Happy International Women’s Day from all of us here at Surfing Australia.
To the amazing surfers, judges, coaches, mums, daughters, aunties and all the other women who inspire us every day.
For your courage, your intelligence and independence. For pushing boundaries and making this world a better place for all of us.
See below a selection of photos from some amazing Aussie women as well as a feature story on Olympian and World Tour surfer, Sally Fitzgibbons.
Sally’s Olympic-sized wave towards gender equity
By Sally Mac
Beyond the hard work, talent and infectious energy of an Olympian and World Tour surfer, Sally Fitzgibbons has a raw passion for sport and an Olympic dream that was sparked as a 10-year-old.
It’s a passion born from watching Australian trailblazers – women who pushed the limits in their sport to create a new world of opportunity and a movement towards gender equity.
Now 32, she’s continuing the legacy that inspired her, as surfing and sport globally continues to evolve.
On International Women’s Day, we wanted to reflect on what was at the heart of Sally’s passion and who the women were that ignited that passion.
Although Sally started her sporting journey as a two-year-old in the surf, it was a moment at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games that lit a fire in her.
“We were in seats at the very highest part of the stadium,” said Sally.
“We were there to see Cathy Freeman’s 400 metre final. I remember it so clearly. We were so high up I could swing on the rafters but looking down onto the track was magical. I was impressed by how pristine the track was.”
Sally’s face lights up and goosebumps are raised recalling the moment that is still so vivid.
“After a momentary hush for the start of the race, the gun went off and the whole stadium roared. As Cathy came around the last corner it was like nothing I’d ever experienced,” she continued.
“The power of seeing Cathy, such a strong, powerful, independent woman going out there with all the expectations and pressure on her but backed by the belief of a nation was inspiring. She was a shining light for female athletes everywhere.”
Sally missed out on getting her favourite cap signed by Cathy that night but the feeling of knowing that women could have such sporting success saw her get up every morning to train and set an internal goal to one day be an Olympian too.
“In my head I started to see myself in my own little sports movies. I was falling in love with the process of working towards one day achieving my Olympic dream, the discipline to work hard and get better.”
But surfing wasn’t an Olympic sport.
Athletics, cross country, basketball, swimming, soccer, hockey, nippers and surfing kept her busy but it was surfing that became the focus.
As she progressed another trailblazer came into the periphery.
Layne Beachley was dominating with world titles, sponsorship deals and sporting prowess that pushed the limits.
“Layne was thriving on the world stage. She showed grit, determination, tenacity and she fought through a time where there were a lot of inequalities in sport,” Sally said.
“She was at the forefront of celebrating women and pushing the window open and jumping through it to say, we’re here, we’re here to be respected and noticed.”
Layne saw something in Sally and when she was on the cusp of her own surfing success, Layne awarded her with a grant as part of her ‘Aim for the Stars’ program.
“I was so chuffed and have never forgotten that moment. Layne believed in me, she recognised me right before I took the leap into becoming a professional surfer.”
15 years later, and a further five after seeing Cathy win gold, Sally qualified for the Tokyo Olympics where surfing would debut.
The girl from Gerroa saw her dream playout, her goal as a 10-year-old achieved.
Completing the full circle moment, in the leadup to the Games, the Australian surfing team spent time at the Surfing Australia High Performance Centre and Cathy Freeman came to speak to the team. On that day, a moment 20 years in the making played out.
“I was surrounded by all my peers and I completely forgot where I was,” she said.
“I got that signature on my cap, it was a bit of a moment.”
Not only did Sally go onto compete at the Olympics, she was invited to be part of the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Programme Commission, a role that she said she’s honoured to take on as a trailblazer in her own right.
“It honestly blows my mind to be part of the Commission. There are people from all corners of the globe coming together and seeing how it all works, the impact we can make and the role we play to ensure the Olympics can move with the times and promote sports that kids of tomorrow will be into.
“I’m loving the role and it’s something I have a connection with because I grew up watching traditional Olympic sports and traditions, but I became an action sports athlete that became part of the modern Olympic landscape.”
“The Olympics wants to be a place that is modern, exciting and entertaining but still holds its traditional values.”
In 2023 there is no doubt that Sally’s impact on the next generation of surfers and sports people is far-reaching. She’s still one of the top 16 surfers in the world, and she’s released an app – Sally’s Surf School – to mentor surfers of all abilities to drive their progress to success.
When reflecting and paying respect to the women who inspired her to have the life and opportunities she had, Sally says she hopes to see the path to equity in sport continue to unfold for those that come after her.
“For me to think about the road I’ve travelled it’s important to recognise women that have made an impact on the evolution of sport and you personally,” she said.
“Sport is forever changing. I’m wrapped in how far surfing has come and I’m excited for what’s still to come.
“Even in my small snapshot so much has changed with especially seeing pay parity and equal events. The next steps are equal competitor numbers with the explosion of women in the sport.
For Sally it all comes down to the love of sport and equal opportunities to participate, dream and achieve.
“We all love sport equally, we pour in our hearts and souls equally and we all uproot our lives to travel and chase the dream together.”
And on International Women’s Day, Sally will be competing in Portugal where a special tradition to pay homage to women was started in 2022.
“We’re surfing with the names of trailblazers on our jersey again this year. I’m surfing with Layne’s name on my back in recognition of her belief in me and the path she paved for us all,” Sally said.
“Everyone can do something personal though – think about the women who inspire you. Give them a hug, a high-five or go back and read about something they’ve done and take a moment to be thankful for the path they paved.”