INTERVIEW: COURTNEY CONLOGUE
Courtney Conlogue, Professional Surfer. Interviewed by Michele Carroll.
So you have been surfing your whole life – since you were four years old. What was it like juggling childhood, school, and training to become a world class athlete?
Gosh. It was a lot of learning how to balance everything. When I was younger I was doing it more because I just loved competing. I didn’t think anything serious of it. I’d say where it really hit me hard was when I was in high school and I started wanting to be a professional athlete and surfing really seriously to be the best athlete I could.
When I was traveling I had to let certain opportunities go like a couple wild cards, the triple crown, because I was in high school studying. It was just… you had to make decisions. Not sacrifices, but decisions for your future. I always knew I wanted to have a successful academic career. Going to Sage Hill it was pretty much… It’s like college prep school. It’s private and it’s a very difficult school to do well in. I had to spend a lot of time with my head in the books when I was out of the water to just keep on the honor roll. I was… getting up at 4:00am in the morning, go surf for an hour and a half, then I was going to school until 3:00pm, then I was on track and field until 6:00pm, and then I went to DSE training three times a week my senior year. I have no idea how I survived my senior year. It was pretty intense. It was funny- when I was throwing the cap, a few days prior I got an email from ASP at the time (now World Surf League) that I qualified for the tour and I was also getting my diploma that same week. I was like: college or my dream on the world tour? I chose world tour. I actually tried doing college my first year, a couple units, but it was just too much… I was spreading myself too thin.
Did you have any insecurities or fears early on in your career?
I’d say insecurities were probably uncertainty of sponsorship when I was younger because surfing was in this interesting phase. The industry got hit really hard when the stock dropped and all these things folded. I’ve been with my brand Billabong since I was 11 years old. They’ve supported my whole career and watched me grow into what I am now. There were certain sponsors that I actually lost when I had some of the best results that I had ever had when I was an amateur, where I won the US Open, ISA Worlds, and I won a junior pro all in a two week span and then one of my big sponsors actually dropped me. I was like, “Whoa. Why did that happen?” Then a couple days later another one dropped me.
That’s not supposed to happen.
That’s not supposed to happen. There’s this uncertainty and then I was like, “Whoa. Okay.” Then I decided – you know what? I’m going to just focus on what I’m doing and things will come and just take the reins on my career and really control the outcome as much as I can and control my brand.” It’s been positive because I’ve stuck to who I’ve always been my whole career and it’s not always the easy route just because I believe in strength and beauty and dreams and being a sports woman and a water woman. It’s paying off. One of the things I’m really passionate about is backing myself and being who I am and not changing for anyone else.
Knowing what you know now would you go back and give your younger self any career advice?
I think when I was younger I made some really good decisions. I always backed myself. Probably to have that strength in myself, don’t ever doubt who you are. I think there’s a couple moments where you just hesitate and you question when you’re younger just because there’s so many things swaying you in different directions that it gets really difficult to stay true, but I always stayed true to my map. It’s not always the easiest thing to do but I think it’s the best thing to do for your morals and your well-being and your future, you know?
Now obviously as a top athlete, being in top physical shape is just imperative. Do you think it’s also important to put emphasis on your mental state? What kind of things do you do to work that other muscle?
Working the mind is such an important thing. I believe going through school actually helped that aspect because it really strengthens your weaknesses, forces you to do what you don’t want to do in studying and your weaknesses. For me – math, took a lot for me to learn to do math. I have more of that creative side. I have the science side pretty well because of surfing. It’s very logical. Especially physics. The math aspect just always got me. I had to really focus on it. I think that strengthens your mind doing something that you’re weaker in.
I’d say also, just for me, getting in the gym. You’re breaking barriers just by creating a routine. When you don’t want to go to the gym, going to the gym because you know it’s the right thing to do, that stuff strengthens your confidence and you don’t realize how much you overcome just in a gym workout. When your body is telling you no and you’re trying to press a weight or you’re in your last set and you’re like, “I really just want to miss count right now” but you keep counting. Those kind of things really strengthen your mind.
Also just really thinking and processing and having that time to yourself when it’s just silent and letting your thoughts pass through. I think when you’re an athlete in the water, it’s a very unpredictable thing. There’s a lot of uncertainty in not knowing. Creating that instinctual confidence about where the ocean is moving, getting in the rhythm of it – it’s an art. You’re always trying to fine tune that skill. You can’t predict the ocean but you can try to feel where it’s going. I think with that your mind becomes a really strong aspect.
I know in 2014 you suffered a pretty severe injury at the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach in Australia that forced you to withdraw when you were originally poised to take home the gold. Could you touch on that experience, and how do you push through when unexpected obstacles like this arise?
Well initially, when this injury happened, I was just like- why me? I was seeing it more as a burden. I was frustrated, down on it. I was in a boot for 6 weeks and putting me immobile drives me crazy. I had to figure out how to reset and reallocate my time. The longest I had ever been out was two weeks and I was just going, “What do I do with all this time and how can I make this productive?”. Then I had this coach, he passed on this really cool advice a while back and all of a sudden it popped in my head and this light bulb went on. Burden or opportunity? You can look at any aspect, positive or negative, as an opportunity or as a burden. I was like – I’m going to take this as an opportunity to observe maybe something I’ve missed or take up new aspects of passions that got a little dusty because I was so busy with my surfing. I took up my art again and then ended up designing (a year later) the first women’s high performance wetsuit for Billabong. Then ended up designing a skateboard for Carver.
Then just really took it seriously with regards to recovery and the importance of recovery and resting. I could probably be a physical therapist after all the things that I learned just from the injury and nutrition and all this stuff to help heal. I just took up new things, took up prone paddling, and started paddling like twelve miles once I could put the board up.
It’s worth noting that you were finally able to ring the bell just a couple weeks ago.
Yeah, so then I went full circle. There was a moment, I remember, when I was in the water last year – I just went, “I’m winning the bell.” I didn’t care what it took. I was just like there’s no ifs, ands, or buts, I’m going to do what I can to get it. It all paid off this year. It felt amazing to finally have the opportunity to ring that bell. It was good.
What personal quality of yours do you credit for being where you are?
Probably strength and the “never die” attitude. I think there’s moments where you definitely could have just threw the towel in and I didn’t. It’s like a stubbornness with the athlete. You’re just like, “Nope. I’m not giving up. I’m packing down.”
Being at the top of your game, there’s a lot at stake every time you go out in the water. What is your outlook on dealing with any pressure you might feel?
I’ve learned to welcome pressure. You just embrace it and smile at it. You don’t try to hide it because then it’ll kick you in the butt at some point. It just piles up in your closet and then that door will blast open and all these little things come flying out and now you’re overwhelmed. For me, it’s just embracing it and then just focusing on simplifying. I think, as an athlete, you put so much time in the pre and prep that as soon as you put the jersey on that’s when the pressure is heated. You just embrace it and go, “Yeah, you’re there” and that means you’re ready. Those butterflies mean you’re just prepared. Then you just go in the lineup and it’s just you and the ocean. You just simplify.
What one resource could you just not live without when it comes to your surf career?
Well, obviously probably the ocean. I couldn’t live without the ocean. I live and breathe the water. I think it’s where I master my craft and my skill, but it’s also where I go to decompress. It’s a weird balance of my lifestyle and my profession. I definitely couldn’t live without the ocean whether it’s surfing, swimming. The water for me, it’s healing.
What does a typical day look like for you?
Very unpredictable, like the ocean. Daily, I definitely spend a lot of time either in the gym or in the ocean. Then try to paint a little bit and hang with family and friends when I’m home.
How much time do you spend training in the water or training out of the water?
If the swell is up I could train up to 8 hours in the ocean. That’s because, not only am I enjoying the ocean, but I am also trying to improve my surfing. Whenever the swell is good you have to maximize it because your craft is around what storms are doing and figuring out the swell. When I was at Snapper I was surfing 8 hours, probably 7 days a week, and just going, “Oh my gosh.” By the time the comp[petition] started, luckily, there was a few off days. I was just like, “Wow, I’m kind of surfed out.” It’s the best feeling because when you’re growing up with surfing you just live in that surfed out feeling and we call it “grom status” because a “grom” is like a little kid and every day is a good day. My dad used to tell me that when I was little. He’s like, “Everyday is a good day for you guys. It’s always head high.” I always try to keep that grom feel. I think I’m always a child at heart with that passion. It’s just this raw energy that’s always inside. Keeping that freshness is so crucial in surfing. As soon as you start feeling stale it looks that way. It’s like a dance. You’re performing and you’re a canvas and your stage is the ocean. If you’re stale people can definitely see it. It’s very true. All your emotions show in the water.
What advice do you have for others who are looking to get into a competitive field? Even if it’s outside of athletics.
I’d say any athlete, you have to be willing to put a lot of time into your craft. I think someone said you have to do a thousand of anything to perfect it. I’ve definitely surfed over a thousand waves. Way over it by now. I still haven’t perfected my craft. I think you’re always, as an athlete, trying to aim for perfection. Perfection is always evolving into something greater as you’re in a sport. For me, I’ve learned that wherever I set my goals I reach them. Never aim low. Always shoot high. Anything is possible. Even impossible says I’m possible. You just have to constantly believe in yourself if no one else does. If your heart is there and your passion is there and you’re willing to put in the time anything can be done.
Do you have any pre-competition rituals that you like to do?
For me, pre-comp is pretty basic. Every event I definitely have a little bit of a routine. I have a pre-heat warm-up that I do and it’s pretty consistent what I do before every heat. I’d say having my own time to myself- about 5-10 minutes before a competition is very important because I just zone everyone out. For the most part I’m able to handle almost any curve that’s been chucked my way. Things just happen. Surfing is a very public sport. It’s not like a basketball court where no one is allowed to touch you and get in your way. People always are coming out of nowhere and just showing up. I’m able to deal with that now but I think as you’re growing into more of an elite athlete in your craft and your sport it’s just like, “Really? You’re going to do that now?” It’s just funny how people are. They don’t understand sometimes.
Being able to deal with that is just the mental aspect. It’s one of those things that you just laugh at and just go, “Okay. Is that all you got really?” I don’t try to control things too much. I do have a certain head space. I could snap into it on my paddle out if I need to. It doesn’t take very long for me. I get in my zone. It just takes me thinking about one certain thing or thinking about nothing. It just depends what my head space is at and I just take my temperature and go from there.
Can you tell us something about yourself that your fans might not already know?
I think my fans know a lot about me.
You seem like a pretty open book.
Yeah, I’m pretty… If they don’t know that I’m an open book, I’m an open book. I don’t hide anything. I’m pretty straight forward. I don’t do much behind the curtain that people don’t know about. I am who I am. I don’t try to be something different. I don’t try to go, “Oh, this is me.”. That’s not who I am. I think being authentic is the best thing and that’s something I’ve always tried to stay true to. It’s really easy to do.
L.A. LADY CULTURE
Favorite eatery in L.A.? I’m passionate about my restaurants. Tacos Michoacan is a 24 hour taco joint in East L.A. off Soto Street. It’s amazing. Carne asada tacos are bomb. Just get carne asada tacos with the salsa roja. The lady laughs at me because the first time I went there I asked for a ton of salsa and I told her it was my dad’s birthday because their salsa is so bomb. The salsa roja is so good. I asked for this tub of salsa and then she gave it. Then she noticed every single week I was coming and getting the salsa. She started recognizing who I was. I didn’t say it was my dad’s birthday anymore. She was like, “Why? Is it your dad’s birthday?”
There’s a spot called Wendy’s Café just off the freeway and that’s in the El Segundo area. That spot is amazing. Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. Classic. Pink’s Hot Dogs. Felipe’s. 10 cent coffee now. It used to be 5 cent. Inflation. Oh, Marmalade Café in Malibu. Neptune’s Net.
Wow, you do get around with your eateries.
I love it. I love food. It’s so good.
What’s your favorite area of L.A.? Geeze. I love going to Malibu when I’m longboarding and cruising. That’s just a really cool vibe. Then I love Venice for people watching. And Hollywood Boulevard. It’s amazing. I love just immersing myself in that. Like Muscle Beach? I think it’s so fun.
Do you have a favorite happy hour? I do in Orange County. I don’t drink and drive. I’m so busy. Most of the time when I’m up here, I’m really busy doing stuff.
Favorite weekend activity in L.A.? I love going to HB Library. Huntington Library.
Audio of choice when you’re sitting in traffic? Depends what mood I’m in. Sometimes it’ll be Lake Street Dive, George Ezra, or then it goes off the deep ends like Rihanna. Even T. Swift.
What is something you want to do in L.A., but you haven’t yet? I want to go to the observatory and I’ve never been to a Lakers game. I haven’t seen LA Kings. Just because every time I’m traveling I seem to miss the games. I’m so bummed. It’s right down the road at Staples Center. At some point I’ve got to do that.
L.A. guilty pleasure? Probably any of those food joints. Except for the tacos. Those are pretty good.