rose to the top with nary a trace of ambition.
The sun is yet to rise. Tyler Wright is in good spirits, carefully studying invisible waves on a barely discernible horizon. Nearby, Carissa Moore also stares seaward as Praia do Guincho in Portugal comes to life before them. They are locked in a quietly blazing battle. It’s only the top of the world that’s at stake.
Thirty hours later, Tyler’s second in the world with no hopes of climbing higher, at least not this year. She congratulates, hugs, and laughs with the woman who took the title from her hands. But you see, she never, actually, saw it as hers. She never expected to be in contention for a world championship. She found herself here. And instead of succumbing to the pressure that accompanies such a situation, Tyler simply ignored it.
At the 2013 Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, the third of a then-indeterminate number of events, Tyler and Carissa faced each other in a final for the second time that year. It was Tyler’s third in three contests. It was the start of the title race that wasn’t. Partly because the race was all but deadlocked until its conclusion, and partly because one of the top contenders wasn’t acknowledging its existence. It was early to start sniffing around for a title battle, but with a slew of head-to-heads, it was hard not to. By the time Tyler won in Rio, at the fifth event of the year, she was still saying that a world championship cup was the last thing on her mind. It seemed unfathomable that Tyler was truly indifferent to the title race. How could she be?
But her story remained consistent and her smooth exterior never once betrayed a glory-hungry monster within. So, I started to believe that there wasn’t one.
According to the ASP’s World Tour manager, Al Hunt, the closest world title race in history was in 2001, when just 30 points separated Layne Beachley from Melanie Redman-Carr. Carissa Moore ultimately won the 2013 race by 3,800 points, a fraction of her 59,000-plus point total. Heading into the last event, there were only 200 between the pair. It still ranks among the tightest world title clashes ever.
“I was actually looking back at it, because when I was in the moment, I didn’t feel it. I honestly didn’t pay attention,” Tyler says. “After, I realized how close it was and… as we said, I kind of stumbled into this position and just went with it. Crucial heats, they were just another heat to me.”
“It’s funny because everyone is like, ‘Oh, that must have been so intense and so stressful and… the pressure!’” she continues. “And it’s incredible how little I felt of that. I think it was having Brooke [Farris] and Kirby and my brother–and all of the people who I surround myself with–they didn’t make it a big deal. They didn’t actually care where I came [in]. They never did. They only cared that I went out there and did what I wanted to do. And I did that, so I was happy. And they were happy.”
Of all of the surfers on Tour, except perhaps her brother, Tyler must have the largest support network. Her family is tight-knit, to say the least. She’s one of five children–all of whom are surfers. She borrows Mikey’s boards, phones Owen for advice, and travels with Kirby. They help her to keep things “light.”
“My family’s very funny and the dinner table conversations are very MA-rated,” she laughs. “They get out of control sometimes. We spend like two hours at the table, literally, in complete laughter. They’re some of the best times ever. And we’re just ripping on each other the whole time.”
Levity is of paramount importance to Tyler. Whenever she mentions someone whose company she enjoys, that person is invariably “funny.” And Tyler is funny. She has a salty sense of humor and the ability to laugh at herself, which are definitely assets in the world of competitive sports.
“Finding yourself in a world title race is a pretty unique situation, [and] there are really only a select few who get that close to it,” says Tyler’s manager, Brooke Farris. “I guess everyone approaches it in different ways and for Tyler, it was just about being herself and staying committed to the same goals she’d had all year. It takes a lot to keep calm and collected with all that pressure, and Tyler had such great composure. She was focused, there to surf–and dance–and enjoy it. It’s a real privilege to be a part of an athlete’s inner circle and see them achieve.”
Brooke is a former WCT surfer herself and she was at Layne Beachley’s side while she was racking up titles as if they were going out of style. Now, she’s Rip Curl’s international events and girls’ team manager. She and Tyler have a connection that far surpasses the typical surfer-manager relationship. Tyler’s Rip Curl family is about as close as her immediate one, and Brooke seems to play the roles of manager, mother, sister, coach, and friend.
“I see other people and their team managers, and no offense to their team managers,” Tyler says, with an emphatic pause, “but mine’s just a boss.”
“She gets it. She knows the real me. She’s an incredible human. She knows a lot and she’s helped us out a lot. And she’s so funny, too. It is super nice to have someone like Brooke on my side. I know a lot of other people don’t have that, so I know that I’m lucky.”
More and more of the Top 17 are traveling with partners these days, but a hunky pro-surfer boyfriend is not a part of Tyler’s entourage. Like any 20-year-old, she is interested in dating, but she hasn’t really had the time.
“I just haven’t gotten around to it–or found someone who’s entertaining enough. Who’s more fun than the people who I [normally] hang out with. I don’t really get out that much, either,” she says. And then she adds, “[And] I would never date a surfer. I feel like I surf enough and I know surfing enough. I like people who do different things and have different lives.”
She recently met an interesting guy, at her aunt’s 50th birthday party, but claims she was “too much of a chicken to ask him out on a date.” Apparently, making the first move is always scary, even for girls who charge waves like P-Pass.
In 2010, I was trying to recruit Surfer Poll voters and some guy said, “You know who’s really good? Owen Wright’s sister? Tyler. Yeah, she rips.” And he voted for her on the spot. At the time, she had won two World Championship Tour events, both as a wildcard. One of which (the 2008 Beachley Classic) made her the youngest surfer ever to win a CT event. She was just 14 at the time. At 16, she wasn’t on Tour yet, but she was already gaining international recognition. That year, she qualified and she finished her rookie year at 4th in the world.
“I’ve known and been watching Tyler develop as a surfer since she was 9,” says ASP Deputy Commissioner Jessi Miley-Dyer. “I was as impressed with her talent then as I am today. Not only is she a brilliant and powerful surfer capable of all of the tricks, but she is a beautiful person with a big heart.”
Tyler doesn’t always offer up smiles or verbose quotes in her post-heat interviews. She often eschews the competitors’ area at contests, preferring the ironic privacy of the beach. It would be a mistake to interpret this distance as coolness, because when Tyler “keeps to herself,” what she’s really doing is keeping careful company. In fact, she is rarely alone, and when she’s amid her cohort, she’s affable and warm. More to the point, she’s unfailingly no one except herself. While she is poised, she is never contrived. Many professional athletes skillfully mask their negative emotions–worry, disappointment, anger. Tyler Wright doesn’t bother. But negativity also seems to elude her much of the time.
“Regimen” isn’t really a word that Tyler uses for her self-imposed diet and exercise routine. “Flexible” is. But that doesn’t mean the girl doesn’t train, and train hard. It just means that she doesn’t do it solemnly.
“I train [because] I like knowing that my body is fit and that whatever I put it through, it can handle,” she says. “I have a really good trainer and he’s really funny. He eats cheesecakes in front of me while I train and he’s like, ‘Yeah, mush! Hurry up!’ It’s like, ‘Are you kiddin’ me right now?’ [Laughs.] But it’s a really good environment for me to train in. It’s not serious at all. We get done what we need to get done and then we talk shit and pretty much pay out on my surfing.”
Dessert played a central role in Tyler’s 2013 [non-]campaign. At each event, there was (at least) a mention of cake, cookies, or éclairs. Tyler says she doesn’t actually handle sugar that well, but she loves good food. Growing up, Mumma Wright made sure that her kids always ate natural foods, and most of the time, Tyler still does–especially when she’s training. She describes herself as “moody” with regards to food, and her diet is usually dictated by how she feels.
“I used to just say ‘No breads, no sugars,’” she explains, “but I got to a stage where I was craving certain foods. If I feel like my body wants it, and not just my tummy, I’ll eat it. I don’t like the whole regimented thing. I try and stick to it, but if I go off the rails for a little bit… I don’t really care! I like to have fun with it.”
“Dessert is just good food. It’s there and, well, you just can’t let it go to waste,” she laughs. “Plus, you’ve got to experience it while you’re in [whichever] country. Otherwise, it’s not the same.”
Tyler says that when she was younger, she didn’t fully appreciate all of the places to which surfing took her. Now, she tries to make the most of every destination. On this trip to Portugal, Tyler rode horses at sunset, visited castles, and, naturally, ate pastéis de nata.
“A lot’s changed [over the last year or two], and I think it’s since then that I’ve realized that there’s actually more to life than just competing and surfing,” she says. “Although it is a great life and I’m so lucky to live it, there’s more to it. I want to do other stuff. I want to travel to different places and just… do whatever I want.”
Thus, Tyler says she’s less competitive than she used to be. She partakes in some healthy sibling rivalry, but that’s as far as her aggression goes. “[There’s] that kind of competitive [which is fun], but then there’s the competitive that starts taking over everything that you’re doing, and I don’t like that,” she says. “I’m more than fine [coming in] second. First, second, third, fifth–doesn’t really matter to me. All that matters to me is that I do it my way. I got a ninth in New Zealand, but I was a lot happier with that ninth than the second in Bells. As long as I’m catching waves and surfing the way I want to, and being as creative and free as I want to, I’m happy. It doesn’t get any better than that for me.”
The way she wants to surf just so happens to align, perfectly, with the way the judges (and we, the spectators) want her to surf. Classical power surfing and boundary-blurring progression are a compelling combination, and her success is proof of that. I also believe that people simply enjoy watching other people who enjoy what they do, and to watch Tyler surf is to witness something pure.
“I’ve done it for the wrong reasons before, and that didn’t work,” she says. “So, I’m doing it for the reasons that I want to do it now–and that is because I love surfing. I really do.”
Tyler can’t tell you how old she was when she started surfing; she just knows that she was very young. The whole family surfed and lived on the beach, so she fell into it naturally. And fell in love.
“I think I’ve always had a love for the ocean,” she starts to say. “That’s so corny. Wow!” she laughs. “But even now, we’ll be on trips and I’ll be getting moody and twitchy, and Farris is like, ‘Go get in the water. Now. Shoot.’ It calms me down. I don’t know, I always feel endless possibilities in the water.”
A little more than a week after the curtain fell on the title race, Tyler is home in Lennox Head, New South Wales. Lennox is just south of Byron Bay, which is just south of the Gold Coast, and this stretch of sand produces a lot of impressive surf. Consequently, the region produces a lot of impressive surfers. Michael Peterson, Pete Townend, Mick Fanning, Parko, Adam Melling, and Steph Gilmore, to name a few.
When T answers the phone, it sounds like she’s in a room with a lot of people. Her voice is expressive and choral, and, like any good Aussie, she drops consonants from the ends of words. It’s all very endearing.
She’s just come back from building a snowman. Which is unusual in northern NSW. Especially in springtime. Well, she was meant to play a game of touch football, but it began to hail. So, lemonade. Whatever.
T says “whatever” all the time–and not in the way that snotty teenagers say it. She really means that whatever happens is fine by her.
On the off-season, Tyler’s day-to-day life really resembles anyone’s. Well, maybe anyone’s Saturday. It always includes a good breakfast, a surf (or four), and time with family. It often includes motorbikes, puppies, dance parties, and good books. T loves her books and says she has heaps of them. Right now, she’s in the thick of four series.
“There’s a series called The Mortal Instruments,” she says. “Actually, they just made a movie out of it. It’s pretty cool. There’s one called Bloodlines… Yeah, a whole bunch of books, but they’re kind of easy reads, I guess. I love them. Generally, there’s always a happy ending, so it’s cool. I hate sad endings.”
When she says this, I can’t help but think of the way 2013 turned out for Tyler. Second wasn’t the place that much of the world wanted for her. But second in the world is, by no means, a sad ending. And then it occurs to me that this was exactly the ending that Tyler had written for herself, for that season. All she ever hoped to achieve was authenticity. Adherence to her own rules. And she succeeded.
“…They only cared that I went out there and did what I wanted to do. And I did that, so I was happy. And they were happy…”
“…It doesn’t get any better than that for me…”
I ask Tyler how she would describe herself and after some hesitation, she finally says, “I guess sometimes, I’m moody. Sometimes, I’m funny. Sometimes, I’m just a dork. But… I have no idea, actually, how I would describe myself. I’m just me. What you see is pretty much what you get.” And then she laughed. This is not an ending at all.
*Another one of my favorites that never found a home. Tyler is a really amazing human–feel free to share!