TILLY’S WORLD CLASS

IF YOU PAD­DLE OUT AT BURLEIGH, YOU COULD BE SHAR­ING A WAVE WITH A WORLD CHAMP — FIND OUT WHY THIS LONG­BOARD­ING YOUNG GUN NOW CALLS THE GOLD COAST HOME

The Gold Coast Bulletin - Gold Coast Eye - - FEATURE EYE -

The pro surfer-wear­ing-head­phones-be­fore-theirheat is al­most a meme these days. Con­nor Cof­fin is groov­ing to the Black Crowes. Mick Fan­ning used to dig Grin­spoon be­fore his yoga and med­i­ta­tion epiphany. Rachael Tilly is lis­ten­ing to … her Bond Univer­sity lec­turer.

The sports man­age­ment spiel works. Tilly carves up a stormy Cabarita break, wins the UniS­port Na­tion­als gold medal and is home in time for hot choco­late.

Like Fan­ning, Tilly is a for­mer world cham­pion, the youngest in the his­tory of pro­fes­sional surf­ing at 17. She shares some­thing else in com­mon with the Coolie kid – for the next few years, the Gold Coast is home.

Tilly grew up in San Cle­mente, south of Los An­ge­les, and was in­tro­duced to the sport by her fa­ther Glen, a for­mer com­pet­i­tive surfer.

Her first ses­sion was mem­o­rable for two rea­sons: the dead shark she found washed up on the beach and the love of surf­ing it awak­ened in the then four-yearold. “My dad took me down to Do­heny State Beach on a very foggy day,” Tilly says. “He was scep­ti­cal of go­ing out be­cause it was cold and the fog was ex­tremely thick but I wasn’t go­ing to let any­thing stop me. I just al­ways had a spe­cial draw to surf­ing and a love for it.”

Within a few years the grom was com­pet­ing in short­board and long­board events. At 10 she told her dad she wanted to be­come the youngest surf­ing world cham­pion. (Kelly Slater and Gabriel Med­ina won world ti­tles as 20-year-olds. Carissa Moore was 18).

“My dad was my coach and we both sat down and he said, ‘OK, you have this goal. You should prob­a­bly pick one or the other (long­board or short­board) and fo­cus on get­ting re­ally good at one rather than be­ing medi­ocre at both. I didn’t even have to think about it. It was long­board­ing im­me­di­ately.”

Un­like the WSL women’s short­board tour, which to­tals re­sults over 10 events to de­cide the world ti­tle, the long­board cham­pi­onship is set­tled at a sin­gle event.

Tilly was still in high school in 2015 when she was crowned cham­pion at Riyue Bay in Hainan, China. She took the tro­phy home to her fam­ily in south­ern Cal­i­for­nia and they cel­e­brated by eat­ing Chee­rios out of it. The prize­money for that world ti­tle win was $10,000. In com­par­i­son, Amer­i­can Court­ney Con­logue took home $65,000 in Oc­to­ber for win­ning the Roxy Pro France, a short­board event. It should be noted prize­money for all women surfers will im­prove next year af­ter the World Surf League com­mit­ted to pay par­ity for male and fe­male ath­letes.

Tilly still thinks her 10-year-old self made the right call, even though the de­ci­sion to put a few ex­tra feet of fi­bre­glass be­neath her po­ten­tially cost her the mil­lions of dol­lars in win­nings and en­dorse­ments that the best short­board­ers en­joy. “If I had cho­sen the short­board I don’t even know if I’d be on the tour,” she says. “It didn’t come as nat­u­rally to me as long­board­ing. “Ev­ery once in a while I get into that mind­set of like, ohh, I could be on a way big­ger con­tract right now.

“But then when I’m at a world long­board event and among all the best long­board­ers in the world, that’s the en­vi­ron­ment I love. That’s more im­por­tant than mak­ing a few ex­tra bucks.”

Achiev­ing her life’s am­bi­tion while still a teenager gave Tilly space to think: what next?

As the surfers’ rep­re­sen­ta­tive on the WSL women’s long­board tour, she was mix­ing with con­test di­rec­tors and see­ing what it took to host events. “I’ve got­ten to see what goes on be­hind the scenes in set­ting up the tour and set­ting up the con­tests. That’s what sparked my in­ter­est to go into sports man­age­ment.”

Long­board­ing may be over­shad­owed by its younger, flashier sib­ling but there are still perks to be­ing a pro rider. There’s the sig­na­ture board, the Rachael Tilly Pro sin­gle (“wins ti­tles un­der the right feet”), in­vite- only ses­sions at Kelly Slater’s Surf Ranch, and reg­u­lar travel to the world’s best breaks, which is where the Gold Coast comes into the pic­ture.

“For the past few years I’ve spent a lot of time com­pet­ing so I was very fa­mil­iar with the Gold Coast and through that got in­tro­duced to Bond Univer­sity on one of my trips,” she says. “It was the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to go to univer­sity, to live abroad — and there’s great surf. Surf­ing cul­ture is re­ally big here and it’s been re­ally wel­com­ing to jump into.”

Tilly, now 20, is in the sec­ond se­mes­ter of her first year study­ing for a Bach­e­lor of Sports Man­age­ment, jug­gling lec­tures and pre­par­ing for the 2018 World Long­board Cham­pi­onships in Tai­wan, start­ing on Novem­ber 27. She de­scribes the break at Jinzun Har­bour as a “re­ally dif­fi­cult and chal­leng­ing wave”, hav­ing fin­ished third in the world ti­tle there last year.

Tilly is liv­ing on the Robina cam­pus so her clos­est train­ing wave is at Burleigh Point where she has signed up as a mem­ber of the Burleigh Long­board Club.

“Surf­ing al­lows you to make friends al­most im­me­di­ately,” she says. “It’s this com­mon love and com­mon lan­guage that we all share. You can go to any coun­try and get in their surf­ing scene and meet like­minded peo­ple that you’ll click with im­me­di­ately.

“Next se­mes­ter I’m look­ing at mov­ing closer to Burleigh now that I have my bear­ings.”

She’ll make the move into a new pad with her younger brother Michael who is fresh out of high school and en­joy­ing an Aus­tralian gap year be­fore his own univer­sity stud­ies. “He came and stayed with me for a month in July and the whole month I was like, ‘Live here, live here, live here’. Fi­nally he said, you know what? I kinda want to live here!”

The com­pany has eased the pain of liv­ing away from her close-knit fam­ily and Michael has also stepped into their fa­ther’s shoes as Tilly’s coach. “Of­ten my dad can’t travel to the world events with me be­cause he has work, so this year my brother is go­ing to travel to Tai­wan and take that coach­ing po­si­tion. He was just talk­ing to me the other night say­ing, ‘I know the weather has been bad but we gotta start get­ting out in the wa­ter!’ It’s been nice to have that.”

An­other mem­ber of Tilly’s sup­port crew – her board shaper Joshua Martin of Martin Shapes – re­mains 11,500km away on the other side of the Pa­cific, but their bond re­mains strong. Tilly first rode boards crafted by Martin’s fa­ther, Terry, a leg­endary shaper said to have hand-crafted 80,000 boards – work­ing with the likes of Hawai­ian charger Gerry Lopez. When Terry died in 2012, Joshua in­her­ited the role of shap­ing Tilly’s boards. “He’s the best shaper ever,” she says.

“It’s a lit­tle bit more dif­fi­cult now that I’m not just a two-minute bike ride from his house but we have such a great re­la­tion­ship build­ing the boards. He’s been able to see how my surf­ing has evolved over the years and there­fore the shapes have changed be­cause of that.”

Tilly says one ad­van­tage of com­pet­ing on a stripped-down world tour is the abil­ity to si­mul­ta­ne­ously get an ed­u­ca­tion, although find­ing a bal­ance is chal­leng­ing. “Last se­mes­ter I had to fly back to Cal­i­for­nia for an event and it hap­pened right dur­ing my mid-se­mes­ter ex­ams. I still had to take them but I did them when I got back. I’ve been tak­ing my books with me on the trips and lis­ten­ing to my lec­tures in be­tween heats in the con­tests.”

An­other com­pli­cat­ing fac­tor has been her health. Three years ago Tilly was di­ag­nosed with Grave’s Dis­ease, a con­di­tion in which the body’s im­mune sys­tem pro­duces an­ti­bod­ies that at­tack the thy­roid, caus­ing symp­toms in­clud­ing rac­ing heart, sweat­ing, weight loss and fa­tigue. She un­der­went surgery to re­move her thy­roid in Jan­uary and is now fully fit.

“I def­i­nitely have the goal to win an­other world ti­tle,” she says. “But (win­ning a world cham­pi­onship at 17) takes the pres­sure off a bit be­cause what­ever hap­pens from now, I’m sat­is­fied with my surf­ing ca­reer. Life is so big and there are so many dif­fer­ent av­enues to take. I’ve done that one thing, now what else can I do?”

“SURF­ING AL­LOWS YOU TO MAKE FRIENDS AL­MOST IM­ME­DI­ATELY. IT’S THIS COM­MON LOVE AND COM­MON LAN­GUAGE WE SHARE.”

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