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18 Jun

Sophie Hellyer: what surfing means to me

by The Wave Team

Sophie Hellyer, former British and English surfing champion and Ambassador for The Wave, tells us how she got into surfing as a girl in Devon and what she loves about it. Sophie is a highly regarded environmentalist, social activist, writer and role model for surfers around the world. She champions ethical living, challenges social inequalities and gives a voice to women often ignored in the surf media.

What do you love about surfing?

It's hard to put into words. There's this saying "only a surfer knows the feeling," which is a cheesy cliche but it's true. There are feelings of focus, joy, weightlessness and accomplishment that you get when you get a good wave, and they give you a buzz that's hard to describe. Another reason is the feeling of bonding with people and the sense of community that comes with that.

How did you start?

I was lucky enough to grow up in North Devon. My dad and my big sister surfed so I learned from my dad pushing me into waves down in North Devon and Cornwall. I wasn't a natural. Some people can stand up on their first wave, but I definitely did not, I took quite a long time to get it!

What did you find the biggest barrier to progressing as a surfer?

I never had a proper surf lesson so I didn't really know what I was aiming for. I had to figure out what to do next; it was just trial and error! One huge benefit of The Wave will be that you'll be able to learn in a structured way because the waves will be predictable and you'll have more guidance and tuition.

What has surfing taught you about life?

The importance of standing up every time you get knocked down, however many times it happens. You fall over a lot, and surfing really does teach you resilience – strength, confidence and courage. I've learned things from surfing that help with my work because surfing gives you a power you can carry through to other bits of your life.

What has it taught you about your body?

Through surfing I learned to not care what other people think about how I look. At 14 I was crippled by terror of what I looked like and of what other people thought of me. When I became a sponsored surfer, thrown into a world where I was surrounded by all these beautiful pro-surfers, I spent years of my life thinking I was going to get found out, that I was really the ugly one and I was crap at surfing. It took a lot of work to get to a place where I didn't care what other people think but in the end I got to a stage where I could let that stuff go. I realised you can't not surf a wave because you're scared of falling off in front of other people!

Does it de-stress you, and if so how and why?

The ocean can change your mood; if you're sad it makes you happy, if you're feeling stressed it can make you calm. It's like hitting the reset button, you get in the water and it resets everything for the rest of your day. I struggled with depression when I was younger and it was a great help to me then.

What are the greatest myths or misconceptions about surfing?

That you have to be good at it! You don't! You can just flap around in your wetsuit in the white water and never stand up if you want, so long as you're having fun… And you don't have to be a tanned size 8 wearing a bikini either.

What's your advice to a newbie who's struggling?

Ask yourself, what's the worst that could happen? You fall off, you tumble around in water, that's it.

What’s the best time you ever had surfing?

I lived in Ireland for five years and there are a couple of surfs that stand out from that time. I've had some really good waves on big, stormy days with huge swells when only me and one other friend have been out getting long rides in epic, stormy wild conditions. You get an incredible feeling from days like that.