Isabella Nichols: “I Had Thoughts of Chucking in the Towel, but I’m a Fighter”

Isabella Nichols surfing Curl Curl

Isabella Nichols’ style is all her own. She’s powerful, stylish, very fluid and also very nimble. Some people compare her to Stephanie Gilmore, but her “team captain” Kurt Jacobs sees flashes of Carissa Moore with hints of Layne Beachley in her approach to the waves.

With Covid-19 hitting us in March 2020, Isabella’s first year on the World Tour ended up being a lot different to what she had imagined. Freshly crowned on the WQS at the end of 2019, she expected to make her debut on the big stage in March last year. But Covid-19 had other plans, and she had to wait until November to finally take her first steps on the big stage.

We caught up with the CT rookie, who just secured her spot on the 2022 World Tour, to know more about who Isabella Nichols really is. We discussed her season, her approach to surfing, her doubts, her lifestyle… Everything that contributes to making her one of the best surfers in the world.

Because of Covid-19, the World Tour ended up starting last November in Maui with unsure stops for the rest of the season. Did it impact the way you prepared, and in what way?

I guess the main difference was that I got a lot more time to prepare for Maui, Sunset and Santa Cruz, with the last two ending up not going ahead. I think that extra time was a big benefit for me, as I still had a lot of stuff I needed to work on in my surfing. It also gave me time to psych up properly and work on my mental headspace. Maui was at the top of my bucket list, so to have that be the first stop was pretty special.

We then had four stops in Australia, starting with Newcastle, where you finished 2nd and lost against Carissa Moore who has been on fire. That must have been a significant confidence boost?

It was, and it took me by surprise for sure. I wasn’t expecting to make a final in my second CT event. It gave me a bit of confidence and trust in my abilities as a surfer, but in a way, it also made me feel a bit more pressure. It added an extra layer of expectation, which was my downfall at Narrabeen, I think.

You’ve actually mentioned in the past that you rather be the underdog, the one chasing the others.

I do. I like it a lot more than being the one being chased. I’d rather be the one that people are looking at over their shoulder. 

“I had just won the World Juniors, so I thought that I would qualify right away and all that. But I just ended up having three tough years without qualifying.”

Do you think this might be why you struggled a bit after winning the World Junior title and making your debuts on the QS?

I feel like for anyone, making the transition from the Pro Juniors to the QS is a tricky jump, just like you would have between the QS and the CT. It’s a whole different scale, and maybe I had very high expectations, too high. I had just won the World Juniors, so I thought that I would qualify right away and all that. But I just ended up having three tough years without qualifying. I was not going through any heat, and I ended up having to rebuild my resilience. It was really hard as I had never had to go through a hard patch until then. I was kind of cruising through, versing all the girls in Australia and doing okay. But the QS is when you finally actually surf against everyone from overseas. And that’s when I got kicked down a little bit. But again, it somehow was a good thing as it helped build my resilience up, which needed to happen because you lose more than you win in surfing. So you need to learn how to do that, how to lose.

Portrait of Isabella Nichols

During this time, did you ever think about giving up?

I’ve definitely thought about it. But I’m the kind of person who needs to follow through the best I can, otherwise, I start feeling super guilty and like I’ve let myself down. However, I must admit that this time was really challenging mentally. I definitely had thoughts of just chucking in the towel. I would tell myself that I didn’t want to do this, but that was just me having times of little brattiness because I didn’t want to lose anymore. In the end, I don’t think I ever really considered giving up. It was more like little moments of self-pity. I know I’m very determined, and if I want to do something, then I’ll just put all my effort into it.

You’ve got Danish blood, after all, and Vikings are warriors.

(Laughs) I have, and I kept fighting. It took me a while to get where I wanted to go, but I made the sacrifices and invested the time to finally get there. This might sound corny, but I do believe that if you really want something and you put in the effort, then more than likely, the outcome will be positive. That’s what I just kept telling myself.

“It took me a while to get where I wanted to go, but I made the sacrifices and invested the time to finally get there.”

So how does all the work you put in look like?

I am always doing things to stay fit and keep myself ready. When I’m at home, I don’t have much downtime, and I love having a routine. I surf heaps, go to the gym three to four times a week, see Takkesh (Mizoguchi-Thorne), with whom I do movement surf therapy, do acupuncture and get a massage once a week. I also see my sports psychologist every week. When I’m doing all those things, I actually feel good physically but also mentally. So it’s not just about getting ready for the CT season; it’s more about staying sharp. I enjoy and need to feel switched on. When I’m not doing anything, I just become super lazy, and I don’t like this feeling at all.

It seems like you have a real holistic approach.

I like to see all kinds of specialists, work with them and see what they can bring me. I believe that I need this, even if it’s only going to influence my surfing up to one or two per cent. For example, I went to see an acupuncturist. I knew nothing about acupuncture, but I went in there to try it out and see for myself. Now, if I’m having a stressful week, I lie down for two hours, get my acupuncture, and I go home so “zenned out”. It’s like the most incredible thing. So all I want is to find all these different things that help me. Things that make me happy and make me feel good, because the better I feel, the better I surf. That’s pretty much what it’s all about.

Does feeling good also involve a diet, and does it change during events?

I don’t really have a diet, but I try to eat as well as I can. When we’re on the road, we try to find healthy places. I try to make sure that I’m getting the right carbs, the right proteins, the right fats. I really just keep things super basic, and I try to not eat too much processed food. Balance for me is everything in moderation, and that’s my motto.

This year has been crazy for everyone involved, so to come away with a big goal ticked feels really good.

In the end, it looks like your approach is paying off, as you just qualified for the 2022 World Tour. You must be quite happy about it, especially after such a crazy year?

I’m really happy about how the year panned out. I felt like I had some good times and some great learning moments in which I can clearly see where things need to improve. This year has been crazy for everyone involved, so to come away with a big goal ticked feels really good. The approach I took at the start of the season was lighthearted and fun. Now I need to learn to hold onto that mindset because as the year went on and qualification started looming, I felt I got a little tense in some heats. So for next year, I just need to bring the fun!

Isabella Nichols sends it at Curl Curl, Australia

The level on the World Tour seems more balanced than ever, and it feels like that anyone can beat anyone, even maybe Carissa, who might be the only one standing out from the crowd?

I think there are still a few girls who are clearly at the top of the pack, but everyone on tour can beat anyone on their good day, which makes for exciting heats. As for Carissa, she’s definitely on fire this year.

The last stop should have been Teahupoo in Tahiti, a heavy left that some of the women on tour might fear (especially if it gets big). It’s also a wave that you would surf on your backhand. ?

I was super excited about surfing there, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous. I was ready to give it a crack though, plus Darren from DHD had made me some amazing boards. Before heading to Mexico, I visited Tahiti for a strike mission and it was incredible. The beauty of this island is unmatched. We had two days of perfect 5-6ft waves at Teahupoo and I learnt a lot in that time. It was really daunting at first, but as I learnt to fall and where to sit, I started getting really excited about the contest. Now I will just have to wait until next year.

“The addition of waves of consequences, like Pipeline or Teahupoo, adds another layer of difficulty to surfing contests, and I’m excited about it.”

Talking about next year, the World Tour will also stop at Pipeline and G-Land, so basically more waves of consequence. Is it something that excites or worries you?

I think women’s surfing needs to head in this direction, and best sooner rather than later. I’m really excited because it adds another layer of difficulty to surfing contests. Not only do you have to manage the pressure put on you by your competitors, the pressure of getting through your heats, but you also need to deal with the stress of surfing a heavy wave. For this reason, I think it will feel very satisfying to surf a heat out there.

What’s your plan now that the CT season is finished and you’ve secured your spot for next year?

Right now there is no definitive plan. I’m in California at the moment and I’m just taking a bit of time off. I’ll head back to Australia after the US Open, so until then, I will be cruising, training and enjoying myself.

Lauren Horky

Founder and Editor

Lauren is the Founder and Editor of Joyce. She lives on the Northern Beaches of Sydney with her beautiful baby daughter. She loves surfing but worries when the waves get bigger than 4 feet, chooses a set of fins based on their colour (purple all the way) and still wonders how to read a surf forecast.

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