Surfer Ella searching for her big break
A former world junior champion, Whangamata surfer Ella Williams has some gnarly ambitions - including being part of the sport's debut at the 2020 Olympics.
When she was eight, Ella Williams took a piece of her best paper and wrote a note to her herself. With a drawing pin, she stuck the note to the wall beside her bed.
It was there for her to read when she woke up, and there with her when she went to sleep.
It simply said: ‘I want to be the world surf champion’.
“It makes it more real and more doable when you write it down,” Williams says, 15 years later.
“And I still want to be the world champion. I have the world junior title and I want the open title.”
The junior title came in Brazil in 2013, and she is the only Kiwi surfer to have won it. Her next crack at the open title is in Japan in September.
Williams has been surfing since she was six, when her parents gave her a pink board with a picture of a girl surfing.
“It’s pretty cool and I’ve still got it,” she chuckles.
But she first stood on a board two years earlier. Her family was living in Hamilton and would head to Raglan most weekends where her dad, Dean, and mum, Janine, would indulge their passion for surfing. Ella and her elder brother, Braedon, were willing converts.
From the age of four Ella, would stand on her parents’ longboards as they pushed her around in the breakers. “I know I would pull their hair so hard that they’d have to tell me to let go,” she says.
It wasn’t long till she was standing on her own. When the family moved to Whangamata to take over the local surf shop, the seven-year-old Ella’s love affair with the sea and waves blossomed.
“It’s a special place, out on the water. There’s no technology, just you and the water, and it’s a spiritual thing. If you’re having a bad day and you get on the sea, even just for a swim, you feel so much better for it,” she says.
It’s the waves that Williams craves as she travels the globe on the world qualifying series, hoping to move up to the World Surf League’s championship tour.
Many try and few get there. This year there are about 500 women in the qualifying series, and only six will graduate to the championship tour.
There are 17 women on the tour, including New Zealand’s Paige Hareb. Each year the top 10 remain while seven drop down to the WQS. From there, the top six move to the Tour, with a wild card.
Williams has been in the WQS for four years, is sitting in 35th spot, and has a best finish of 29th in the 2015-16 season. So she knows the odds are stacked against her.
She also knows it’s a grind and is acutely aware of how tough it is financially. But she’s determined to be the best in the world.
As beautiful as her photos on Instagram are of the incredible places she surfs, Williams also faces planes, airports and cancelled flights; dodgy accommodation, lost luggage and getting lost.
She always travels with one of her parents, but on a recent trip to Martinique in the Caribbean, she and her dad got lost trying to find their accommodation, and even where the event was being held.
“It took us about six hours to find the place. The GPS wasn’t working and we had to stop at people’s houses, show them a photo of where we were going and ask if they recognised it and how we could get there,” Williams recalls.
After the competition, the airline told the surfers they couldn’t fit their boards on the flight to Barbados. “It was crazy and the organisers had to delay the next competition.”
At 23, Williams is stronger than she’s ever been and feels comfortable in her body after trying to deal with the normal teenage growth spurts.
Two years ago she snapped four boards in a month - then a few months later, broke two more - as she struggled to adjust to her increased power, a push for bigger waves and the boards she’d outgrown.
Power is important, especially on the WQS, and that’s not just from a surfing perspective.
There can be an intense paddling race back out through the surf, because the order you arrive “out the back” dictates who has priority on the waves.
And the increase in power and strength throughout the women’s side of surfing also means there’s almost nothing the men do that the woman can’t, Williams says.
When she’s home in Whangamata, as she is now for a three-week break, Williams tries to hit the gym and heads to the hills for a three-times-a-week sprint session. That kind of conditioning helps, but most of her training is on the water.
“People often ask me, ‘how do you get better, how do you learn to surf?’ And there’s really only one way. It’s time on the water,” she says.
Williams has time on her side. Australia’s Stephanie Gilmour, one of the most dominant female surfers in the history of the sport, is 30, and still going strong at the top of the Championship Tour.
But Williams is a young woman in a hurry.
She has that world title she’s dreamt about since penning her note to herself 15 years ago, and now there is another incentive in the world of surfing: Olympic gold.
For the first time, surfing will be at the Olympics in Tokyo in 2020 and Williams would dearly love to be there, representing New Zealand.
Current rankings would see Hareb selected ahead of her, but Williams is undeterred.
She suggests she needs another piece of paper. On it she’ll write: “I want to be the Olympic champion.”
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