Bronte Macaulay's highs and lows as a rookie surfer on tour
If Bronte Macaulay were to sum up the 2017 season of the World Surf League Women's Championship Tour, it would be with two words: learning curve.
"I had a patch where I wasn't competing or surfing very well. I was a bit homesick, missing the family, and I was just struggling with it. I wasn't really enjoying it like I usually do," said Macaulay, 23.
As the lone rookie on tour, the Australian surfer struggled to find her place among the 17 most elite water women in the world. She came in a disappointing 13th on the tour's second contest, at Margaret River, near her hometown in Western Australia.
"It was the start of the year, and I had high expectations of myself. It's a whole homegrown thing where you feel a bit more pressure," she said.
Lackluster performances in Rio de Janeiro, Huntington Beach and Tavarua (Fiji) followed. She started doubting everything she was doing in the water, from her ability to surf to the boards she was using. Macaulay had missed joining the tour by one spot in 2016; the precariousness of her position was something she knew well.
But after powering through the tour's European stops, the goofy-footer made a splash at the season's last contest in Maui, besting three-time world champion Carissa Moore in the quarterfinals and advancing to the semifinals. Macaulay finished an equal third in the contest.
She credits subtle changes for the breakthrough moment of her rookie season. During off or "lay" days of a competition, she started free-surfing instead of lounging, even if conditions were less than ideal. And she started to shift her mental game.
"I was trying to have a different mindset when I headed into competitions: If I surfed a good heat, I would be happy, regardless of the result. By Maui, I had practiced that a lot," said Macaulay, who finished no. 15 overall in the season.
More importantly, she started having fun again in the water, something she resolved to do after competing in a Qualifying Series event in Australia prior to the Maui contest (surfers who risk losing their spots on the Championship Tour may compete on the Qualifying Series to maintain their rankings).
"I was like, 'Crap, why don't I do this every comp -- just have more fun?'" she said. "At the end of the day, it's just surfing. Might as well enjoy it."
For Macaulay, surfing is a family affair. Her father, Dave, is a board shaper and former pro surfer who competed in the 1980s and '90s. She started competing in the sport at age 13 alongside her older sister, Laura, 25. Laura continues to compete on the WSL's Qualifying Series -- a precursor to joining the championship tour -- and even qualified for a spot surfing at the tour's contest at Margaret River (Australia) this year.
Bronte Macaulay is the first surfer to qualify for the championship tour from the state of Western Australia since 2004; she put pursuing a degree in elementary school teaching on hold to pursue her surfing career.
Her father is also her coach, joining her at every stop on tour and providing what she calls a stabilizing presence.
"I would be nowhere without him. I was questioning my abilities and my equipment, [but] he was like, 'Don't question it.' He kept saying, 'It's gonna click,'" she said. "Just having that one person have a lot of faith in you and you can trust is really nice."
While Macaulay said she has bonded with other competitors on tour, going up against friends in the water can be a jarring experience.
"I've kind of been blown away by how genuine everyone is, but in saying that, everyone's got similar goals. You have to be competitive. You can't have friends in a heat," she said.
Add that to the list of lessons she has learned as a rookie. If she were to use another word to describe the season, she said it would be "hard," something she wants to be less of on herself in 2018. Macaulay advises any incoming rookie to do the same.
"I would just say don't really set your bar too high," said Macaulay, who initially wanted to crack the top five; she has since adjusted that goal to being in the top 10 in 2018. "Enjoy your first year, enjoy the waves and places. If you're learning, you're kind of winning, in a way."
And, ultimately, she still has what she considers the best job in the world.
"It's actually insane when you break it down and think about it," said Macaulay. "People work all week so they can have a surf on the weekend or whatever. We do something that we love every day."