Q&A with champion surfer Sally Fitzgibbons

Gerroa surfing star Sally Fitzgibbons has teamed up with the Smurfs to help keep kids safe in the water this summer.

Alongside the release of Smurfs 2 on DVD, Sally and the little blue creatures have launched a video to deliver five surf safety tips.

Here she talks about the new campaign, her daily routine and diet - and sharks in the water.

How did you get started in surfing?

I started really young – it was really natural for me. I’ve got three older brothers and being the youngest, I wanted to copy what they were doing and try to beat them at it, no matter what they did. Living right on the beach at Gerroa, surfing was the cool sport, all the boys were surfing all the time, and I wanted to be in that cool group and so I worked really hard at it. Having a bit of sibling rivalry was good and spending time with my brothers meant that I became a really good runner – because I was running around trying to find out where they were surfing – and a really good surfer. They did teach me everything I know.

You never got tormented for being the only girl in the water?

You know what you’re getting into with a male-dominated sport such as surfing, and everyone sort of knew me as the annoying little sister. But they definitely respected me and kind of respected how hard I was working from a young age, no matter what sport. I tried every sport under the sun because I had that dream of wanting to be either an Olympic gold medalist or world champion. So I had a go at everything and I was training every day.

I played touch football, soccer, little athletics, everything. At the end, it was either my running or my surfing – I really wanted to explore it and I had that competitive drive, searching for that next big wave, so I went for that one and never looked back.

How did you begin getting competitive in surfing?

One of my brothers, Simon, started competing when he was 11 and I was 10. He started to ask my dad if he could drive us up to grommet contests at Byron Bay. I was like, “ooh I’ve gotta go in it too!”

So we both did the pro circuit together – it was really good having my brother around. Eventually he had to call it quits and go do his apprenticeship, but it was good to have someone to push me along.

What’s been your biggest achievement?

Every time I get on top of the podium, it is such a special feeling, no matter what country. One that really stands out was my very first world tour win – I was really struggling, I was making all these finals and had five or six second places in the previous season, and then it being the 50th anniversary of the event, I kind of felt like everyone was willing me on, they’d been on that journey. I cried when I won and everything, I was so excited! And then I went back the next year and made it back to back.

What’s been your biggest challenge?

In my very first season, I qualified at 17. In the first event, I suffered a lower back injury – I was in the wrong place on the wave – and it hindered me for the whole competitive season. I came about fifth place on tour and I was in so much pain – I had to get my fellow competitors to put my wetsuit on!

What do you love about surfing?

Every time I go to the beach, I have a whole new set of challenges. I love getting up, watching the sun come up, getting a piece of the day before anyone else.

Are you ever worried about sharks?

Yeah, in surfing we are one big community, and whenever something happens it’s pretty scary and devastating. I try to push it out of my mind, but you definitely know they’re out there but it’s something I try not to focus on. And if it ever felt a little bit eerie I’d call it quits or go surfing somewhere else.

What’s an average day for you?

It’s hard to have an average day – I travel so much, even when you’re not competing, I’m often training away from home. I always have the basic elements of training – cardio, weights – and then two surf sessions per day. If I have extra commitments, I definitely try to train around them, even if it means being up at 4:30 or 5am. It’s a juggling act but it’s something that really excites me.

I have a lot of fruit, veggies and snacks on the run, and make lots of soups, chicken soup, beef soup. I don’t have a recipe – whatever’s in the fridge at the time!

Add some carbs too – quinoa, rice, whatever. I try to mix up my proteins a lot too, plenty of good variety. I make the best of what I’ve got and I really love when I come home because I have a nice veggie patch.

What advice do you have to anyone hoping to get into professional sport?

I think definitely just give it a go. I know it’s simple but even when I was growing up, other girls were scared of what people would think.

It’s all about letting go of the inhibitions and just have a go – you never know how good you could be, and you could really surprise yourself. I think especially with surfing, it’s an awesome activity, you’re in the sun all day and you can really get involved.

Why did you decide to get involved with this particular campaign?

I think it was a really natural fit. There’s no surfing in the Smurf movie of course, but there’s a great connection between the kids seeing the Smurfs and realising the safety messages – having the DVD release smack bang in the middle of summer is good as hopefully they connect with the Smurfs and me telling them bits and pieces about the beach.

I was raised a water baby but some kids only spend time at the beach during the summer holidays, and the parents forget they haven’t done their apprenticeship with the ocean, I like to say. So hopefully a few of these messages come across.

Even when the ocean is small, there’s undercurrents, there’s rips, and along our beautiful coastline, not all the beaches are patrolled. And even with all my training, I’ve been in some sticky situations. I’ve been in places like Hawaii and Fiji where I’ve hit a reef and really hurt myself. It definitely rattles your cage a bit.

Also, I’ve always loved cartoons – it’s my guilty pleasure – and I think it’s exciting to help other kids learn about the ocean. Universal Sony Pictures Home Entertainment Australia has teamed with Surf Life Saving New South Wales and Queensland to produce this safety video.

Sally's 5 surf safety tips

1. Always swim between the flags

2. Talk to a life saver when you get to the beach

3. Read the safety signs

4. Always swim with a friend

5. If you need help, stay safe and attract attention

The Smurfs 2 is available on DVD, Blu-ray & UltraViolet now. 

This article was first published on Australia's number one independent women's website Mamamia.

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