Surfer Courtney Conlogue heads to Maui Pro with her eye on WSL title
Courtney Conlogue imagined she was walking through a forest. She listened to the cleaning jet on the bottom of the pool. She tried to block out the burning sensation in her lungs. She tried to remind herself that she was in control and could resist the most basic physiological necessity: breathing.
It worked. After one day training with Stig Severinsen, the four-time world champion Danish freediver who owns the Guinness World Record for holding one’s breath under water, at 22 minutes—yes 22 minutes—and has worked with big wave surfer Greg Long, Conlogue improved her time from 30 seconds to two minutes and 30 seconds.
“The best athletes in the world, like Courtney, Greg [Long], or Kelly Slater, they are not afraid to seek new knowledge,” Severinsen says.
Conlogue excels most, though, when she is on top of the water, racing across the face of a wave on her surfboard. The 23-year-old from Santa Ana, Calif., holds second place in the rankings of the World Surf League Women’s Samsung Galaxy Championship Tour (CT) heading into the last event—the Target Maui Pro, which starts on Saturday. There are multiple title scenarios, but Conlogue must secure a better result than Carissa Moore, the two-time world champion from Honolulu, if she wants to become the first surfer from California to win a world title since 1990.
At this time last year Conlogue was excited just for the ability to compete in Maui. On April 20, during an off day at the Bells Beach contest in Victoria, Australia, Conlogue went free surfing at a wave called Cylinders. She pulled into the barrel on a wave and appeared set up for a flawless ride. But then the whitewater inside the tube smashed her right ankle against her board. Conlogue knew it was not an ordinary wipeout. She had to withdraw from her fourth round heat, and was on the verge of tears explaining the decision.
“It is devastating,” she said.
She had suffered an acute high ankle sprain and faced up to five months of rehab. Her world title hopes vanished.
While the rest of the top 17 competed at events in Fiji and Brazil, Conlogue was stuck watching the webcasts at home—her right foot elevated and heavily wrapped.
I want to be there! Conlogue remembers yelling as she watched perfect set after perfect set fill her computer screen. Her longest hiatus from surfing before the injury: two weeks.
“I kept wondering when am I going to be in the fight for the world title?” she said. “That’s where I belong.”
Conlogue started surfing on a boogie board during a family trip to Mexico when she was four years old. After returning home, her father, Richard, took her to the Rip Curl outlet in Santa Ana and gave her $150 to buy a proper surfboard. Conlogue surveyed the dozens of options and selected a small neon red and green board. Her reasoning? She liked the colors.
By the time she was six, Conlogue was making the half-hour drive with her family every weekend to Lower Trestles at San Onofre State Beach—one of the best and most crowded breaks on the West Coast. But unlike most groms who stay near the shore and ride the smaller, inside waves, Conlogue, guided by her father, went straight out to the middle of the lineup and pushed into larger waves.
Peter Townend, the 1976 world surfing champion, further instilled that lesson after he selected Conlogue for the USA Junior Surf Team in 2004. She was 11—the youngest athlete ever to make the team. Townend told Conlogue that to stand out against the older, more experienced competitors she needed to catch the biggest waves, for which judges often award higher scores. Every time before Conlogue paddled out for a heat, Tonwnend would offer the same instruction: Commit to the outside. The advice helped Conlogue achieve an 11th place result at the 2005 ISA World Junior Surfing Championships at Huntington Beach, her home break.
She wasn’t content.
“When I lose I run as fast as I can just to let all the anger out,” she told The New York Times in July 2007.
Conlogue continued to climb the amateur ranks and she stood out for more than her powerful carving style. While most top teenage surfers elect homeschool or online academies, Conlogue attended Sage Hill, a private school in Newport Beach, Calif.
“I am not a big homeschool believer,” Townend said. “When a bell rings you need to be somewhere. When you do homeschooling the bell never rings and you can go surfing wherever you want.”
The time in the classroom did not slow Conlogue’s progress. She won the U.S. Open of surfing in 2009, then qualified for the CT during her senior year (2010).
“You would have never known that she was one of the top surfers in the world by the way she interacted with her classmates,” said Nate Miller, the head track and field coach at Sage Hill during Conlogue’s tenure.
Conlogue competed all four years on the track team in a variety of events, from 4x100 relays to shot put. When Miller needed a pole vaulter, Conlogue volunteered. She still holds top-10 marks in several disciplines. She also earned academic honors every semester at Sage Hill.
Victories on the Championship Tour proved harder to come by. Competing against the best in the world at more critical waves than those on the Qualifying Series, there is often a steep learning curve.
Conlogue finished her rookie campaign eighth in the rankings. Moore won the world title. Those initial struggles seemed to enforce a common narrative about Conlogue, given her background surfing the lackluster waves at Huntington Beach. Yes, she was probably the fittest surfer on tour and, yes, her competitive drive was unparalleled, but…
“There were naysayers who used to say she didn’t have the natural talent of some of her peer group like Sally [Fitzgibbons] and Carissa Moore,” Townend says. “But she has always had the desire.”
Conlogue didn’t have time to listen. She was too consumed with trying to decrease the gap. She incorporated Muay Thai boxing into her training regimen. She reassessed her equipment. After getting introduced through one of her grade school teachers, Conlogue started getting boards from Tim Stamps, a shaper from Huntington Beach, who had experience making boards for World Tour surfer, and fellow U.S. Open champion, Brett Simpson.
“When she first came to me her boards were nice, but they were all unrelated and scattered,” Stamps says.
That didn’t last long. Stamps estimates that he shapes between 50 and 60 boards each year for Conlogue. She keeps a notebook in which she jots down descriptions about how each board performs in varying conditions and with different sized fins—a process of continuous refinement and adjustments.
Soon, the change from a 5'9" board to a 6'5" one was seamless, and it coincided with better results. Conlogue finished fifth in 2012, then fourth the next year and seemed ready to breakthrough and affirm her spot as a title contender.
Then the injury happened.
Surfing on the Championship Tour is a year-round commitment. There is no off-season. Travel, surf, eat, train, sleep. Repeat.
“I’m usually so tired from a day of what I get up to that I just want to go to sleep once I get home,” Conlogue says.
The injury left her facing a void. “What am I going to spend my time doing without surfing,” Conlogue thought.
When she wasn’t attending physical therapy sessions with Mark Kozuki, she spent hours exploring the Huntington Library in San Marino and read books like Bossypants by Tina Fey for a laugh, and Way of the Peaceful Warrior to inspire her comeback. She gardened. She painted.
Still, Conlogue was restless. She could tell, because she kept painting something she never had before—waves. To get back in the water, she took up prone paddling, sometimes covering 10 miles a day. She would visit Stamps, talk board design, and even tried her hand in the shaping bay to learn the intricacies of the craft. She trained, even attempting deadlists while wearing a walking boot, under the watchful eye of Jonathan Brown.
Brown witnesses Conlogue’s intensity every training session. The two started working together eight years ago when Conlogue joined one of Brown’s fitness classes for surfers. That was just the beginning.
“She wanted more training,” Brown recalls. “She wants to work the hardest of any athlete I’ve ever met.”
Conlogue began individual training with Brown in a larger gym. They needed more equipment. In 2012, Brown joined Paul Norris to found Extreme Athletics, which focuses on surf-specific training. Conlogue followed. Now, when Conlogue is home she trains three to five times a week at Extreme Athletics’ warehouse in Costa Mesa with its Spartan, white brick interior. And Conlogue’s preparation is as diverse as the maneuvers she performs on a wave. Brown tailors her workouts to match the type of waves at each contest venue and will email her PDF’s with specific routines when she’s on the road. For the beach breaks of Brazil, Conlogue focuses on agility and quick, explosive movements. For larger waves like Honolua Bay, the regimen includes more weightlifting and power exercises.
For their one- to two-hour sessions, Brown will attempt to create a series of exercises from planks to pull ups, designed to “bury” Conlogue. That’s rarely the outcome.
“She’ll ask, ‘Can I go flip the tire a few more times?’” Brown says of Conlogue’s typical response after a workout. “I just think, ‘How are you not tired?’ I always have to go back to the drawing board to see if I can challenge her.”
Most of the surfers on the CT must share a similar sense of bewilderment. In her first four years on tour, Conlogue won three events. This year, she has equaled that number.
Yet, it has not been enough to outpace Moore. The title race has been a seesaw battle. Moore won the first two events. Conlogue took the next two. They’ve swapped the yellow jersey, which signifies the leader in the rankings, after every event since the U.S. Open in July.
Heading into the Roxy Pro France in October, Conlogue wore the yellow jersey, along with the target on her back, but after losing in the fourth round by 3/10ths of point to Tyler Wright, she once again ceded the top spot to Moore.
There is still the opportunity for one more switch, and Conlogue does not sound concerned about her current position.
“I don’t mind chasing someone,” she says.
Moore is the defending champion at the Maui Pro, but Conlogue has plenty of experience at the right-hand point break. She competed at the contest when she was still in high school through a sponsor’s wildcard and last year placed third. It might be easy to assume that that result bolstered Conlogue’s confidence and triggered her subsequent success, but she has different theory. She believes the shift occurred during the five months she was sidelined. Although Conlogue initially described her injury as “traumatic,” she now considers it a blessing in disguise.
“The injury gave me an awareness and time to reflect on why I love surfing and all the different aspects of it,” Conlogue says. “I love putting on that jersey and the level of competition and I love all this pressure on me and having to perform.”
Those who know her best have also noticed the transition.
“I think she is having a lot more fun,” Stamps says. “Maybe she was a bit over focused previously. Now it seems like she can turn that competitive switch on and turn it off a little bit more. She is freeing herself up and winning.”
Conlogue will try to continue that trend at Honolua Bay. But she won’t try to tune out the noise and title expectations with music. While warming up, Conlogue doesn’t don massive headphones like most of her competitors. She prefers listening to the elements.
So before her first round heat, Conlogue will hear the whirring of her jump rope…the tapping of her feet…the pounding of the waves on the shoreline. She’ll put on a red jersey. She’ll navigate the rocky shoreline and enter the water, where she’ll paddle to the outside.
But first… she’ll take a deep breath.