WHY I: SOPHIE HELLYER

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Sophie Hellyer is a woman on a mission.  The Westward Ho!, Devon raised surfer has been the poster child for British surfing during her career as a competitive athlete, contracts with global-leading surf brands, magazine covers and competition wins making for an illustrious career that has seen Sophie raise the profile of Britain’s surf industry and been a well-known, and liked, face of it.

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But it’s Sophie’s work post-surfing career that has been stoking embers of positive change. Passion projects causing ripples, nay, surges, within the traditional notions of surf culture, sexism, feminism, environmentalism and more. Her seeringly honest and candid style of writing cuts to the chase, prompting wider conversation with change and impact. 

Settle down for a read with the charging force of change, Sophie Hellyer. 

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Sophie Hellyer’s career since turning pro as a surfer more than 15 years ago started with a typical trajectory.  A talented surfer travelling the world, popping up regularly in campaigns and covers, a blue eyed, blonde-haired image of a female surfing pro we are typically familiar with.  During this writer’s time working full time for a popular women’s surfing magazine, Sophie was a familiar face within our pages, her notable talents as a surfer paired with an honest interest in the world around her making for a popular read with our audience.

Fast forward to 2018, and Sophie has been boldly questioning, quashing, even attacking traditional (sometimes damaging) perceptions of not just women within surfing, but our larger impact on the world around us, and what it means for our environments and more.   A prominent broadsheet’s misquoted article (entitled “Surf Star Sophie Hellyer Lets Rip At Bikini Sexism” published earlier this spring) seemingly poured gasoline over already crackling embers.  Sophie’s work since then has prominently appeared on widely read global platforms and broadsheets including The Independent and The Inertia, discussing topics which have been glaringly obvious and often taboo within the world of surf and sport culture, and on a wider platform, of sexism & feminism. 

The media squall ensuing the well-publicized misquoted article led to, Sophie explores, “two key positives.  It opened me up to new platforms. I had the opportunity to go on BBC’s Women’s Hour on Radio 4, and I wrote my first piece for The Independent (I’ve had 3 or 4 pieces published with them now).” Furthermore, she adds, a critical positive impact was “it really challenged me to grow and understand a lot more about intersectionalfeminism…Yes, the gender pay gap between men and women is large, but if you look at the pay gap between white women and women of colour, that’s also quite large.  So I’ve had to learn a lot more and understand my position and my privileges a lot more, it’s been great.”

“I understand now that there’s so much more work that needs to be done, and me, as a privileged white woman, needs to do my piece and step-up and take responsibility”.   

It’s that deeper look at the root causes, at the more fundamental issues at play and how exactly change can be implemented which is seeing Sophie’s status rise as an authentic voice and champion within her respected topic areas.  “I have been writing about everything from gender disparity, periods, to wanking (ha-ha)…and social injustices that need to be addressed.  I’m in a position that I can speak up about and kind of, make some changes. I think that so much stuff that is taboo needs to be normalised. I’ve posted things like my sexual health check-ups.  I’m a woman, I have sex.  I think it’s important.” 

“Stuff like that needs to be normalised.  Nearly every time I meet someone I’ll openly say in a conversation I have therapy…There’s a shame and a stigma attached to having counselling, and I think every single person I know ends up having some kind of therapy.  Mental health is really something that needs to be talked about as well.”

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Tracing the path to this progressive nature of her work when Sophie left Australia where she was based, moving to an organic-farm in Ireland, growing her own for 4 years where she explores “I guess I became more aware of things…I really started becoming aware of plastic issues and then obviously growing my own food and living on an organic farm, environmental awareness just sky rocketed.  Because of that I said to my sponsors that I was only going to travel by land and sea to shoots…

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The resulting consequence of that was that I would only surf in a wetsuit for photos, because it’s ridiculous that we’re only ever modelling in bikinis anyway.  We don’t wear bikinis in the UK and Ireland (to surf).” 

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Whilst in Ireland too, a deeper look into surf culture whilst attending the Irish Surf Film Festival (“A great event, the organisers are amazing”) Sophie was shocked to see that “in the shorts, out of all the shorts entered, there wasn’t a single film made by a woman. No female directors, no female film makers, there’s no film about a woman, and out of all the waves ridden in all of the shorts there was only one wave ridden by a woman. Whereas actually, there's a lot of women surfing Ireland, surfing well…”. Fiery editorial and work since has championed the need for more of these stories, for more of these women to be represented and shown in the wider media. 

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With Sophie’s work published on some of the world’s largest surf-culture media outlets, she admits, “putting it out to the masses is dangerous”.  The double-edged sword of having a wider audience, yet the dangers of being exposed to trolling and worse, comes hand in hand with working as a writer and having your work published on the digital-sphere.  Sophie begins “I really try to not react to things… most people who say something negative I try engage in a conversation.

Having strong opinions on something is for me the interesting part.   How you got to that, what was your thought process, I want to understand why you think like that.”

“I want to understand the process of how you got there, and then maybe we can meet in the middle somewhere.   Maybe you’ll change my mind, maybe I’ll change your mind.” 

This refreshing outlook is understandably, gaining Sophie a loyal legion of readers tuning into her work.  If those questioning whether or not stimulating conversation and voicing an alternative view can have impact and make change, only have to look at the recent case of an image that went viral of a male and female athlete on the podium of a surf competition.  The gross disparity between their winning pay checks starkly apparent, with 50% less earnings for the female champion.  The backlash from that powerful image was immediate, such can be the power of the internet and social media.  Sophie agrees, adding “obviously, the public saw the issue and it was widely shared and discussed, and there have been some changes.   The sponsor steps in and says we will match it and only sponsor events with equal prize for equal title, change, boom, done, so I think we’re seeing change much more quickly now, with the speed of social media.”. 

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And now, just last week, we have seen monumental change within the surfing industry.  Not only being the first sport to announce equal pay for its male and female athletes in WSL (World Surf League) controlled events, the viral announcement has sent positive shockwaves within the global sporting landscape, a clear indication of the powerful precedent that discussion, that relentless drive can yield.  Sophie agrees, asserting that “

“The WSL’s U-turn decision the pay parity is massively down to the tireless activism of CEWS (Committee of Equity in Women’s Surfing), Bianca (Valenti), Keala (Kennelly), Andrea (Mollre)…huge respect for them for their continued bravery and voices”.

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It is an incredibly encouraging development, considering that sexism has, unfortunately, been tied closely to the surf industry.  It is a contentious subject within the realms of pro-surfing.  Looking past the pay gap issues which now, the WSL has made incredible moves to close, we still see within female surfing destructive stereotypes of female suffers which cause critical ramifications for the athletes making a living from the sport.

A cookie-cutter image of what a female surfer has been portrayed and conveyed in media, on billboards, within films and more, has typically showcased a more lithe, blond and blue-eyed surfer.  If we get into the nitty gritty, following the recent cases of talented pros, Brazilian charger Silvana Lima (if you haven’t seen Silvana surf, haul yourself over to YouTube now) and Australian world –tour surfer Rebecca Woods, who spoke out, explaining that it cost her “thirty grand a year to be on tour.  She couldn’t find a sponsor because sponsors were choosing the girls who fit their marketing campaigns best, so choosing the girls who looked like models, who then got knocked out the comps in the early rounds, as opposed to sponsoring the girls who are actually incredibly good athletes”. 

I ask if we are still seeing this kind of behaviour in 2018 from brands within surfing? “The only women who are finding real success surfing are the women who fit this kind of commodified mono culture industry’s beauty ideal.  I’m not saying these women shouldn’t have success. They should be respected as surfers and celebrated as athletes.”

“What would be nice to see is the same levels of success for women who don’t necessarily conform or fit in the box of being a beautiful, thin, white, blond surfer.  It would be nice to see success for a wider, and more diverse group of women, and then become role models for the younger generation”. 

Delving into the core of why and who is making these decisions that continues to perpetuate stereotypes about female surfers which are actually, damaging to those athletes who make a living from the sport, Sophie suggests that”

“Most of those big brands are run by men…sex sells sex, not sport, that’s proven.   When you see these images of hyper sexualised women, actually studies show that it makes us question their sporting ability, and we actually doubt if they are any good at their sport.  Are the brands trying to sell surfing, or are they trying to sell sex?”

Sophie does also contend that, “I guess we have to acknowledge that a lot of women are implicit in sexism, there are lots of women in marketing in these companies”.  Arguing that it is the decision makers, those pulling the reigns behind the scenes, she continues “the brands are normally run by men…and the media is mostly run by men, the sports stories in the news are mostly written by men. I think it’s something like 8% of sports stories are written by women.” To even out the playing field and be able to critically see, more women a fairer representation of female athletes in the media, Sophie suggest that “you see change happens when you…put a woman in there.  The first piece I wrote, I had in Wavelength about the under representation of female surfers in wetsuits.  That piece got commissioned because Holly Bendall was working at Wavelength at the time, she was a woman at the magazine and she commissioned it”.

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Critically now, we are seeing positive impact from independent brands that are championing a wider and more inclusive view of what it is to be a female surfer, namely, just have a board under your feet, regardless of size, hair colour, skin colour and more.  Sophie is excited to see that “we are seeing body diversity, a complete different range of women being represented, and always doing sport, because they are trying to sell sport, not sex… Change is happening, and I think the change happens when women own the position to make the change, they do.”

 To further instigate critical change needed, Sophie suggests that “transparency from brands is huge for consumers. I think as the consumer, we have more control, and power than ever.  There’s an amazing quote, every time you spend money, you’re taking a vote on what kind of society you want to live in.   Not everyone is financially able, so there are brands out there that are cheap and that’s brilliant because it makes it accessible for people in low income families…if you have the income and you’re able there’s a responsibility to shop wisely, and for ethical and indie brands.” 

 

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When not pouring her energies into her work, Sophie can be found regularly bracing the chilly British waters for her near daily wild-swim, a hobby that started in Ireland, but then gave birth to #RiseFierce, inviting other women to reap the benefits of a wild-swim.

“It’s kind of like a body positive who gives a shit what you look like, get in the water and stick two fingers to the man!”

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I ask Sophie if there is anything she would say to her 15-year-old self? “Stay true to yourself and stand up for yourself, because a lot of the time I went along with… I knew… I was getting more opportunities because of the way I looked and that was the norm, I went along with it and I never spoke out against it… I ended up posing more seductively than I ever felt comfortable…You just go along with it, because that person appears to have authority over you. So I would definitely like to tell myself that, just be a little bit stronger, and stand up for yourself, rise up, ha-ha”.

Stay tuned for more from Sophie Hellyer, something tells me, this is just the beginning. 


Read more of Sophie’s work here

Follow Sophie on Instagram here

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TRAVEL: THE DOLOMITES & THE ROAR OF MOTHER NATURE WITH CONRAD ANKER

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"The mountains teach me to be at one with myself..." 

Marion Haerty, The North Face Athlete, Freeride World Champion

Winter's seminal spell has a relentless allure for explorers, professional and amateur alike, enraptured with the snow-capped peaks and array of winter sports Mother Nature delivers .  But summer, with the emerald-rich tones of earthy-green forests, craggy peaks to explore, by hand, foot,on wheels, is a treasure trove of wild adventure once the ice melts.

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The North Face Mountain Festival, an all-encompassing ode to the powerful magic the mountains can render, is a 3 day weekend of discovery and adventure where attendees can participate in a huge array of activities.  Exploring Trentino, whether on the outdoor climbing walls, hiking to summits, riding up it's awe-inspiring mountains or perhaps, flying off of them, nature is roaring at her most pure and wild here in the Italian Alps.  

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Touching down at The Mountain Festival, I was suddenly happily shocked to discover, is attended by a number of the most illustrious of The North Face athletes.  Climbing side by side some of the world's most accomplished, and as I discovered, down to earth athletes and explorers suddenly became normality.  As I made the top of a climb, a whoop rang out by Caroline Ciavaldini, multiple World Cup Champion and holder of many first female ascents, snapping my picture, probably capturing a slightly shocked and in awe grin that one of the world's top climbers just cheered on my mini-ascent.

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The fact this became habitual over the course of the weekend, as we shared sweaty adventures, heart-racing activities, conversations around crackling camp-fires and warm, human moments, reinforced the simple purity of how playing in nature creates such honest connection.

 

Climbing with the rich fragrance of thick forrest, fat drops of rain falling on warm skin and straining finger tips, working legs and beaded foreheads driving up the mountain and bike to waterfalls, hiking through the heady squish of dark soil to the summit, how the heart opens with a raw simplicity in the great wilds of our planet.

 

 

 

 

THE MOUNTAINS AND ME: CONRAD ANKER

Conrad Anker is a name which needs little introduction.  The highly revered climber and mountaineer has more a dozen iconic first ascents including the infamous Meru Peak with fellow climbers Jimmy Chin and Renan Ozturk under his incredibly endearing and jovial belt. Having spent time with Conrad, one of our planet's greatest explorer's ever, sharing simple stories of life's pleasures in the Great Outdoors, I fired a few questions at this astounding man on his love affair with the outdoors and exploration. 

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WHAT KEEPS YOUR EMBERS BURNING TO KEEP EXPLORING? 

"My embers are fed by the winds of adventure. Fire needs oxygen and wind brings oxygen. Trick is to always keep the embers with a bit of heat and flame. The embers are fed from the previous exploration. Perhaps this is why one needs to keep them well tended. One good journey begets the next one."

WHAT ARE SOME OF THE SIMPLE PLEASURES YOUR JOB CONTINUES TO BRING YOU?

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"While in wild places, the simple joy of sunrise is always the ideal start to the day. A sip of water when parched is just the right amount of nourishment to keep going. A snack as the sun sets and the comfy confines of a tent all bring it together. From a professional time motivating people with kindness is about as good and simple as it gets.

While some extol the human emotion of acquisition & material things  - it is the interpersonal emotions that make me smile.

 

 

When you help some one, unexpectedly or with genuine intent you have created goodness. This is the simple pleasure."

WHICH RECENT ADVENTURES HAVE BROUGHT YOU THE BIGGEST SMILES?

"In December of 2017 we were in a climbing expedition to Queen Maud Land Antarctica.  The powerful nature of sky, ice and rock is the ideal setting for an adventure. During the austral summer it is light 24 hours. How this affects your internal clock is unique. One seems to have more energy...".

FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE NEVER CLIMBED BEFORE, WHY SHOULD THEY GIVE IT A GO?

"Climbing is an ideal an activity. It builds strength, bone density, increases flexibility and helps with mental acuity. The people one is with are a great community. The act of belaying is an international language built on trust and communication."

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FLY INTO: VERONA AIRPORT

EXPLORE TRENTINO: HIKING, CLIMBING, WATERFALLS, MOUNTAIN BIKING, WILD SWIMMING & MORE

BID ON ICONIC KIT WORN BY EXPLORERS INCLUDING CONRAD ANKER, ALEX HONNOLD & CAROLINE CIAVALDIN IN SUPPORT OF THE PINNACLE PROJECT WHICH GIVES BACK DIRECTLY TO THE MOUNTAINS 

Alex Honnold's Jacket, up for grabs.

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WHY I: BIG-WAVE SURFER ANDREW COTTON

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Big wave surfing has been thrust into the mainstream public consciousness in recent years in no small part due to an unassuming small Portuguese fishing town by the name of Nazaré.  Visit this popular seaside town in a blustering Atlantic storm-saturated winter though, and you might bear witness some of the most unfathomably fearsome and shockingly enormous behemoths of waves ever recorded.    The Guinness World Record for the largest wave ever surfed was set in Nazaré last autumn at 80 feet by Rodrigo Koxa, and the spot has been forever cemented in surfing history, along with its most celebrated big-wave chargers, including British surfer (and part time plumber) Andrew Cotton.

If Andrew wasn’t already an infamous name amongst those who follow surfing, or sport in general, his accident last autumn at Nazaré where he was famously catapulted by the wave on an epic wipe out which ultimately broke his back, plastered the media.  Andrew Cotton’s name rides hand in hand with Nazaré and with the most illustrious and celebrated big wave surfers in the world.  A plethora of imagery over the years of him riding giants constantly filters in each season, in seemingly impossibly sized waves, constantly one upping himself.

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Speaking to Andrew from his base in North Devon, he sounds relaxed and at ease when telling me that it is “amazing to be back in the water” following his accident last autumn.  Spending his time since then on a comprehensive rehabilitation programme, the long-time Red Bull athlete has had access to an array of top-level doctors and physios since last autumn, and is back feeling at “85, 90%”.  Reflecting that “when I first had the injury I was thinking...I’ll try and come back to full fitness by April…and then speaking to experts, and getting advice, everyone said you’ve got to be in it for the long game.  There's no point coming back early, and then injuring yourself again, not being 100%. I re-evaluated that situation.”

Enjoying surfing his home breaks of Saunton and Croyde, the 35-year-old athlete appears calm and relaxed when discussing what would tip mere mortals over the edge, surfing waves of 60 feet plus.  It’s hard to comprehend the emotions, the fears and adrenaline that would surround heading out into waves of that size.  Conversely, it isn’t the fast-flowing adrenaline that is critical in those moments before surfing a monster wave but rather, according to Andrew

“In the most critical moments when you’re surfing, especially big waves, you almost go into this state where you are slowing things down...it’s almost like a form of meditation…to get to that state is the ultimate goal”.  

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When faced with 80 foot waves, how, one wonders, on earth would you be able to stay calm and collected, to not let fear and adrenaline destroy concentration and to flood performance with nerves?  Ruminating that “if I know it’s going to be massive, I’ll wake up early, get into a breathing rhythm” Andrew begins, “10 breaths…10 seconds in, 10 seconds out, in through the nose, out through the mouth…it calms the body down and is a good way to prepare…(it) almost goes back into the psychology.  It calms your brain down…it’s a tool that I use a lot.”

Andrew’s successes in big-wave surfing have been captivating audiences and fans for years now, each season achieving the seemingly impossible by producing incredible performances that garner world-wide media attention.  I wonder what continues to push him on and inspire him, considering his huge successes to date?

“I think I’m never really satisfied…I think most surfers get like that.  I’m never really happy with any of the waves I get…always want to be deeper, always want to be more critical...so I’ve never really felt that I’ve reached my potential yet…I think it’s quite a good thing...you keep pushing and striving to try and reach that.”

Andrew has cemented the UK has a bonafide producer of big-wave talent, along with the likes of surfers Tom Butler and Tom Lowe.  Modestly suggesting that “we’ve been really fortunate in Europe.  The UK’s actually a good place to be based.  It’s close to (big wave spots) in Ireland, in France, and obviously in Portugal you get giant waves”.  No longer just the remit of more traditional big wave spots like Jaws in Hawaii and Mavericks in California, renowned athletes of the likes of Garrett McNamara have been making consistent expeditions to Europe to surf the likes of Nazaré, Belharra in France and Mullaghmore in Ireland.  Andrew attributes success in career partly to his friend and foe the awe-inspiring Nazaré.  “Nazaré being discovered and being on the map definitely helped my career. Before, I was spending a lot of time in Ireland, and would get 1 or 2 opportunities to surf big waves.   It’s about time and experience in the water on the wave, and the more time you can spend in big waves, the better you’re going to become…and Nazaré is big, a lot, from October to March, it enabled me to progress quickly”.   I wonder if there has been a record for boards broken in a season for him, and Andrew laughs as he tells me about how on a trip to Madeira, he took 6 boards, and came home with 1. 

Andrew also suggests that Nazaré, when discussing the breaks he has surfed around the world is “without a doubt” the most fearsome wave he has surfed.  “There's no other place that gets as big….and it’s a humbling place too…an amazing place to watch…probably the scariest…”.  And his favourite break near home? “My home beach, Croyde, in Devon”.

The roster of talent on the WSL tour is well televised and covered across media, big name brands siding as title sponsors and top-name athletes earning well into 6 figures with a successful career.  Do big wave surfers get enough support in comparison, I wonder?  “I think it’s a tough one really” Andrew begins, “I think surfing as a whole, I don’t think you can categorise it…it has got a lot better…Surfing GB, Surfing England…they’ve put a lot of effort into a lot of coaching, …so I think it is getting better.  It’ll be interesting especially now that surfing’s in the Olympics, so whether that’ll change anything…”.

Surfing’s inclusion for the first time into the next Olympics in Japan in 2020 has been contentiously discussed and covered since it’s announcement, and with rumours rife that the setting for the competition will be in a wave pool, what this could mean for the future of surfing. “It’s funny, the wave pool…it's great you know, it’s a wave on tap…” Andrew begins, “but at the end of the day, surfing is about being in the ocean, the wave pool is like a different discipline almost.  It’ll be interesting to see how it develops, …there’s a wave pool already in Wales, in Bristol, they are looking at doing one in Glasgow, so they are popping up everywhere…it’s going to be an interesting next few years for sure.”.  

Big wave surfing is producing some exceptional talent, and with Andrew being a key member of the core-pack of long-term chargers, I wonder who he has his eye on as one to watch in the future? “There’s one lad, Lucas Chomba, he’s just started breaking through now.  I met him a few year ago, he’s young, about 21.  He’s just stated to get on everyone’s radar. He won the Nazaré Challenge…he’s a very talented surfer…”.

And any women he thinks are pushing the limits?  “There's quite a few really good girls, there's the French Red Bull rider, Justine Dupont, she’s amazing. She not only surfs big waves, she shortboards, longboards, …she is an absolute charger, I have massive respect for her…There’s a couple of girls I’ve been watching…Paige Alms, Bianca Valenti, I’ve been following her for a while”.  

With the road to recovery being well prepped, Andrew is excepting to be back surfing and heading to Nazaré for this autumn, “100% yeah. I’ll be back, if not before, I’m definitely going to be in Portugal from October”.  With key sponsor Red Bull providing ample support, “the best physios to work with, and its knowing you’ve got brand like that behind you, give you confidence I did a couple of course, safety courses, in the states, for Red Bull athletes…you’re part of a bigger thing”, the British athlete is sounding confident and relaxed, coming back from a potentially devastating injury, to looking forward to a new season ahead. 

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I wonder what, if we boil it down to the simplicity of the joy of his profession and life, brings him the greatest happiness about being in the water?  

“Do you ever get those moments …it’s not about catching a wave, it’s about sitting on your board, outside, out back, it's calm... moments like that, being outside, where you’re by yourself in the ocean…what a cool place to hang out!”.

 

To find out more about Andrew Cotton, head to his athlete profile page on RedBull.com

©Sophie Everard 2018

MY SOPHIE TEA INTERVIEW FOR COOLER MAGAZINE

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Earlier this year I met up with the righteous Sophie Tea to interview the artist and glittering girl-boss for Cooler Magazine.

The piece is now live, and you can check it below for a read with the radical artist who is flying a flag for independent entrepreneurs to get after life and pursue your passions.  Sophie you rule!

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BLOG FOR BILLABONG WOMEN'S: STARTING A BUSINESS IN SURF - HOW TO BE A FREELANCE BUSINESS OWNER & RUN A BUSINESS FROM THE BEACH

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My next blog for Billabong Women's hot off the heels of my debut piece on top road trips to do with your girlfriends the summer is now live now on the Billabong website.  I chatted to the Billabong crew about how I started my business and went from being office based to being toes-in-the-sand beach based most of the time!  Check out the full piece below.

 

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COOLER MAGAZINE: INTERVIEW WITH LADY SLIDER FLORA CHRISTIN

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Sumatran born lady-slider Flora Christin has been causing ripples around the popular breaks of Canggu, Bali, her infectious energy and love of dancing on her longboard quashing what has been typically expected.  Spreading stoke and good vibes one cross step at a time, I interviewed Flora for Cooler Magazine beachside of her local wave in Bali, hot off the back of a recent podium place on the Asian Women’s Surf Championships.

Check out my interview with the righteous Flora Christin, live now on Cooler Magazine, and full piece below. 

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AWESOME SUMMER ROAD TRIPS TO DO WITH YOUR GIRLFRIENDS WITH BILLABONG WOMENS

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Summer is finally beginning to cast it's glow across what has been an unfathomably long and cold winter.  Buoyed up by sunny vibes and a road trip to California, I've penned a piece for my fav women's all-time rock n' roll surf brand, Billabong Womens, hot off the back of the launch of their New Wave collection inspired by Billabong's long-time heritage in surf and the wild and rad bonds of a badass crew of friends.  

If you've seen me on the beach and in the waves you know I have a penchant for all the 80s high cut bathers, and I love this heritage blast collection and all the radical girl power vibes around it, the campaign featuring powerhouse surfer Laura Enever, Josie Prendergast, Alissia Quizon and golden girl Flick Palameeter.

Check out my guide to awesome summer trips to do with your girlfriends over the summer!

 

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Book now on Mad To Live Retreats

All photos by Alan Krespan

EXPERT’S CHAT: CLIMBING COACH ROBIN O’LEARY

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If you enjoyed the last WHY I Interview with climbing double World Champion Shauna Coxsey MBE and have been inspired to hit up one of the many indoor and outdoor climbing facilities available in the UK (it is now one of the fastest growing sports in Britain), keep reading.  

Professional rock climbing coach and GB ParaClimbing coach Robin O’Leary is a go-to name in performance coaching, and if you cast your eyes to Robin's Instagram and you'll find that he coaches a number of the UK's brightest talents.  I joined Robin for a coaching session where he unravelled a few bad habits and got me so excited to climb more I am setting out for a full summer of it in Portugal.

I sat down Robin for an Expert's Chat, with top pointers and more from the elite coach himself.

 Robin with climbing World Champion Shauna Coxsey

Robin with climbing World Champion Shauna Coxsey

ROBIN O'LEARY'S PASSION FOR CLIMBING

"My dad was a very keen traditional climber back in the  '70s and early '80s, but stopped climbing when my brother and I were born in the early '80s. I have memories as a child being halfway up a rock face with my brother on a small ledge, be it in north Wales or on the south coast (Swanage), but it wasn’t until after university that I really decided that I liked it. So I have been climbing for basically 11 years now. "

"Climbing is a great and hugely fun alternative to the gym. It can take you around the world and provide some of the best memories and friendships you can ever ask for.  I have the dream job, I really do.  I work with such enthusiastic clients on a daily basis, go around the world coaching/climbing and never feel like I work a day."

"Follow your passion and dedicate yourself to it, everything else will follow."

"There is so much to this sport I love! The challenge and physical pursuit are initial attractions.  With climbing, what you put into it, you get out. Hard work = success.  But I also love the fact that it is never the same.

"The movements that you make can be indefinite – the hold you can be going for can be any shape or size, at any orientation and at any angle. " 

The places it takes you; whether you are into competition climbing on artificial walls and you compete around the world, or you love rock climbing. There are world-class destinations almost all over the world – from fairly popular locations to far-out and remote crags.  Finally, the people you meet.  Climbing attracts people from all walks of life and I think that is a wonderful thing. You could be climbing with a Doctor and a Chippy."

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TOP TIPS FOR CLIMBING

The best way to get involved is to see where your nearest walls are and to give them a bell. Get booked on to a taster session for either rope climbing (sport climbing) or bouldering (over soft crash pads) and give it a go. It really is that simple and it is so much fun.

My top tips for those climbers who are just beginning is to have fun! Go to the wall and just climb! 

  • Watch those that are clearly pretty handy and see if you can pick up any tips, but ultimately it is “moves in the bank” that get you better.
  • Climb as much as possible and you will build up the necessary (sport specific) strength and fitness needed. 

"People always assume it is all about upper-body strength, but really, it is all about footwork and body positioning. Your core is so important and you can often climb without having to pull at all.   It sounds unbelievable, but you can dance and pivot your way up the wall just using momentum, hips and legs."

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"The fundamentals about climbing all surround body positioning. You get big bulky gum bods going to the wall and getting blown off by their dainty girlfriends, it’s excellent."

Yes, being able to pull can help, but ultimately it is understanding how to move around these holds as efficiently as possible that makes it far easier.

  • You have to keep your body weight as close to the wall to make sure as much weight goes through your legs and feet as possible – alleviating the weight going through our arms. Our arms are so weak in comparison to our legs and core.
  • Feet determine everything – a poorly placed foot has huge repercussions and will probably end up with failure.  
  • Pay attention to slow and precise movement and try to drive up the wall with your leg and hips.
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COMMON MISTAKES MADE IN CLIMBING

The biggest mistake people make is thinking that their arms and hands have to be secure. Focusing on these alone and pulling their body up the wall, letting their feet slide around and slip off holds is very common. You get tired so quickly and end up falling off pretty rapidly too. Everyone does this to begin with and it teaches you quickly to focus on form.

WHY CLIMBING IS A GREAT WORKOUT

  • It’s hugely physical. You can work every single muscle in your body and a 2-hour session can leave you absolutely shattered.
  • Most climbers are in great shapes and it is testament to how physical it can be. 

"Another aspect which is often overlooked is the mental workout. You hit the wall and any of life’s troubles are left at the door. You are consumed by the activity – you have to focus so much that you can’t afford to let your mind wonder."

  • You have to remain in control, even when you sometimes face big (but mainly safe) falls – I love this aspect too. It starts off being scary, but you learn to embrace it and it is one of the aspects that make it such a unique sport.
  • Arguably the best element of our sport is how diverse it is. You can be climbing an off-vertical wall (slab) with tiny feet and no hands or flying around on a 60 degree overhang. You can be hanging from your feet and upside down or running and jumping across features of the wall. It is sociable, fun and the climbing community is so supportive. No matter what grade you climb, we all face the same challenges.
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CROSS-TRAINING FOR CLIMBING

  • Historically most climbers have just climbed, but it can leave you fairly injured due to imbalances. We have to pull a lot in our sport, so doing our antagonist exercises (opposites) is very important. A lot of climbers are now focusing on cross-training to ultimately make them athletes rather than just climbers.
  • Variation to training is key for enthusiasm and many of the exercises can be training weaknesses without us really knowing. It could simply be performing plyometric jumps or learning to handstand, or more serious like performing deadlifts.
  • Flexibility is also hugely important and an aspect I really neglected for a long time myself. Many of the best climbers are able to climb some really hard routes/problems by essentially thinking outside of the box and using their flexibility to help them. Again, this can be done by merely stretching, or a lot of climbers also do yoga to make it more interesting too. I think it is important to make sure we stay as injury free as possible.

"Making our bodies as even as possible is very important and working our weaknesses usually helps make this happen."

  • I always recommend speaking to a professional of their domain when it comes to cross-training and refer my clients to various strength and conditioning coaches, dieticians, physios etc to make sure they get the most out of the training I offer them.

ROC-UP CLIMBING CAMPS

"Essentially I wanted to offer something no-one else in our industry offered, and that was the chance to be coached to the highest standard by resident coaches, but also climb with, be coached and hang out with the best climber in the world!"

  • We offer bespoke climbing coaching holidays in some of the best climbing destinations around the world.
  • You get incredible, top-level coaching all day, with video analysis and a day’s feedback every evening with a drink in hand looking over a stunning sunset, whilst hanging out and being inspired by some of the best climbers who walk this planet.
  • The feedback we’ve had is incredible and the fuel we need to run more. It really is a dream job!
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Book Robin for your own coaching session:

Website: http://robinolearycoaching.com

coaching@robinolearycoaching.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/robinolearycoaching

Twitter: https://twitter.com/RobinOLeary

Founder of the Youth Climbing Symposium - inspiring the next generation - http://www.youthclimbingsymposium.com

Founder of RocUp Holidays - be coached by your heroes - https://www.rocup.uk

 

And Check out my round-up of my favourite adventure activities in London including my favourite climbing walls

 

HOW TO BE A DIGITAL NOMAD ARTICLE IN SURFGIRL MAGAZINE

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Hot off the back of a recent trip to The Nomads Camp with The Action Academy, a co-working retreat where interjected between workshops and talks to help transition you to be a digital nomad/run your own business we tore down the mountains of Morzine on mountain bikes, wakeboarded Lake Annecy and packed more adventure into a week than you can shake a stick at, is my article in SurfGirl Magazine outlining how you, too, can be a digital nomad.

A daunting prospect for me some years back now, but a few years down the line now, I reflect on this transition, and how you can achieve this yourself too in my favourite bible of all that is women's surf and adventure, Surf Girl.

Check out the full piece below!

With Thanks To The Action Academy
 

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