World-class Tilly in surfing for the long game
The pro surfer wearing headphones before their heat is almost a meme these days. Connor Coffin is grooving to the Black Crowes. Mick Fanning used to dig Grinspoon before his yoga and meditation epiphany. Rachael Tilly is listening to ... her university lecturer.
The sports management spiel works. Tilly carves up a stormy Cabarita break, wins the UniSport Nationals gold medal and is home in time for hot chocolate.
Like Fanning, Tilly is a former world champion, at 17 she was the youngest in the history of professional surfing. She shares something else with the Coolie kid - for the next few years, the Gold Coast is home.
Tilly grew up in San Clemente, south of Los Angeles, and was introduced to the sport by her father Glen, a former competitive surfer.
Her first session was memorable for two reasons: the dead shark she found washed up on the beach and the love of surfing it awakened in the then four-year-old.
"My dad took me down to Doheny State Beach on a very foggy day,” Tilly says.
"He was sceptical of going out because it was cold and the fog was extremely thick but I wasn't going to let anything stop me.
"I just always had a special draw to surfing and a love for it.”
Within a few years the grom was competing in shortboard and longboard events. At 10 she told her father she wanted to become the youngest surfing world champion. (Kelly Slater and Gabriel Medina won world titles as 20-year-olds. Carissa Moore was 18).
"My dad was my coach and we both sat down and he said, 'OK, you have this goal. You should probably pick one or the other (longboard or shortboard) and focus on getting really good at one rather than being mediocre at both.
"I didn't even have to think about it. It was longboarding immediately.”
Unlike the WSL women's shortboard tour, which totals results over 10 events to decide the world title, the longboard championship is settled at a single event.
Tilly was still in high school in 2015 when she was crowned champion at Riyue Bay in Hainan, China.
She took the trophy home to her family in southern California and they celebrated by eating Cheerios out of it.
The prizemoney for that world title win was $10,000. In comparison, American Courtney Conlogue took home $65,000 last month for winning the Roxy Pro France, a shortboard event. (It should be noted prizemoney for all women surfers will improve next year after the World Surf League committed to pay parity for male and female athletes).
Tilly still thinks her 10-year-old self made the right call, even though the decision to put a few extra feet of fibreglass beneath her potentially cost her the millions of dollars in winnings and endorsements that the best shortboarders enjoy.
"If I had chosen the shortboard I don't even know if I'd be on the tour,” she says.
"It didn't come as naturally to me as longboarding.
"Every once in a while I get into that mindset of like, 'Ohh, I could be on a way bigger contract right now'.
"But then when I'm at a world longboard event and among all the best longboarders in the world, that's the environment I love. That's more important than making a few extra bucks.”
Achieving her life's ambition while still a teenager gave Tilly space to think, 'What next'?
As the surfers' representative on the WSL women's longboard tour, she was mixing with contest directors and commissioners and seeing what it took to host and manage events.
"I've gotten to see what goes on behind the scenes in setting up the tour and setting up the contests,” she says.
"That's what sparked my interest to go into sports management.”
Longboarding may be overshadowed by its younger, flashier sibling but there are still perks to being a pro rider.
There's the signature board, the Rachael Tilly Pro single ('Wins titles under the right feet'), invite-only sessions at Kelly Slater's Surf Ranch and regular travel to the world's best breaks, which is where the Gold Coast comes into the picture.
"For the past few years I've spent a lot of time competing so I was very familiar with the Gold Coast and through that got introduced to Bond University on one of my trips,” she says.
"It was the perfect opportunity to go to university, to live abroad - and there's great surf.
"Surfing culture is really big here and it's been really welcoming to jump into.
"It's a continuous adventure. I don't feel too out of place but I'm constantly learning something new, which I absolutely love.”
Tilly, now 20, is in the second semester of her first year of a Bachelor of Sports Management, juggling lectures and preparing for the 2018 World Longboard Championships in Taiwan, starting on November 27.
She describes the break at Jinzun Harbour as a "really difficult and challenging wave”, having finished third in the world title there last year.
Tilly is living on campus so her closest training wave is at Burleigh Point where she has signed up as a member of the Burleigh Longboard Club.
"Surfing allows you to make friends almost immediately,” she says. "It's this common love and common language that we all share.
"You can go to any country and get in their surfing culture and scene and meet like-minded people that you'll click with immediately.”
She'll make the move into a new pad with her younger brother Michael who is fresh out of high school and enjoying an Australian gap year before his own university studies.
"He came and stayed with me for a month in July and the whole month I was like, 'Live here, live here, live here'. Finally he said, 'You know what? I kinda want to live here'!”
The company has eased the pain of living away from her close-knit family and Michael has also stepped into their father's shoes as Tilly's coach.
"Often times my dad can't travel to the world events with me because he has work, so this year my brother is going to travel to Taiwan and take that coaching position.
"He was just talking to me the other night saying, 'I know the weather has been bad but we gotta start getting out in the water!' It's been nice to have that.”
Another member of Tilly's support crew - her board shaper Joshua Martin of Martin Shapes - remains 11,500km away on the other side of the Pacific, but their bond remains strong.
Tilly first rode boards crafted by Martin's father, Terry, a legendary shaper who was said to have hand-crafted 80,000 boards - more than anyone else - working with the likes of Hawaiian charger Gerry Lopez.
When Terry died in 2012, Joshua inherited the role of shaping Tilly's boards.
"He's the best shaper ever,” she says.
"It's a little bit more difficult now that I'm not just a two-minute bike ride from his house but we have such a great relationship building the boards.
"He's been able to see how my surfing has evolved over the years and therefore the shapes have changed because of that.
"I love being over here representing his boards in another country. He's such an excellent craftsman.”
Tilly says one advantage of competing on a stripped-down world tour is the ability to simultaneously get an education, although finding a balance is challenging.
"Last semester I had to fly back to California for an event and it happened right during my mid-semester exams,” she says.
"I still had to take them but I did them when I got back.
"My teachers have been really helpful and understanding. With that said, it hasn't made the workload any lighter so I've been taking my books with me on the trips and listening to my lectures in between heats in the contests.”
Another complicating factor has been her health. Three years ago Tilly was diagnosed with Graves' disease, a condition in which the body's immune system produces antibodies that attack the thyroid, causing symptoms including racing heart, sweating, weight loss and fatigue.
She underwent surgery to remove her thyroid in January and is now fully fit.
"I definitely have the goal to win another world title,” she says.
"But (winning a world championship at 17) takes the pressure off a bit because whatever happens from now, I'm satisfied with my surfing career.
"I'm focusing on getting my degree.
"Life is so big and there are so many different avenues to take. I've done that one thing, now what else can I do?”