a journey but I am committed to it because it is so close to my heart.
Does being a role model for so many people change how you live?
I definitely place a huge importance on the responsibility of having such a huge, amazing fan base… I try to lead by example for that next generation of young athletes on treating your body really well. I want to help get that spark in others that encourages them to go out and be the best they can be.
Who would you say you are closest friends with out of the girls on tour?
There are only 18 of us and we all give each other pretty respectful space… we are competing at the highest level for something we all have dedicated our lives to. It definitely has its challenges but… at the end of the day, when you pull the jersey off, we all can hang out in the contest area and have a good chat… and know that we are, in a way, a big part of each others lives… I am probably closest with Tyler Wright. I have grown up with her… being from the south coast as well, so she is the one I have the most memories of as a grom.
You have so many commitments now, where does winning the World Title sit with you?
It is still my ultimate goal. Winning the world title is what I dedicate all my hard work to. It is something that is on my mind every single day. That is what fuels my fire. I will never lose my desire for it but in the mean time I am experiencing some pretty amazing things along the way.
World title predictions? What do you think will go down at Maui?
Carissa has definitely got the experience and has been in the situation before, but you know, I am sort of hoping that Courtney can do the upset. After that it is head down bum up for me and hopefully I can take this event out and kick start next years campaign.