Sean Doherty On: Who Won The World
Who Won The World?
22 Year Old Tyler Wright Is Your 2016 World Surfing Champion
Talking with Tyler Wright has always entertained on any number of levels.
The inner monologues that accidentally become conversation. The gloriously unfiltered assessments of her own surfing. The south coast twang. The wonderfully comic observations, where everyday moments become funnier than a dog riding a skateboard. The off-topic thought bubbles. The “mad props” to her friends. The truth bombs with just a hint of inappropriateness. The moment when she forgets you’re even there. The prospect that at any given second she might just get up and start dancing for no apparent reason.
Only that this year Tyler has remained quiet. Back home, as she puts it, she’s had “a bit on.” She ain’t kidding. Her big bro, Owen is on the mend after a serious brain injury suffered at Pipeline last year, and early in the year she’s got a choice. She can stay at home with Owen, put her life on hold to help him get back on his feet, or she can go back on tour, channel the emotions, and distil this tragedy into one of the truly great world title wins. Owen makes her promise the latter.
And she delivers. Suddenly there she is on the screen, in France, the freshly minted world champion, still dripping wet and about to drop the most eloquent and moving world title speech ever dropped, dedicated to her family back home. The world watches on and goes to water.
“Whether I won this or not they’d love me the same after everything we’ve been through this year, they’ve been there. My personal life hasn’t been easy but it’s been worth it, and I love them so much. I’ve been home for four days in four months and it’s been hard, especially when everything in your entire being wants to be home because you know things are happening, so to be able to come out and win and do it for them – for me but for them – I love them so much, there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them. This is my gift for you guys… cause I don’t know how to give anything else back.”
Turns out, the world title would do just nicely thanks. The perfect gift, in fact.
SW: So how are you feeling after the past three days?
TW: Not as fried as you might think. I’m doing okay. Actually, today I’m feeling fine. This is my best day so far. The day after I won was a bit dusty. But you know what feels weird? The fact that I don’t feel weird at all. I feel normal. I don’t feel different at all to how I did before I won.
So it’s just the world around you that’s gone mad?
Besides all the media and the press conference at the airport, everything else has seemed pretty familiar. We had a big family get together when I got home like we normally do, like we’ve done all year. It’s another reason to celebrate and have fun. I feel relatively normal, but psyched at the same time for what’s happened.
It doesn’t take much of an excuse for the Wrights to party, but this is a good one.
No, we’re generally pretty psyched on life and happy to celebrate anything. [Laughing] We love living life, so…
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What are they planning for you back home in Culburra
[Laughing] Maybe a little party. Just a little one, you know. Coming from a town like mine it’s so small and tight knit. For most of the time in France I had to keep my phone on flight mode because every two seconds there was a notification from someone back home wishing me good luck. It blew my phone up. I won’t be able to thank everyone for their support, all those people who’ve been with me since I was a kid, but I’ll give it a go. That kind of thing really means a lot to me.
Tell me about the night you won in France. The bits you can remember, at least.
Well, I woke up in a shirt covered in strawberry daiquiri and chocolate cake. I keep getting flashbacks of Steph DJing the whole thing with the full playlist and the music going all night. It was one of the best dance parties we’ve had in a long time.
On the final day in France, you seemed genuinely more amazed by the fact you’d scored an 8.83 on your backhand than by the World Title win.
You saw that, did you? Everyone at home was like, “Stoked you won a World Title… but an 8.83 on your backhand! We were writing you off. As soon as we saw the contest was in lefts we were pretty much betting on Courtney! Then all of a sudden you started going left… you’ve never gone left in your entire career!” But we put so much work into that backhand in the last two or three weeks cause we only discovered a month ago the reason why I couldn’t even turn left. I did my ankle in Trestles, which was a blessing in a way because while they were working on my ankle they discovered I couldn’t turn left properly. My neck and all through my spine and into my hip was really messed up from a couple of years ago. So much work went into adjusting it, and some of it was so painful, realigning it, but in the end I finally had full range of motion again. We got to Portugal and we surfed a little rip bowl left and I went to Cro (Micro Hall), “I’m freaking out, I have a new body! I’ve never been able to do this before!”
In the earlier rounds I was watching your interviews and it was like you were fighting to keep a lid on whatever was going on inside. In the interviews you were so calm, like a Zen monk, and I’m looking at you going, she must be freaking out inside, because she looks way too calm.
And that’s what I’ve explained to people who say, “I thought you would have cried more.” Something happened during that week and I could feel the emotion in me and I could feel this build up. I’ve always been this cruisey, coasty kid, and I’m a slow, measured person who does things in my own time, but I started feeling this build up inside me and I think it was three or four nights before the World Title went down in France and I sat there crying. I just bawled. It meant that when the moment actually came a few days later, when I won the Title, I could actually enjoy it instead of having this massive release of emotion like a dam wall coming down. It was an interesting couple of days, but the crying side of it… I seemed so calm and collected, but through the whole entire year I’ve had so much going on I couldn’t hold it in anymore. If it wanted to come out, I’d just let it. “You know what, Tyler? If you feel like it, you can cry for an hour-and-a-half if you like. No one’s around, it’s sweet. I don’t care. Just do it.” So I went for it.
At Trestles after the semi final I was bawling my eyes out on the couch. Someone had asked me about my family… and I missed them sooooo much that I just started crying. Mad props to Micro this year, who’s had to deal with emotional humans in me and Laura who were completely on another scale. I don’t know about anyone else, but something that doesn’t get talked about enough in women’s sport is that we have to do all of this, this sporting rollercoaster, and we still get our period. That stuff doesn’t stop. We still get them and we have to deal with being this hyper-emotional being while still dealing with surfing heats and dealing with life. I just wanted to point that out, and give mad props to Micro for handling it like a champ.
Watching your interview with Rosie Hodge just after you’d won and you were delivering this incredible speech, straight from the heart, and I’m like, “can you hurry up and start crying because I’m just about to."
I’ve cried more in one year than I’ve cried in my whole life. I used to be that kid who didn’t cry for a whole year, but after this last year in particular if I wanted to cry I just would, I wouldn’t hold it in anymore. I’d just cry or laugh and then get on with it. A few people have mentioned it to me, and I’m like, “Brah, I’ve done so much crying this year I don’t need to do it anymore.”
You were so composed in that interview, it seemed like you were talking about your 10th World Title; not your first. It had heart, it was eloquent, and you were finally able to publicly talk about what you’ve had to deal with privately all year.
So much has happened this year and it’s just been like… life happened this year and it’s been hectic and the only way I knew how to handle it was to be me, and keep a very steady pace through it. I don’t like massive highs and massive lows, I just rolled with it. I think afterward, everything I wanted to say all year but hadn’t been able to because it had been so personal, I just wanted to let people know who I’d done it for. And when it’s true it’s so easy to say. So easy. Honestly, I have no idea what I said, but if it came from the heart I can trust it. I’m sure it’s true. I haven’t watched any of it back.
Meanwhile your brothers’ reactions on social media were a little more raucous. Mikey’s post was pure Culburra: “Fuck yeah Tyler. You fucken stuck it to ‘em all and now you’re the mother fucking World Champ, fucken oath big sis!”
The family’s reaction has been the most south coast thing. That’s exactly what we’re like! I’m like, “Hey, let’s not try and fool anyone. I’m still from Culburra.” Their phone call straight after I won was the funniest thing. I wish I’d have taped it.
When you said, “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them,” I think that was the line that captured the depth of the feeling you have for your family and gave an insight into what all you guys have been through this year.
This year I’ve kept my private life very private, and I think that interview was the first time I could finally acknowledge who I’d done it for… and for them I would do anything. Owen and his recovery and my uncle passing as well… I’d always do what I could for them, and that was the one thing I knew I could give them back that would make a small difference. This year will always be remembered as a hard one personally for me, but professionally it was one of the most enjoyable, how much life there’s been in it.
It hasn’t been a year since Owen hurt himself at Pipe. Can you think back to how uncertain everything was back then?
I was numb for the first six months of his recovery. I don’t think I processed any of it, what was going on, until half way through the year when it became clear that it was in Owen’s best interest, for his recovery, for me to go and do what I had to do. To go away and leave him. The best thing for me to help Owen was to leave, so that’s what I did. I didn’t want to leave but I knew it was the best thing for him and the promise I’d made to him. The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was leave him that first time, but I actually started to process what was going on… and it was the first time I really started crying. It was that messed up and intense. We’re all so close, and after the last five years travelling together on tour with him, processing what had happened to him was a massive trip for me. Something would come up and get me thinking about it and I’m like, ‘my God.’ It was insane. It was crazy, and there were times there it trickled in and I started to feel… What I was in denial of at the start. It was heavy. For me this year there’s been a lot of laughs, but a lot more tears. Losing my uncle then a month and two days later Owen has this traumatic brain injury and everything that went along with that, it was like… fucking hell.
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The universe seemed to have been messing with you.
Home was crazy, and there definitely were times I just wanted to go, fuck it, fuck this, and just get on a plane and go home. I’d have moments where I’d just feel like I was having my legs taken out from underneath me. I’d feel weak, and that happened so many times this year but each time I just had to just say, “Nah, we’re doing this, I’m doing this, I need to. I promised him I’d do it. It has to be done.” And that was my thing, my way; something I knew in a small way could be my gift to them, to him. It won’t take away their pain but it was my way to give back.
You say it was a small gift, but in the back half of the year there seemed to be this connection between your success on tour and Owen’s recovery. Did you feel that?
With Owen, I know he’s going to get better and it’s just a matter of time, but we just don’t know how much time, they’re very intricate injuries and they mess with your mind. I watched that happen to my brother. To know he’s going through that, I know that every corner he turns he’s more like himself and… yeah, we’re getting him back. For me there was relief in that. I looked at him for so long and I didn’t recognise him. I’d talk to him and I didn’t recognise his voice, and in my head I’m thinking… what the fuck! I couldn’t say that, and I don’t talk about the details much, but my heart goes out to anyone who’s ever had a brain injury and their families who’ve been there for them. It’s hard. I read articles this year that have been so insensitive about Owen and it’s so personal that I still don’t feel comfortable talking about it, and for that to be happening in the public eye makes it so heavy. I just love him so damn much that watching it happen has been a tough thing. But it’s also good knowing that he’ll make a full recovery and I’ve put my faith in that.
He surfed Lennox the other day and was looking good.
Yeah, he’s looking good and he’s getting back and becoming more himself. I’m so looking forward to having a surf with him.
In a way, I suppose the tour helped you take your mind off what was happening at home in the same way it did for Mick last year after he lost his brother and after the shark attack. Mick saw surfing heats almost as an escape, something to take his mind off what was going on elsewhere in his life.
I totally understand that, and he’s helped me so much this year. Back in Hawaii it was so messed up. You have no idea. It was that fucked when my brother first got hurt. When they were loading Owen into the ambulance I was standing there watching, not outwardly freaking but inside just thinking, what the fuck. Looking into my brother’s eyes and thinking, it looks like he’s fucking dying. It looks like he’s way gone. He’s not there. And at that point Mick came over and hugged me and goes, “Ty, you’ve got this. You’re going to be okay. He’s in the best hands, he’s gonna be okay. You’ve got this.” And from that moment it was exactly how he said.
The next few days, the next few months… shit, the next 10 months have been hectic, but it was almost like he saw I needed someone right at that point to calm me down and steady me down and reassure me. To tell me that I got this. And he did that a couple of times during the year. He invited me up to his house before Snapper started and we surfed and hung out and I learned from his vibe and how he handles things. I’d go home and there’d be a full hectic situation happening and I’d have to handle it, but I’d think of Mick and say to myself, “Okay, stay calm, work through this, this is what you’ve got to do.” What he went through last year was so insane, to lose a brother like that, my heart went out to him, but while all that was going on he still took the time to look after me. I’m so thankful. What I learned from him was to be steady. If you know about the situation, okay. If you don’t, ask. Find out. Then take care of it. Then once it’s handled, it’s handled.
You’ve had some bomb freesurfing moments this year. Have you been consciously challenging your surfing outside of the tour?
No, that’s all been coincidental. There just happened to be a camera there. To be honest, in Fiji every other year it’s always been my worst result because I’ve spent all my time out there chasing barrels, so this year I said to myself, “I’m not chasing barrels, I’m not doing anything stupid, I’m just going to try and do some turns.” Getting barrelled wasn’t in the plan. I was just in the spot and it’s funny how that wave came about. The first one was smaller and I looked at it, but it was still big, so I went, nope, don’t want anything to do with it. Wilko was like, “Sweet, I’ll go.” I’ve paddled over the first one and of course the next one was way bigger and suddenly I had these voices in my mind – Mikey, Tim and Owen – just saying, “You’re going!” And that was it. I turned and paddled and obviously it was a pretty good wave.
Even when they’re not there, they still are.
Fully. That wave on the south coast, I saw that one coming and I was looking at Mikey and he was looking at me, and I’m like, “Not it, mate!” And he was like, “Fuck off, you’re going!” Next thing I’m dropping into it. The freesurfing stuff, I think generally there’s been more purpose in every surf this year. I was notorious for mucking around in freesurfs, maybe do a turn here or there, but this year, and I don’t know why, I’ve just had more purpose when I’ve been in the water and it’s been more enjoyable, which has been the funny thing. I get so psyched on it. Like, “I tried to this carve down and that carve down,” and suddenly there are so many aspects of the act of surfing that I get so intrigued by. I’ll watch Mikey for the backhand stuff. I’ve watched Wilko surfing his backhand and tried to learn from it. Wilko would watch and say, “Maybe instead of going straight up, flatten out at this point and project forward.” So it was pretty incredible, the team I’ve had behind me this year.
How’s the dynamic been between you and Wilko? Obviously, you’re both serial comedians, but has the success you guys have both had this year changed that?
It’s been incredible. I’ve known Wilko for so long, but he’s also one of my brother’s best friends. Having him here all year, has been good, to have someone around who knows Owen and have him there in that way as well. As for surfing, we get up and surf together most days, especially in France. We’d surf together all the time and he’d watch my heats, I’d watch his and we’d both watch Laura’s heats. We had the full little team, and for an individual sport it’s really special, so having Wilko there and watching him do what he’s been doing has been great. Like, he won the first two events of the year. Are you kidding? And watching the way he’s handled himself and work hard this year has made me psyched on what I’m doing. It’s been fun, and it’s a credit to Micro, because you’ve got some big characters in his team with Laura, Wilko and me – and he would have had Owen as well. We’re all so different, but he’s been able to bring out the best in us. It’s rad what he’s been able to do and the balance he’s found with us.
And still keep it fun.
Despite everything that’s been going on at home, I’ve had the most fun of any year I’ve had on tour.
Give me something fun you did in France.
You know what? In France one day all three of us – Laura, Wilko and me – just sat on a bench across from the Paris de Golf patisserie and we had Nutella donuts and Wilko had a chocolate croissant and we just sat there just people-watching for an hour. They drank coffee – I didn’t because I don’t need coffee – and we just sat there and talked to people who walked past. We were just sitting there on a bench watching life go by. It mightn’t sound like fun, but we get amused by small things. Then every afternoon in France we went down and surfed the left rip bowl and the crew came down and had picnics on the beach and they drank red wine and it’s been fun, just living, and that’s what this year has been about. We had a job to do but also we were there to live a little.
Your reaction to losses this year has been interesting to watch. Not only have you not been rattled by them, you actually seemed to have enjoyed them. Is that stretching it too much? Your reaction after losing to Bethany in Fiji I reckon summed up your reaction to losing all year.
What’s been so good about this year and so different to other years is that after I surf a heat, I debrief with Micro, and it’s done. Even in heats I’ve lost he’s pulled me aside and said, “You know what? You did pretty fucking good.”
Yep. He’s like, “I can’t say you did much wrong. You lost by a point; you got your two waves. It’s pretty hard to fault what you’ve done.” At the time in Fiji I didn’t even have a backhand. I couldn’t even turn left, and watching what Bethany did over there gave me more joy than me winning I think. But losing all year was never a big problem for me. It was sweet. Even the loss in Bells, which was more my fault – I made mistakes in that one, proper mistakes – we talked about them and Micro went, “Righto, you made mistakes, now get over it. Move on.”
Micro doesn’t say much, but what he does say, those words have some real power.
I don’t remember full sentences when it comes to advice in heats. I don’t have a lot going through my head, so we keep it really simple. We did it in a way that was almost word association, there was a word and an action and I had to associate the word with the action. But it was really cool to learn. It tripped me out how much I’m learning. I just find it fascinating to be honest.
You and Steph have been close since you were a grommet, and you guys have travelled together on surf trips and on tour for years now. I suppose she almost plays an older sister role for you? How much of her influence helped win you this title?
You know what, out of everyone I’ve watched over the last few years – I’ve watched every World Title go down – and while Steph is doing brilliant things in the water, she’s always doing brilliant things out of the water as well. She could win a World Title but live normally, live big, and I have such a respect for that. She taught me so much in and out of the water about being a good human, and I love the way she loves life. It’s a deep gratitude. She’s paved the way and I’ve had the most amazing opportunity to look up to her, and beyond that to be her friend. To know that throughout this whole year… like, when I lost in Fiji she came up and went, “Are you kidding, Tyler! That’s the best thing ever!” I’m like, “Huh?” And she goes, “It’s early in the season, so you couldn’t have a better time to lose one, and you had a good bad result, not a bad bad result.” The way she looks at things, I walked away after losing and I was convinced I was crushing it. And she’s been there all year for me, her and Jesse Miley-Dyer, those two are the ones I’ve looked up to the most since I’ve been young and they’re legends, great human beings who I have the utmost respect for.
It was fitting then that it was Steph who crash tackled you with the news that you were now the World Champion.
I have this photo from a couple of years ago when Steph won her sixth Title, and it’s almost the exact same photo except it was me tackling her. It was fitting that it was her tackling me.
You won Layne’s contest as a 14-year-old, which must seem like a thousand years ago now, but ever since that moment you’ve had to grow up in the public eye, living all those awkward teenage years out publicly. How do you look back on those years now?
It’s funny, cause all through this year I kept having flashbacks from those early years on tour, but you know, I wouldn’t change anything about what I’ve learned and the people I’ve met and loved and adored through this time, but there’s definitely been growing pains. It felt for a long time that I ended up in a career that wasn’t even mine. It felt too big for what I was ready for, and when you’re 16 you’re asking yourself questions. Am I in this career because I’m good at it, or because I love it?
You do realise you’ve won more prize money this year than any of the guys?
I heard that and I thought it was pretty rad. That’s a huge testament to the WSL and what they’re doing with our sport. They’re such champions for equality and they’re doing everything in their power to make that happen. When they first came in they told us they wanted to make things better for us, and that’s exactly what they’ve done.
Are you ready to be World Champion? Not just the one holding the trophy, but the one speaking on behalf of female surfers everywhere?
I wouldn’t have chased this so hard if I wasn’t ready for everything that comes along with it. I think I spent the last couple of years growing as a human being, rather than growing my craft or my job. I feel I spent a lot more time on personal growth because that’s where I felt I needed it. You know, a lot of people said you could have won a Title in your first year, and that’s true, but I probably would have quit the following year because I wasn’t ready to deal with it. It was more important to figure out who I was before I went into a full year in the public eye. When I decided to do this I also knew I was ready to deal with what might come with it. I wanted a long career, and if that was this career or another one, I’ve only ever wanted to be happy with what I do for a job and enjoy it and live a full life, and that was a very important thing for me. I feel over these last few years I have grown, to the point that me, now sitting here talking to you as World Champ, doesn’t feel foreign. It feels normal. As I said before, when I first rocked up in this career I was 16 and it didn’t feel like me for a long time… In reality until this year. I felt I was floundering because I knew I was talented and I don’t mean to sound like… I knew I could surf really well, but until I was ready for the other side of it I wasn’t ready to commit to a World Title. And that’s what last year was for me; I decided I was ready.
And here you are as World Champ. Have you had the out-of-body experience yet where you’ve caught yourself being interviewed on TV, or you scroll down your Instagram feed and see hundreds of images of yourself?
It’s only weird that I feel normal about it. It just felt like something I always could’ve done but it’s happened now. Throughout this year it feels like this is what I do, I love it, I’m learning… and it’s easy. I haven’t had the out of body experience. It’s just been… rad! I’m rolling with it.
You mentioned back in a Surfing World interview a few years ago that you were “doing it your own way.” It feels like that’s exactly what you’ve gone and done.
And that’s pretty much what it feels like to me. I feel like I’ve done it my own way, in my own time. I haven’t rushed anything and as much shit as I got for not wanting a World Title when I was second in the world and a heat away from winning one, when I was in two of those World Title races where I didn’t want it, I don’t have a single regret. I got a lot of crap for that, but at the time I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to be World Champ, but when I was ready I was going to do it my own way and in a fashion I was comfortable with and I knew it was going to be the best representation of me. That was how I was going to do it, and this year I feel that I’ve come into every event with a steady, even-paced vibe and a plan and just cruised. It’s just a case of turning up and going, okay, cool, I’ve got this.
And here you are. With the trophy.
It felt smooth for me, very even-keeled in a professional sense. Personally there was a bit on, but maybe that’s why it felt so smooth and easy, because compared to my personal life, which was so hectic, just going surfing and catching two waves felt easy. It wasn’t the hardest thing I was dealing with at the time.
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