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Tyler Wright is ready to walk away. Again.
And yet here she sits, just two 35-minute heats away from a third world title, six years after back-to-back triumphs that marked her as one of Australia’s best surfers.
Tyler Wright practising for the WSL finals in California.Credit: AP
But the doubts and questions remain.
“Hey, what if you can’t change it?” and “What if I’m not enough to fix it?”
“It” isn’t the heaving terror of Teahupo’o. Nor a Backdoor Pipeline barrel, volcanic reef looming large at either idyllic locale. It’s no cutback, backhand carve or aerial.
She has no anxiety about this weekend’s winner-takes-all WSL finals at Trestles, California – where she ranks behind only five-time champion Carissa Moore in the seedings, with Hurricane Jova’s rapid approach to America’s west coast accelerating the event’s scheduling in waves likely up to two-and-a-half metres.
Tyler Wright in San Clemente, California, ahead of this year’s WSL finals.Credit: Thiago Diz/World Surf League
Nor, thankfully, is it any hint of the brutal bout of post-viral syndrome that forced her off the tour and out of the water.
“Sometimes I get so let down by the surfing community that I feel like quitting,” Wright says.
“And I’ve had to have conversations this year with my psychologist about, ‘Hey, what if you can’t change it?’ ‘What if I’m not enough to fix it?’ ‘What if me advocating for these things is never going to change anything?’
“I’ve had to sit with those questions throughout emotional parts of our year when different scenarios have happened … When I look at surfing, for years I wrestled with my anger towards surfing because of how it’s positioned itself in the world of progressiveness. ‘We’re counterculture, we’re inclusive’.
‘Being out of the sport made me look at surfing with honest eyes.’
“My experience of surfing from a young age was definitely not that.”
Wright, 29, has spoken at length about her formative years in the pro-surfing bubble as the youngest WSL competitor in history.
From the age of 16, she felt “the sausage fest” had little room for her as someone “clearly not straight, blonde and in a bikini”.
Even less so, the uncompromising demands of Rob, father to the five Wright siblings, including fellow ex-pros Owen and Mikey.
Tyler Wright and her wife Lilli Baker during the El Salvador Pro in June.Credit: Beatriz Ryder/World Surf League
As an 18-year-old, Tyler confronted him with the ultimatum: “you’re my dad or my manager”. “Manager” was the response. A parting of ways and a strained relationship, that has mended somewhat recently, was the result.
Consecutive world titles, in her eyes, “were for protection” in her early 20s.
“I have done this now,” she says of her outlook afterwards.
“I have done this twice. So please leave me alone. None of you can tell me how to win a world title because none of you have done it.”
Consecutive years sitting out the championship tour followed. Bedridden for months by debilitating illness, Wright’s response to this masthead’s question “did you feel as if your career was dead?” in 2022, says it all.
“Yeah. But more so, I thought I was gonna die.”
When she did recover and, eventually, returned in 2019, it was with a voice the surfing world had rarely heard.
“Being out of the sport made me look at surfing with honest eyes. I realised if I’m coming back, I am going to show up with who I am as a human first,” Wright told ESPN after her competitive comeback.
She became the first openly gay woman competing on tour. The first to wear a pride flag on her competition rash vests. The first to take a knee for Black Lives Matter in 2021, kneeling for almost eight minutes of her heat at the Tweed Coast Pro – 439 seconds spent on the shore representing each of the First Nations Australians killed in police custody since 1991.
Wright taking a knee during the 2020 Tweed Coast Pro.Credit: Matt Dunbar/World Surf League
Wright explains her advocacy in the simplest of terms, “bringing a level of humanity, and I guess just bringing me to my career”.
Issues that have her wrestling with her place in the surfing world are never far from the surface. In February, the WSL’s adoption of a transgender policy to meet Olympic regulations drew criticism from some, including Hawaiian surfing identity Bethany Hamilton, who said she would not compete under the rules.
These require trans athletes to maintain a testosterone level of less than five nanomoles/litre for at least 12 months to compete as a woman.
WSL figures, including chief of sport and former pro Jessi Miley-Dyer, have previously backed Wright in key areas, including her BLM protest. But on the transgender debate that spans the sporting landscape, the NSW south-coast native says she was told to keep quiet.
‘I didn’t say much and I still don’t, [because] obviously it’s wildly confronting for someone like me to be in the crossroads of this.’
“That whole thing was a colossal mess in my experience,” she says.
“I loved it. I think WSL having the policy is amazing. It’s inclusive, it’s moving forward … But it was so confronting, that to a certain extent I was being told to keep quiet, keep my head down because of this blow-up.
“I didn’t say much and I still don’t, [because] obviously it’s wildly confronting for someone like me to be in the crossroads of this.
“I believe in inclusivity and equality. It doesn’t just come and go when I like it.”
So, for someone wrestling with their place and voice on the pro circuit, why and how does Wright keep competing, and keep managing the expectations of sponsors, governing bodies and fans, in concert with her own?
“You know what I did? I quietly quit in certain spaces. But not in the spaces that matter most to me.”
The rise of women’s sport, not just surfing, takes pride of place, along with LGBTQ and mental health advocacy.
And with it comes arguably the simplest conversation of all, one Wright herself stayed silent on for years.
In a remarkably consistent season, the one outlier in her results since winning the Bells Beach Ripcurl Pro in April was a first-round loss at Kelly Slater’s artificial wave pool event in May.
Wright revealed a week later on Instagram that she had been hospitalised by period pain before the event, bedridden and unable to stomach food for three days before hitting the water.
“It’s an everyday thing and 50 per cent of the population deal with menstruation,” Wright says, slightly incredulous when it’s pointed out this reporter wouldn’t have dared ask the question without her speaking up first.
“But it was only when other women heard that I was [suffering] like this that they were like, ‘No, no, no, you have to go and see someone’.
“It’s speculated [to be] endometriosis (where tissue similar to the lining of the uterus grows outside the uterus, causing severe pain in the pelvis). But they can’t tell me unless they perform a surgery.
“That’s one of the things, I’ve started mentioning it in interviews. I thought I was getting my period during a heat, which meant I had 20 minutes before I threw up, depending on what sort of period line it was going to take.
“Sometimes I get an hour to take some pain relief. Other times I get nothing, my body goes into such severe pain and shock that I’ll just start throwing up.
“It’s happened multiple times. I’m just not as embarrassed about those kind of things any more. It comes with maturity and also seeing other women speak up.”
Wright has wrestled with life’s big questions for much of hers. Now, as she closes in on a return to the pinnacle of competitive surfing, she’s asking her sport to do the same.
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