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Isabella Nichols surfs for Australia but is fiercely proud of her Viking heritage. Photo: Marina Alonso

over qualified

Isabella Nichols just claimed a glorious CT victory. Read the Tracks profile from a couple of years back.

From the pages of Tracks Issue No. 576 – Find our extensive archive of premium features, historical mags and premium film here.

WCT GRADUATE ISABELLA NICHOLS IS LOOKING FORWARD TO SURFING JEFFREYS AND HONOLUA BAY NEXT YEAR, BUT THE 22-YEAR-OLD NATURAL-FOOTER WITH THE VIKING ROOTS ALSO DREAMS OF A DAY WHEN SHE CAN BUILD WAVE POOLS.


After a maximum velocity highline, Isabella uses the grab-rail clutch to make a dramatic direction change.

Whilst surfing her way to first place on the 2019 WQS Tour, Isabella was also undertaking a degree in engineering. On more than one occasion she found herself at a contest, snatching a couple of hours to study or work on an assignment between heats. That may sound a little stressful for some but Isabella suggests that the academic diversion actually helped her in competition. “It wasn’t so much pressure because I kind of had a backup plan and I went to Uni and I kind of had like a little bit less stress from the surfing side because now I’m set with something else I really like doing…”

While solving complex maths and physics problems may have helped keep her mind off contest related anxieties, Isabella found that the study also improved her aptitude when she pulled on a singlet. “I was kind of freshening up on my mental skills. Out in heats, my mind worked a bit quicker with tactics and whatnot, and I kind of treated it as a bit of a game; like just trying to play it as best as I could with strategies and stuff.”

A couple of weeks into the course Isabella decided that she was interested in marrying her academic inclinations with her love of surfing. “… I decided that I wanted to maybe get into wave pool design and that way I can kind of keep it in the surfing industry… Make it fun. At the same time as working towards something, I can have both my passions kind of thing. I’m doing civil engineering now. And then next year, I’m maybe looking at switching over to mechanical, but I’m still trying to find the right pathway. But I think with the whole wave-pool engineering; it’s still a very broad and general; there’s not one pathway to go down, like there’s not one course. You have to find your way through it and talk to people who are in the industry.”

A recent session at Melbourne’s URBNsurf wave lagoon and the assurance she will be competing at The Ranch in 2020, have helped fuel Isabella’s obsession with artificial waves. When I suggest she should tap Kelly on the shoulder in the WSL competitor’s area and hustle him for a future job she chuckles at the idea. “I hope so… he’d probably know a lot about it… they’re all very secretive about a lot of their technology though.”


Isabella looking ominously comfortable as she throws the wings wide and lets the tail drift.

At this stage, Isabella is entertaining a switch to Deakin Uni from CQU, but has every intention of continuing to study while competing on the WCT; a decision she
feels will help give her day-to-day life some welcome structure. “Doing one subject is not too bad as long as I keep on top of it… there’s so much downtime, like on Maui they just had five days off and I would have been able to smash out a week’s work… my brain works better that way anyway when I’m planning things out and have structure.”

While manufacturing precision-built, man-made wonders may provide a career beyond professional surfing, when we speak, Isabella is more immediately concerned with an impending trip to Hawaii, where dealing with nature’s volatile elements is the main challenge. She’s scheduled to fly out to the North Shore the next day and has just picked up a new 6’4” step-up from shaper, Darren Handley. However, Isabella assures me that she has organised to have much loftier equipment waiting for her when she arrives on the North Shore. “I’ve got a 6’7” and a 7’0” lined up for when I get over there. I think it’s going to be fairly average size for the first few days but then at the end of the trip it’s going to be like 10-foot.”

The trip is officially for a Billabong shoot, but Isabella suggests she hopes to use
the two-week window on the Rock to familiarise herself with some of the more formidable waves in Hawaii. “I want to use my downtime to surf Sunset and Pipe…I’d like to get over to Maui too, but it (Honolua) seems like a very fickle wave… we’ll see
how it goes.” Isabella remembers being in the gym last year as images of the women competing at perfect Honolua flashed across the television screens. “I think I was doing squats and the girls were surfing pumping Maui and scoring stand-up barrels…I’m just crossing my fingers that we get something like that.”

Although she sounds self-assured and articulate, Isabella concedes that she is a little anxious about the increased media focus she will be subjected to on the WCT. “I mean I am someone who just likes to, you know, not hide in the shadows. I just like to do my own thing without as much recognition… the CT events are like 20,000 times bigger than WQS events. So there’s going to be more eyes on it – more criticism, so I just kind of have to learn to shut it all out, I guess.”

While Isabella claimed the number one ranking on the WQS this year, she is well aware that the WCT is an elevated playing field where she will be matched against gifted surfers and some big personalities. “I feel like there is a big gap between the WQS and the CT sometimes, so it’s just about surfing to that standard.”

Isabella had an early taste of the WCT competition a few years ago when two separate wildcard slots saw her matched against Courtney Conlogue. “I went ok, but Courtney smoked me both times,” she laments. While the double defeat at the hands of Conlogue was no doubt humbling, Isabella had more success at this year’s Quiksilver Pro. After winning the trials she earned a wildcard into the main event where she defeated Steph Gilmore in round one. “I think she was having a bit of slow start to that contest but it was a confidence booster,” reflects Isabella who will face a different psychological framework when she paddles out as a fully-fledged WCT competitor in 2020.


A vicious, open-face slash demonstrates that Isabella also has a lethal backhand attack.

Asked how she might deal with someone as potentially intimidating as Caroline Marks, who radiates self-confidence and attacks the lip with flourishing turns, Nichols suggests the secret is to stay focused on your own performance. “I mean it is hard if you come up against someone with a lot of natural confidence, but I guess if you just kind of portray the same kind of confidence … If I have to, I’ll use tactics to involve someone else but it’s more about trying to focus on getting the best waves and surfing my best rather than focus on what they’re doing… I mean she oozes confidence and it is a little intimidating but you’ve just gotta kind of put that out of your mind I guess.”

In terms of pre-heat preparation Isabella has an unlikely secret weapon. If you are at an event you will see her warming up by juggling a soccer ball. In her junior years Isabella was good enough to play in boy’s teams, but indicates fear of injury keeps her off the field these days. However, she claims that keeping the ball up, using both feet, offers the best way to get her body and brain in gear, prior to a heat. “I mean, I feel like juggling a soccer ball was like a really good way for me to turn on both sides of my brain… I’ve never really found something training wise that’s kind of made me click before a heat until I started this year at the Avoca contest, and it helps so much and it’s fun. It takes my mind off all the anxieties even if it’s just for five minutes.

Indeed, juggling the soccer ball provides a ready-mate metaphor for a life where she is alternating competition with study time, free surfing trips and the self-marketing tasks that are an obligatory part of being a modern pro-surfer. Isabella seems to be under no illusions about what her role entails. “The surfing industry…it’s a very competitive market now and everyone’s looking for, like, the whole package rather than just a performance surfer. The industry; I mean it’s kind of taking a little bit of a slump… it’s hard. Now, people have to look their best, surf well; they need to put out good edits and they need to speak well. With Instagram and social media and everything, people just expect to see new stuff all the time. If you’re not doing new things all the time you kind of get forgotten about pretty quickly… I understand that it’s part of the job and it comes with the territory I guess.”

While Isabella possesses a steely competitive drive and obviously has
a diligent attitude towards her digital footprint, she concedes that sometimes she needs time out to reflect and recharge. While she periodically switches Insta off for a couple of weeks at a time, Isabella points out that her favourite escape is immersing herself in the Danish heritage she gets from her Mother’s side. “Yeah,
it’s one of the most incredible places in the world. Like I go back every time I go to Europe. I love that part of the world. I love the culture. I love the people, as they are so kind. I would love to live over there one day but there’s just no waves. So maybe when I retire.”

As a means of reaffirming her connection to her Danish roots and honouring the memory of her grandmother, Isabella recently had a little Viking-inspired ink added to her forearm. “It’s the outline of a mini Viking ship, it’s pretty sick,” she says proudly.

That Warrior Spirit will hopefully be with Isabella as she embarks on a quest
to conquer the WCT. Tactically you can expect her to approach each heat with
the cool-headed rationale of one who is thoroughly prepared mentally and physically. Meanwhile, out in the water, her attack should showcase a welcome balance of power and panache, with an eye for the barrel and a willingness to dazzle when the circumstances require it. With a World Junior trophy and a WQS title to her name, there seems little doubt that Isabella will be simmering with ambition when she pulls on a jersey inscribed with her own name. Watch out WCT, the Viking is coming and she’s hunting a world crown.

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