The Chicken and the Egg
“I was good before, but now I’m better.”
Tyler Wright says this like the thought has just formed in her head, and it catches the room unawares.
A ripple of chuckling rolls through the newspeople gathered upstairs at the North Bondi SLSC for Tyler’s brief homecoming.
The world champion herself sits loose and poised on a barstool in front of the mics, not moving a muscle yet radiating a calm strength you only ever saw in glimpses back when she was a 14-year-old super grommet winning her first CT event.
Back then she was fidgety, funny, pretty much fearless, super original, a balled-up mass of potential, but you’d never have called her “calm”. Now she’s in the elite of the elite, one of just a coupla handfuls of surfers who hold consecutive world pro championships, and she carries the self-assurance of someone whose potential is being fully realised — someone who, as she says, is “getting shit right”.
Thing is, you could say the same thing about almost all of Tyler’s competitors. They were good before — hell, women’s surfing has always been better than the quality of attention it’s been paid.
But now they’re, like, great. Steph Gilmore, Carissa Moore, Courtney Conlogue, Lakey Peterson, Sally Fitz, Nikki Van Dijk, Silvana Lima, Tati Weston-Webb. You’ve got three world champs on tour and five or six other surfers who might go there in the future. Next year sees a debut from Caroline Marks, a 16-year-old Floridian who, well, you’ll see.
The great surfers on tour with Tyler whittled her winning margin down to a fraction of 2016’s barnstormer. Partly it was Tyler tearing the medial collateral ligament in her right knee almost to pieces. Partly it was having more winners in the room. Eight surfers won CTs this year, four others just missed.
Head for head, it’s a way stronger field than the men’s right now.
Why is this, Tyler? Why is everyone so GOOD?
It’s a chicken and egg question.
For most of the past 40 years or so, pro surfing’s money men have looked at the women and seen a chicken. By which I mean, something they sorta recognised as worth having, but were never gonna feed more than they absolutely had to. After all, it’s a chicken, right? It lays some eggs, it flaps its wings, but it’s never gonna fly.
This is why until very recently, the women’s tour was never worth more than about a quarter of the men’s. At the turn of the century, for instance, the average prizemoney earning of male CT pros was around $85,000. The women’s average was just over $20,000.
When the World Surf League took over the scene five years ago, one of their first big moves was to invest in the egg. They committed to 10 women’s CT events a year, and set prizemoney roughly at parity.
Now that egg has hatched, and it’s no chicken. It’s fricken flying. At a time when global investment is suddenly pouring into women’s pro sport, the WSL’s investment has put pro surfing ahead of the curve. It’s why so much of the young energy now flowing into surfing’s grass roots is female.
It’s also allowed Tyler and her peers to invest in themselves. Last year she pulled US$300,000 in prize money alone; this year a more modest, yet still pretty handy US$215,000. This puts nutritionists, physiotherapists and, vitally, her supercoach Glenn “Micro” Hall, on the Wright payroll. “It’s how being a professional should work,” she says. “It’s given us all the support we’ve needed to practice our craft.”
I love that. Craft! It’s an oddball way of describing how to surf heats; it’s also very accurate.
This is Tyler’s original mind at work. “My brain doesn’t work like everyone else’s,” she says later, once the rest of the media have got their TV grabs and headed off to the editing room. “I think differently. I saw the kinds of coaching on tour and observed how it was being done. I chose Micro because he wasn’t like that.”
Here’s Micro’s secret, by the way: he listens and watches way more than he talks. Over months, over the past three years really, Tyler has explained herself to him through word and deed, until they were able to get to the finest of details: little changes to various turns and angles, ways to respond to situations in heats that once baffled her.
The result is that Tyler doesn’t pen out a strategy for a heat any more. Instead, she relies on her experience and on the work she’s done with Micro to “shape” the heat as it happens.
Last week at Honolua was a classic example. Her performance in that title-winning heat with Brisa Hennessy was gunfighter shit. Instead of getting a lead and wobbling to her doom, the way poor Courtney had earlier, Tyler just sat and stared the situation down till it turned her way.
She got a lead, then with Brisa holding priority, did the most alpha thing imaginable. Sat inside and to the left for three or four minutes, then having given Brisa just enough time to get a bit worried, paddled out and around IN FRONT of her and sat out and deep. As if to say: Not today, kid.
It destroyed Brisa, who had the pick of the next good wave, took off clearly still thinking about her opponent, and lost it mid-face after an ill-timed semi stall turn.
Tyler then slammed the door even more shut on the next wave. She could hear her mum, Fiona, up on the cliff whistling, but still she didn't smile. With two and a half minutes left she paddled out to the corner, turned, looked at Micro, held her hand up as if to say "Quiet! This isn't done yet!", shook her watch hand at him, went back to the takeoff and finished the heat.
She's a fire surfer with ice in her veins.
Eventually, we’re kicked out of the surf club and Tyler heads off to get some rest. She’s flying back to Hawaii today to cheer brother Owen on his return to Pipeline. Someone sent her a clip of O’s first wave back at Pipe, and she watched it with some relief. “He’s far enough along in the recovery that I don’t have to worry about him as much,” she says.
He’s lucky — we’re lucky — to have her.
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