Sean Doherty On Chillin' With Sabre Norris
As a grown man, and a proud and crabby ol’ bastard, it’s hard to describe the feeling of being outsurfed by a 10-year-old girl.
After the initial denial that it was actually happening, it made me think deeply and depressingly about my life. I knew this moment would come, a sad sign of inevitable decline, but I expected I might be at least 70 years old when it did. Instead here I was, seemingly in my prime, my ego being shredded by the forehand turn of a killer smurf.
My sense of self-loathing, however, was soon overwhelmed by a sense of unbridled joy. It’s impossible, you see, to watch Sabre Norris surf and not be spellbound. “Cute” isn’t the right word for her surfing. She’s too damn good to be cute. A searing, grab railed, laid over cutback isn’t “cute”. Steph Gilmore describes Sabre’s surfing as “badass”, and this was a badass turn. Halfway through the turn, somewhere, surely, a single tear was rolling down Matt Hoy’s cheek. On Sabre’s next wave she threw a forehand air reverse. Then she got tubed. Blam! Blam! Blam! Between waves she was effervescent company. She never stopped moving and there was no dead air. “How sick was my last one!” “How much fun is this!” And, finally, “That last turn of yours was really, err… interesting.”
Two weeks earlier her budding surf career reached a major milestone. It wasn’t her first contest win, her first million views on Youtube or her first surf with Tyler Wright. Two weeks earlier she’d swapped her trademark white Gath helmet, the one she’d surfed in her whole life, for a black one. Sabre now surfed and looked like a badass.
We were surfing the Cowrie Hole, Sabre’s local break in Newcastle, but we’d initially surfed Flat Rock, the heavier wave outside. It was solid, and as Sabre walked to the jump rock I was worried. “We jumping here, Sabe? You sure?” Of course, at this stage I was still under the assumption I was chaperoning her – not the other way around – and I imagined the worst, Sabre getting picked off by a set and dashed against the rocks, me having to explain to her Mum, Brooke, how I’d allowed it to happen. Of course, Sabre simply jumped in, paddled straight to the inside, and dropped into a bomb, a set wave gurgling below sea level, her little arms windmilling furiously as she tried to catch it. She disappeared as the wave took off down the reef, and I kept watch, praying she’d reappear at some stage. Well, she did reappear, a fly away exit on the inside as the wave huffed, Sabre and her black Gath landing clean on the back of the wave and casually blowing her nose like a Pipeline veteran.
It was, as Steph would say, badass.
The Norris family live in Newcastle’s East End, and as I drive the backstreets I notice the joint looks nothing like it did when I was living here. Twenty years ago it was the centre of a hardcore punk and surf scene, and I flash back to walking into several of these houses in Alfred and Zaara Streets to find a band set up in the lounge room and a daytime party in full swing.
Well, I walk into the Norris’s house and there’s the band – Sabre and her little sister, Sockie, anyway – both armed with electric guitars. Sabre has a pink Fender Strat and breaks straight into the opening riff of AC/DC’s Hells Bells. Sockie starts playing the Chilli Peppers. Little brother, Biggie is telling me all about his surf that morning while their little sister, Nazzie isn’t sure what she should be doing but knows she should be doing something. This happens all at once, the lounge room a beehive of high functioning little legends.
Driving up to Newcastle I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to ask Sabre. Like, what do you ask a 10-year-old surfing and skateboarding prodigy to understand what’s going on in their life? As it turns out, I needn’t have worried about what to ask, because Sabre did all the asking. She put down the guitar and picked up a double-sided page of handwritten questions. The Norris kids are home schooled, wildly inquisitive, and as part of today’s lesson I was going to be interviewed.
Sabre’s first question sets the tone for the morning. “So,” Sabre sits up straight, pulling the paper taut for dramatic effect, “Of all the places you go and surf… where’s the best food?” I reply it was probably Namotu Island in Fiji. “So,” she asks, her eyes narrowing, “do they, like, have a buffet?” I reply that they do. Three buffets a day actually. Sabre’s eyes light up and she listens on like I’m describing Wonkaland. “Three buffets a day? You know my favourite thing ever? I like to surf Snapper all day then go to the Pizza Hut buffet.” The all-you-can-eat buffet becomes the central theme of the interview.
We move on, kind of. “So, where’s the worst food you’ve eaten overseas?” I reply that it’s all pretty good, but that the food in America is a little fast and fatty for my liking. “But,” Sabre stammers, incredulous, “I just thought America would be great because they have heaps of buffets there.” I explain I’m more an a la carte kinda man. Sabre looks at me like I’m mad but politely continues, “But the buffets are still good, right?”
"Steph Gilmore describes Sabre’s surfing as “badass”
Before our surf at the Cowrie Hole I’d only seen Sabre surf on TV. It was during the national club finals two years ago, which were being televised live, and Sabre had been chosen to surf by her club, Merewether. Amongst the Parkos and Stephs, here running down the beach was this little girl, three feet high in a white Gath helmet and a rashie a dozen sizes too big, flanked by her teammates cheering her on. She was, of course, an instant hit. “I was just stoked that they picked me. It took me a while to get out and the wave I got was a fully sick one, but I blew it. I raced down the line, did a floater and didn’t even land it, but the team made me feel so special. Made me feel like I got a 10.”
Soon after, a clip of her nailing a 540 on a skateboard half pipe went viral, generating a million Youtube views. I ask her if she prefers surfing or skating. “Can I say both? With surfing you can drive to Snapper thinking it might be good, but you actually get skunked. Or you could be driving to Ulladulla thinking it’s going to be bad and it’s absolutely pumping. With skating, it’s always going to be the same.”
We move onto the subject of favourite surfers. “I’ve got four. Philippa Anderson, Steph, Tyler and Sally. I’ve got four of the best women surfers in the world as my friends, but I really like Tyler cause she’s got a kind heart.” My questioning continues. Her record number of surfs in one day is seven (plus two skates), most pizza slices eaten in one sitting is eight (meat lovers), her favourite male surfer is Mick Fanning (kind heart, followed by Craig Anderson, humble), and her favourite surf movie is A Deeper Shade of Blue (although she lists about 30 others). Sabre talks about surfing Angourie, Snapper and Straddie without taking a breath. Sabre might just be the surfingest person I know.
At this point Sockie comes down the stairs, and Sabre asks if her little sister can sit in on the rest of the interview. The pair have been finishing each other’s sentences all day anyway and you get the sense they rarely do anything without the other.
“So,” I ask Sabre, “What do you want to do when you’re older?”
“I want to be on tour,” Sabre replies, before adding, “… with Sockie and Biggie and Nazzie. We’ve got it all sorted out. We’re all going to live in one big house then all travel around together on tour.” Sabre is already writing a book based around her own future life, her future biography currently 46 pages long. I ask if she wins the World Title at the end but she tells me there’s no ending yet. She does say it would be nice to skateboard in the Olympics one day. Her Dad Justin won an Olympic swimming medal and she says she thinks her Dad would be proud if she made the Olympics.
Sabe and Sockie are pretty much across everything happening in surfing right now, so I put to them the question of who’s going to win the World Title this year? Sockie jumps straight in on this one. “You, Sabie!”
“Sockie!” Dismisses Sabre, using an older sister tone, “I’m not even on the tour yet, so I can’t win it this year.” She thinks for a second and adds, nodding, “I’d like Owen and Tyler to win the World Titles this year. It must really suck being on tour by yourself when you’re so young, but it’s good for Owen and Tyler to have each other.”
The family theme continues, and even though Sabre, at 10 years old won’t win this year’s women’s World Title, she has a speech ready to go. “I wouldn’t be as good as I am today without Sockie. She’s pushing me really hard. Biggie and Nazzie have been pushing us too. Biggie fully charges, ay! Full little Mark Mathews. Nazzie’s just started to surf and she’s got this red shiny Gath. And guess what age Biggy started to surf?”
“Err, two?” I guess.
“Nah, he was only one!” Replies Sabre excitedly, before qualifying matter-of-factly, “Then he broke his leg when he was four dropping into the Bar Beach skate bowl. I was blowing up cause the doctors cut off the kneepads and I was like, ‘Are you going to buy us new ones?’”
At this point Sabre tells Sockie that I’d been to America but didn’t rate the food, and they both look at me like I’m crazy. They tell me they watched a Youtube clip of a guy who’d done a food tour of several Las Vegas hotels, and they tell me the food in Las Vegas all looked pretty good to them.
“Do you know you can get Krispy Kreme donuts for breakfast?” Says Sabre.
“And pizza?” Chimes Sockie.
“And pad thai and bacon and eggs?”
“Eggs, steak, roasted tomato…”
“Do you know how big the prize money is for a WSL contest?” Asks Sabre.
“You get $60,000! Think of how long you could stay in Las Vegas with that! And how many Krispy Kremes you could order on room service! When I win the World Title, Sockie, that’s soooo where we’re going.”
A stoked out portrait of Australian Junior Surfing in the year 2018.
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