In flawless surf at the hallowed point break of Maui’s Honolua Bay, South Africa’s Bianca Buitendag fell short by a mere three-100ths of a point in the quarter-finals of the season-ending Maui Pro. But her result – joint fifth – boosted her two places in the World Surf League rankings to a career-high fourth in the world.
For the 22-year-old, it capped a sensational third season competing among the elite top 18 on the Championship Tour, in which she made three finals and one semi-final in the 10 events.
It also made her the most successful South African professional surfer – male or female – of the past 18 months, and she did it all despite mourning the untimely death of her father, Colin, who had taught her to surf as a child and who was one of her staunchest supporters.
“If there are good waves and good scores, I would prefer to lose marginally than miss the opportunity to surf to my full potential,” says Buitendag of that quarter-final score, which was actually good enough to win every other heat in that round.
“Toward the end of the season, like in Maui, you just want to raise your level of surfing and show ’em what you got. Especially in the conditions we were blessed with on the final day.”
Buitendag’s goal at the beginning of 2015 was to end the year in the top five, so she succeeded and then some. “But being successful in sport or a career means less to me than you might think,” she says.
“It’s great, don’t get me wrong, but people won’t remember any of that. People will remember who you were, how you made them feel, how your heart was, and what you achieved according to its convictions.”
Buitendag’s philosophical outlook is typical of how she has approached the best year of her career. The most inspirational part of her story, however, is not her rise to the top of pro surfing, but rather that she pulled off this year-of-years while dealing with the impact of her father’s death.
“I was in New Zealand when we heard what had happened,” says Buitendag of the tragic news in late March last year. “By the time I got home after three flights, everything was already on top of me: funeral, people, people and more people.
It’s a great distraction, but they come, they go, and I was left to make the decision whether or not to compete in an event starting three days later.”
No one would have questioned her if she had taken a few months off and escaped the pressures of competing to be able to work through her grief.
Instead, Buitendag carried on and not only survived, but thrived. In a sense, surfing and competing was her way of coping.
Buitendag made the call to travel to Australia to compete in the women’s Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach. “It was hard,” she admits. “For me, going to Bells and competing was almost about running away from the turmoil at home. It was a safer and better place to be, thinking that when I returned home, my father would still be there.”
Her dad had taught her to surf in the foamies at the Strand in Cape Town when she was just eight years old. “Surfing surely was a special link to my dad,” Buitendag says.
“But that’s a memory, a moment one can recall from the past. When a person’s life is so integrated into your own that you speak his words, have his hands and share his character, it’s not in the past, but in the present that you see him.”
Sports psychologists like to say that professional athletes – especially those participating in endurance sports – are often better at what they do if they have had to overcome some kind of tremendous hardship in their life.
It’s almost as if they channel the survival mechanism they’ve experienced into their racing and training.
Buitendag believes that this may have played some part in her success last year. “It definitely puts you through something you never thought you would survive,” she says. “You get to a point where you become very honest with yourself. You realise what actually matters, and the concept of ‘competing’ evaporates.
With this revelation of truth – what will and will not pass; what will and will not help others; what will and will not even matter – comes a kind of liberation from the constant pressures of professional sport.”
The story of Buitendag’s extraordinary 2015 is not one of overcoming emotional adversity, it is one of triumph in spite of it. Here is a testament to unwavering commitment. “A quick recipe for success does not exist,” Buitendag admits.
“It’s a process, for sure, but many times we’re convinced this process is in our power: if we put in more hours, it will happen for us; or if we do this and that, it will happen. I still remember sitting next to my dad in the car after school, having to decide at the age of 18 whether I wanted to attempt this professional surfing thing or to study in Stellenbosch.
It was 50/50. And when I first got onto the tour, a lot of people put an emphasis on ‘experience’, which I did not exactly understand at the time. But, looking back, I guess a growth in experience is what I can attribute my success to.”
Ever humble, Buitendag believes everyone has it within themselves to do likewise, regardless of their situation. And, she’s quick to point out, there are others who have achieved even more despite enduring much worse.
“It’s not only me,” she says. “The tales of the lives of many athletes worldwide will blow your mind. Don’t underestimate the stories behind the successes in those jerseys.”