This is an online exclusive story from ESPN The Magazine's Body Issue 2016. Subscribe today! And for more from the 2016 Body Issue, check out espn.com/bodyissue, and pick up a copy on newsstands starting July 8.
Training to become the top-ranked surfer in the world isn't exactly a day at the beach. American surfer Courtney Conlogue talks to Body Issue reporter Morty Ain about her long hours in the gym, learning to hold her breath underwater and trying to compete with Mother Nature. Here's Conlogue, in her own words:
ON WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A PRO SURFER
I think some people perceive surfing as just a lifestyle sport. This will be my sixth year competing professionally on the World Tour, and to be involved in something like this goes to show that we do fine-tune our bodies in order to be as strong as we can when we enter the water. During the offseason, I train three to five days a week, and then I train every day in the water. Depending on the way the swell is -- because our sport is based on Mother Nature -- when the waves are good, I surf probably six hours a day.
I think the paddling stuff is something a lot of athletes always get caught off guard by when they learn about surfing. If there was a pedometer that kept track of my paddles, it would show that I clock thousands and thousands of miles a year.
Back in the day, there was a huge perception that surfers just partied and didn't do all of that training. Right now we're in a transition where in order to be successful, you have to hit the gym. You have to do extra in order to conquer the ocean. I was probably one of the first athletes in surf on the women's side to really get involved with gym training. When I was younger, I did track and I did a lot of different sports that really encouraged being in the gym. There were a lot of things I learned from other sports that through time I've learned to implement into surfing.
Incorporating getting into the gym and doing all of that stuff has created a lot of world champs. It's so crazy the amount of skill in the lineup. [Older-generation surfers] wish they had these tools when they were on tour. I think they mostly back the new generation and what we're doing for the sport because we're improving it. It's really been enhanced, and that's why it's so entertaining right now.
ON BURNING CALORIES
Once anyone tries surfing, they always crave something massive right after, even if they just paddled for a half hour. I know I'm burning probably thousands of calories whenever I'm in the water, especially being out here in the Gold Coast. Last week I was having to eat probably around five times a day -- not huge meals but quite a bit of food just because I was paddling so much.
When you first get started, you definitely eat quite a bit, but I think now my body has kind of matured. When I train in the gym, that's when I get super hungry. But when I'm here on the Gold Coast and doing stuff that's really intense, I definitely build up a huge appetite. One day I think I had to duck-dive over 100 waves just to maintain my position in the lineup. That's a lot of arm and body muscles and endurance.
ON HOLDING HER BREATH UNDERWATER
A lot of athletes in our sport have just started implementing breath training: holding your breath and being underwater -- putting ourselves in high-stress situations while someone throws balls at you to train maintaining your composure and telling you, "Catch it," "Leave it," "What's your phone number?" "What's your dog's name?" You're doing all these exercises, and your lactic acid is building up -- you feel the burn, and your head is kind of everywhere. It's all these different things to see if you're maintaining your alertness under higher stresses. It's mental and physical training, and the benefits that I've seen out of it are absolutely incredible.
ON FINDING THE BEST WAVE
The biggest wave is not necessarily the best wave. Sometimes you have to make a decision or judgment about whether the medium ones are better quality. There's a lot of different skills that surfing requires. It's not only mental, it's instinctual and physical. The instinctual bit is with Mother Nature, and you have 30 minutes when you're in the jersey to catch two great waves and put on a show that gets you through the heat.
When I'm free surfing, I'm a lot calmer, and it's more like a rhythmic thing. But when I'm in the lineup, something switches on and I turn into someone who's fighting for something. I turn into a tiger that's trying to kill its prey. I pretty much do everything that I can in the lineup to try to master the ocean. Something comes out where I become a lot more fierce and explosive. You have to express yourself in the ocean and you're being judged like an ice-skater. You have all these variables, and you're trying to find a wave -- it's kind of like a chess game in the lineup with your competitors. You're trying to maneuver around them, outsmart them, find the best wave and try to predict the ocean, which is unpredictable.
ON CLOSE CALLS
I've definitely had close encounters with rocks; I think that's inevitable in surfing. Especially when you're in a heat and you're cutting it close to try to get a score to make it through, you'll practically do anything. I've jumped off a pretty high 15-foot cliff with my surfboard to get into a lineup. That was in Santa Cruz at Steamer Lane. You pretty much jump off the cliff with your board and have to time going into the water at the right time. But surfing is exploring the world for your craft, and sometimes you get to remote places and have to get down a cliff with a surfboard.
One time in Margaret River [in Australia], there was a huge swell and I didn't want to bail my board. There's a moment when you have to let your board go, and I didn't. I was probably 17 or 18 at the time. The impact hit me really hard in my feet, something snapped, and when I opened my eyes my feet were in front of me; I literally folded in half. My feet went forward and my torso went back: the full scorpion. It didn't feel good.
But with my body, probably the worst thing I deal with is all the sun that I get. Sunscreens are so tricky because they're waterproof enough to protect you, but all of the chemicals damage your face. So preventing sun damage is something we're always trying to master.
ON LEARNING TO LOVE HER BODY
I like that I've made my body for a purpose. For me, there was a long time when I was a little self-conscious because I was an athlete. I was in track and field at the time and I was super bulky and built up -- just thinking to myself that I don't look like your basic model. I had huge thighs because I was weight training and doing all of these dead lifts with resistance and squats. I had Apolo Anton Ohno thighs! ... maybe not as big as his, but I felt like they were that big when I was little. I didn't look like what I thought you needed to look like for surfing.
But I learned to embrace who I am and what I look like as an athlete, to be strong about who I am and feel good about what I am. Being a strong woman and being a strong athlete in the water is a good thing. I think I've put a lot of time into everything being pretty proportioned out. My arms aren't bulky, but they're so strong, and they're able to get me through the thick and thin of big swells.
I'm at the point where I'm so happy with how I feel. Everything my body has is seriously what I need to do a run. I've fine-tuned how I need to look in order to be the best I can when that jersey goes on and I'm competing.