• Michelle Meehan

Talking Tubes with Philippa Anderson

You were born in South Africa and grew up across the road from a beach – what are your first memories of the ocean, and when did you begin to surf?

I was very blessed with the life that we had in South Africa, we literally lived 10 metres from the beach, and we could see the waves from the second floor of our house. The surf was hardly crowded as we grew up in a pretty small town. My first memories of the ocean were running across the road with my family and our dogs, swimming, bodyboarding and playing in the sand.

What was life like as a child growing up in South Africa, and were there many other girls surfing where you lived?

Growing up as a kid along the beautiful coastline of South Africa was incredible, and our lifestyle always revolved around the ocean. My Dad was heavily involved in the surf lifesaving committee and the state surfing teams. All my memories as a kid were either being at Nipper's surf lifesaving, bodyboarding and surfing every weekend. We travelled as a family all around South Africa as my brother competed in the junior surf events. We would go to Jeffreys Bay or St Francis most weekends to surf. Every summer, for as long as I can remember, we would go and camp at Cape Saint Francis for over a month. We would surf all day. The lifestyle was just amazing as a kid, and I really thank my parents for that active beach lifestyle. It has definitely made me appreciate a lot of things in life.

My best friend Faye and I were the only girls that I can remember in the Eastern Cape that surfed, and we used to compete in the under-12 boy's division. I can’t recall ever seeing any other girls other than my older sister and her friends that sometimes got in the water. It wasn’t until we would travel to the other provinces and saw some of the other girls at surfing events. Even then, there was no division for us. They were probably younger sisters of older brothers that were competing in the junior events.

What was the best part of your life in South Africa, and how did you feel when you found out you were moving to Australia?

Looking back now, we literally had the best life. We were very blessed to be able to travel around and surf and follow the waves, and be involved in many sports. We had the opportunity to attend really good schools. I think the best part for me was those summers camping in Saint Francis, where literally all we would do is surf, play in the bushes, go fishing, walk to the lolly shop, ride our bikes and just be kids.

I often reflect and think back to those memories, and that literally was the best thing ever. It wasn’t just our family camping there. There were about ten families who every summer would come from around the country, and we just had the best time. I don’t really remember exactly, but I think we were just sitting at dinner one night, and my Dad was like, we’re moving to Australia! I was 12-years-old and didn’t really understand the whole situation, and I didn’t actually even know where Australia was on the map, hahaha.

But it started to kick in when we had to pack up our belongings into boxes. Unfortunately, the shipping container was on the smaller side, so that meant I couldn’t bring all my belongings and toys. I remember I had this giant human-size teddy bear, and my mom said that she’d packed it. A few days before we were about to fly, I’m standing on the balcony at our cousin’s house, and I’m looking out the window; I see a charity van pull up and take my human-size teddy bear. It seems really stupid, but I think that then the reality of moving really kicked in of how different everything was going to be.

I imagine as a teenager adapting to a new life in a new country could be tough - when did you move to Merewether, and how much did surfing and being at the beach help you settle into your new home?

It was a pretty big transition. I think personally, my sister, who was 16, struggled the most. I do think surfing made it a little bit easier, but it still was a massive change. Just everything you could think of was different, and it was pretty tough. We ended up coming straight to Newcastle and spent about two months in Maitland with some of my Dad’s family, who we had never even met. We rented at Cooks Hill for a couple of years until we were lucky enough to move to Merewether.

To be honest, at the start, I kind of struggled to make friends. But after a year or so through surfing, I made two best mates that I’m still friends with today. I joined Merewether Boardriders and Trimmen Women, which created a lifestyle of learning how to surf heats and always practising.

Some great friendships have come from joining these clubs, and I think that’s where Australia has done an incredible job in the surf industry to have these stepping stones from such a young age.

At what point did you decide you wanted to carve out a career as a professional surfer?

There were a few moments that shaped the thought of having a career path as a professional surfer.

I was 17 when I went on my first trip overseas to the Philippines after moving to Australia. I was on that trip with Serena Brooke, an ex-CT surfer. I got to hang out with her and hear about her surfing career, share stories and being able to hear about her career sparked a little light bulb.

I was starting to have many good results in the Australian competitions but always losing to Tyler Wright, Laura Enever and Sally Fitz (Fitzgibbon). When I got sponsored by Roxy and got to rub shoulders with Sally from the age of 18, and representing Australia at the ISA World Games on numerous occasions, I started getting really excited about a life of a professional surfer—making the World Junior Championship and coming runner up, twice—realising how sad and frustrated I got when I lost made me more determined to win!

During all this time, too, my brother was getting pretty big in the surfing scene and seeing him travel all around the world surfing these insane waves and hearing about all his travels definitely made me want to work hard and want to be a professional surfer and win WCT events.

You’ve experienced the highs and lows of that path - how difficult has the process been, and what has been your career highlight to date?

We’ll start with the good first, haha. My career highlight to date would be, having an absolute shocker in 2016; I think I only made one heat all year out of nine events on the WQS. But come the last event of the year at Cronulla, I ended up making the final and getting second to Silvana Lima, who at the time was one of the girls I looked up to. Going into that event, I actually told my Dad I didn’t want to compete in the last event; I was so off the whole year and wanted to quit. Then I walked away with 5K and a huge smile on my face, thinking, ‘I can do this.’

Winning Surfest in 2009 still to this day is one of my favourite wins. My Dad just entered me because the event was in our hometown. I had some big heats against some of the more experienced girls on tour at the time, Rebecca Woods, Bethany Hamilton, Nicola Atherton. I think you can’t beat winning a competition in your hometown. It’s pretty amazing surfing in front of a home crowd with all that support and all your friends and family.

Finishing runner-up in the World Junior Championships twice in a row is one of my highlights. Back then, we had three events around the world - Brazil, Bali and finishing in Australia. Coming so close to that title, even though I didn’t achieve my goal, I thought the consistency of runner-up was pretty good.

I’ve only kind of just understood the meaning of the saying ‘trust the process.’ I’ll openly admit, it’s been a hard few years coming so close to qualifying for the WCT .... more than once. There were at least three years after the final event where I was one heat or a few 100 points off where I had a personal thought of, I’m done. It was very hard to come so close, then fail.

But looking back, it wasn’t actually that I failed; it’s the trusting of the process that has led me to where I am today. It sounds cliche, but I feel everything from the losses, the wins, the highs, the lows and all the blood, sweat, and definitely, tears have come together for me today, and I feel very blessed that as an athlete, I am happy to trust why things happen.

It’s given me a totally different view on life and competing. I still want to win; I love to train hard, win, learn, and I’m so competitive that I find so many things in life that fuel my fire to make the WCT one day.

Who would you say has had the biggest impact on your career as a surfer?

My family, hands down. They have been there from the beginning. My Dad and I have made a great team from the start. We definitely argue, disagree and get annoyed at each other because we are so similar, but my Dad, hands down, has been there for me through thick and thin. He’s very knowledgeable when it comes to life and even the competition and training side of things as he was a top athlete on the track back in his day.

He’s guided me through it all, even when I don’t want to hear the truth or he pulls me into line. My Dad and Mum picked up their life in South Africa, moved across the world with no real plans or much money to give us a better future. He’s the man!

How would you describe your surfing style, and what do you think is your biggest strength?

No idea; unlike my brother, I don’t think I have any kind of style. I like to think and work on flow, but I do think my biggest strength is my power and ability to surf super small waves. I still manage to get excited over if we are even presented with shitty small surf for contents.

You’ve been so close to reaching the CT series so many times – have you ever come close to packing it in and walking away from competition?

I wouldn’t be human if I didn’t have those thoughts. I said before I had those times where I wanted to quit. It hurt a lot, every year, every event, every wave, every training session to then 12 months later almost get there, it sucked. The financial side of things was pretty tight too, which adds extra pressure and the call to go get a job. But come every December, another sponsor would approach me and offer some financial support, which I would see as a sign from God to give it another go for the next year.

I know a lot of the WQS surfers experience this weight of financial stress whilst trying to reach their goal of making the CT, so as much as the losses hurt, I’m so competitive that I didn’t want to give up.

And how did it feel to finally get the call-up as a wildcard for the Newcastle event?

I was pretty darn excited. I got off the phone and was like trying to get the words out to my Mum in the kitchen! I’ve had two previous WCT appearances; I won the Roxy Pro Trials and got an injury replacement due to being two off from qualifying the year prior. Being rewarded with the wildcard is epic - like all my hard work is being rewarded.

You’ve had some decent lead-up results in the past couple of months in the QS competition – how much do you think that will help you in preparation for your CT debut?

I definitely think the consistency helps with the mental game going into the CT event and just the preparation to having surfed over ten heats in the last month getting back into that rhythm of surfing heats. I think the QS standard is high, but the CT is a whole other level. I’m going in with the preparation that I’ve ticked all the boxes, and I think I just got to focus on myself. I know that the girls on the CT are the best in the world, and I’m really hoping I get the opportunity to showcase my surfing.

You’ve been surfing at Merewether for years and obviously know the break really well – how much of an advantage do you think this will give you?

I definitely think there’s an advantage for myself. Merewether can be pretty tricky sometimes, so depending on the swell, I feel confident I understand the break out there.

For the last ten years of travelling all around the world to QS events where some of the competitions have been at the same beach for many consecutive years, there’s a handful of them where I’ve done well at. When I return the following year, I go there feeling confident as I’ve surfed that beach break and had a great result. It’s the same with the CT here; I know the break and feel confident here, so I’m treating this with that same kind of approach.

Who do you think are the favourites for Merewether, and who do you think would be a dark horse?

Favourites, no matter what beach the CT is held at, you can always count on your top-ranked. I think Carissa (Moore), Steph (Gilmore) and Tyler (Wright). Their level of surfing is just so good, and their adaptability for any of the stops on the tour where they compete in. I do think Sally (Fitzgibbon), as she has competed in a QS here a few times, so I feel she’ll feel confident and have an advantage. I think girls like Macy (Callaghan) and Isabella (Nichols) just coming from competing in some QS events have the adaptability to change to a beach break that they have surfed at the QS, where maybe Tyler and Steph haven’t spent as much time. I think my dark horse pick would be Brisa (Hennessy).

What are your goals for this event and for 2021 as a whole?

My goal for this event is not so much an end result, although I definitely want to make finals days. It’s more what I want to achieve within the heat and surf to the best of my ability. Looking at the rest of the year, I would like to win a Challenger series event, and I feel confident that with my determination and hard work with training that I will achieve that.

Finally, for your fellow surfers visiting Newcastle, what are your top three homegrown Newcastle experiences or places they should check out while they’re in town?

Newcastle is such a beautiful place. It’s big enough that it has everything, but it’s not so big that it’s a frustrating busy city with crowds. There’s so much on offer. I enjoy a late evening walk with the girls, and if you time it right, you can get to the top of the Anzac walk and watch the sunset over the whole of Newcastle. There are amazing cafes and restaurants all over Newcastle with tastes to suit everyone’s palates. My favourite is The Drop-In Espresso Bar in Wallsend, only 10 minutes out of town. They have great coffee, incredibly delicious cookies and very healthy food bowls, vegan options too. If I don’t work and get a sleep-in, I’ll walk across the road to this little cafe van in Adamstown, get a coffee or croissant then sit in our sunroom overlooking the quiet park, nice and peaceful.

Images: Philippa Anderson, credit WSL.

Check out the interview with Ryan Callinan HERE.

Check out our article 'World Surfing Spotlight Shines on Merewether' HERE.

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