TYLER WRIGHT STANDS alone near the water's edge at Cabarita Beach in New South Wales, Australia, a navy competitor's jersey pulled snugly over her wetsuit. It's September, early spring in the Southern Hemisphere, and the offshore breeze is humid and brisk as the world's best surfers, including Wright, compete for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wright steadies her breathing as an air horn signals the start of her heat. Her competitors are already out in the lineup, but the two-time world champion doesn't move to join them. Instead, she starts the timer on her watch and bends to kneel in the sand. She props her white tri-fin against her left knee and raises her right fist high above her head. The wind blows the wisps of hair curling around her face, but Wright holds silent and still. TV cameras broadcasting the Tweed Coast Pro pull back from her face: On the bottom of her surfboard, in black lettering that stretches from rail to rail, Wright has written, "BLACK LIVES MATTER."
For nearly eight minutes -- each second representing one of 439 First Nations people killed in police custody in Australia since 1991 -- Wright's heart races as she kneels, alone and apart from her peers.
"I get chills just picturing it," says Selema Masekela, a longtime action sports broadcaster and one of the most high-profile Black men in surfing. "My friend, Chelsea, a Black surfer from Santa Cruz, texted me, 'Are you watching the surf contest? You won't believe what Tyler is doing for us.' I am not kidding, I cried. I never thought I would see any top surfer be brave enough to take a stand."
With roughly 12 minutes remaining in her heat, Wright stops the timer, tucks her board under her arm and runs into the Pacific. As she stands, someone on the beach hoots in support. Another voice cheers, "Woohoo! Yeah, Ty!"
The backlash online is almost as instant.
"Absolutely disgusting," one person posts on Instagram.
"Who are her sponsors? They should drop her."
Many were surprised that Wright was the first pro surfer to break with the pack and thrust her fist into the sky. She wasn't always outspoken and bold. She spent her first six years on tour afraid to say much at all, a powerful surfer who wanted to be known for her bravery in the water and as a blank page on land. But after a childhood tamping down her emotions, a relationship that changed the way she saw herself and a mysterious illness that nearly ended her career, the 26-year-old returned to professional surfing in 2019 with a lot to say.
"Being out of the sport made me look at surfing with honest eyes," Wright says. "I realized if I'm coming back, I am going to show up with who I am as a human first. Surfing needs people who are going to get into boardrooms and have hard conversations. I'm asking for equality for women, equality for the LGBTQ+ community, equality for Black and brown and indigenous people. I honestly don't care about winning more world titles. But I know what gets me in the room."
IT'S 1999, AND young Wright is paddling into a wave at Culburra Beach, a popular surf spot two hours south of Sydney and a quick walk from her family's home. At 5, she's proud she no longer needs to be pushed into waves by her older siblings or dad. She takes off on a right, falls and is held under by one wave and then another. "I got smashed so many times," Wright remembers. She pops up, grabs a breath and disappears under the surf, where she loses awareness of her board until a fin strikes her in the head. "I got stitches in my forehead," Wright says, rubbing the spot with her fingers.
She is back in the water the next day, a black zigzag of surgical thread between her eyes. "She never cried," says her mom, Fiona. In the Wright household, toughness is currency, especially with dad, Rob, a passionate surfer who wraps everything in his life -- his schedule, his children -- around the sport. "We were raised to push through everything," says Wright's older sister, Kirby. "Even if you had a severe injury, it wasn't made to be a big deal. Get stitched up and let's go for a surf."
Nearly from the womb, all five Wright siblings are staples in the surf in front of their home and atop podiums around Australia. "When you're that young, it's not something you question," Wright says. "They competed, so I competed. One in, all in. It was all so insular. By the time I established my own thought processes, I was already on the world tour."
The conveyor belt picks Wright up, sweeps her onto a surfboard and never stops. She is sponsored at 8, pulling in a salary at 12. At 14, she becomes the youngest surfer ever to win a world tour event. That year, Rob moves the family 10 hours north, to Lennox Head, for his daughter's career. But Wright doesn't want to trade her teachers and friends for better waves. "Moving for your kid's surfing career," she says, "it puts a lot of pressure on the kid to succeed at a young age."
That pressure balloons when, at 16, she becomes the youngest surfer in history to qualify for the World Surf League championship tour, the big leagues of her sport, and signs a five-year sponsorship deal with Rip Curl. The previous season, her 21-year-old brother, Owen, won Rookie of the Year honors on the men's tour, but anticipation is even greater for his little sister. "There were a lot of expectations for her to be the world champion straight away," says former pro Jessi Miley-Dyer, World Surf League's senior vice president of tours and head of competition. But before anyone asks Wright what she wants, her parents withdraw her from school and she begins traveling with her father, who steps away from his plumbing company to act as her coach and manager. "It is a privileged position to travel the world as a professional athlete," Wright says. "Everyone was like, 'You're living the dream at 16.' I was like, 'Whose dream? I don't f---ing dream of this s---. I want to read books. I want to go to school.'"
Wright doesn't tell people how she feels. As the youngest surfer on tour, she doesn't see herself reflected in the older pros and feels insecure about her lack of education, so she keeps to herself. "I had so many thoughts at 16, but no language to articulate any of it," Wright says. "My environment on tour and at home was geared for me to not get educated, to not be vocal on any issues. Surfers are supposed to be smiling and grateful. I had no examples of women showing anger. But I was angry all the f---ing time."
At the stops the women's tour shares with the men, Wright listens as the guys rip apart the women's performances, question why they are permitted to surf the same breaks as the men and demean women rumored to be gay. "The women on tour never felt valued," Miley-Dyer says.
Wright internalizes it all. "Tyler didn't have much of a voice through those early years," Fiona says. "She really shut down. I could see it when she was home. She didn't talk much. She was in a fight within herself."
As Wright matures and her body changes, she feels sexualized and scrutinized by fans, sponsors and the sport's leaders. "I came up in the era where it was like, sex sells," Wright says. "We have to make the women's tour about sexy models who surf to make it marketable. The model pro surfer was someone who was silent, white, hot, blond, skinny and hetero." But women like Wright still have to surf "like a man" to earn respect in the water, says Masekela: "How you made it as a woman in pro surfing was for the male gaze to see you as man-esque in how you applied yourself. Surfing has had a hard time catching up when it comes to how it's dealt with women."
So, Wright perfects her fake smile and tries to be the model pro surfer. By 18, she is ready to walk away from it all, "a high-performance burnout," she says. She tells her father that to remain on tour, she needs a support system, not a manager. "I said, 'You got a choice. You're my dad or my manager,'" Wright says. "He said, 'I'm your manager.'"
The next season, 20-year-old Kirby becomes Wright's chaperone. Their parents divorce and Fiona moves back to the south coast, where Wright visits between contests. "What I needed as a human wasn't what my dad was willing to give," Wright says. "Kirby knew that I wasn't healthy emotionally, and she got me to start to share what I was feeling."
Throughout that 2015 season, Wright feels less emotional about her desire to quit the tour, but the pull is still there. She tells Fiona she plans to go back to school at the end of the year and explore her interests outside of surfing. But as she begins to open up, Wright feels her outlook change. "I won an event late that year, and there was a different tone to it," she says. "I was like, 'This is what it feels like to care.'" For the first time since she joined the tour in 2011, Wright wants more. She even gives herself permission to say it out loud: "I want to win a world title."
The next month, her life outside of surfing begins to unravel. Her uncle, Mark Morrison, a father figure to her and her siblings, dies suddenly. A month later, at the Billabong Pipeline Masters in Oahu, Owen suffers a traumatic brain injury during a warm-up surf. Then, in early 2016, Fiona is diagnosed with her second brain tumor in five years. "It was all so intense, I couldn't deal with any of it," Wright says. "I'd never been taught to deal with my emotions."
What she does know is how to surf. She hires a new coach, pushes everything to the side and focuses with an intensity she'd never tapped into before. She wins three of the first four contests of the year, the most dominant start to a season on the women's tour in recent history. At the Roxy Pro France that October, she wraps up her first world title wearing Owen's jersey number and dedicates her win to Uncle Mark. The next year, in 2017, Owen returns to the tour and she repeats as world champion, surfing the final three events in a knee brace with a badly torn MCL.
"I don't want to glorify any of it," Wright says now. "I wasn't competing in a healthy manner. People wanted the story to feel good. I wanted the story to feel good to make it worth it. But mentally, all of this scrambled me."
At the time, she doesn't realize what those world titles cost her emotionally. She believes she's finally settled into her place on the tour. "From a competitive sense, I was pretty confident I was ruling the game," she says. But then she meets someone. "And that changed a few f---ing things really f---ing quickly," she says.
WRIGHT IS BETWEEN contests in March 2018 when she spots a poster for a Central Coast music festival. She reroutes her travels and spends the night listening to some of her favorite local bands: Gang of Youths, Amy Shark and Alexandra Lynn, a singer-songwriter who performs under the name Alex the Astronaut. After the show, when a mutual friend introduces her to Lynn, Wright feels awkward and shy. "I asked her to take a photo with me," Wright says. "It's the first time I'd done that with anyone." Their romance is swift. "I brought Alex home to dinner the week I met her," Wright remembers, "and everyone was like, 'f--- yeah!' She literally showed up one day and didn't leave."
Although Lynn is the first woman she's dated, Wright says she knew for years she might be gay or bisexual. But she'd never had time to date, so she didn't have to confront the fear of how she'd be treated within the sport if she did come out. "I knew that would be a nightmare," Wright says, "so I just didn't deal with it."
Wright had been raised by surfing and had little interaction with people outside of her profession. She doesn't realize until she meets Lynn how her environment affected not only how she saw the world, but how she viewed herself. She and Lynn are inseparable after that first night on the Central Coast, but it takes Wright weeks to admit to herself she's been going on dates and falling in love. "I wouldn't have said that I was homophobic, but you realize really quickly the internalized homophobia you have," she says. "If you're not gay or part of the LGBTQ+ community, then you don't have to look at it. But you're being raised with all these drip-fed views. Meeting Alex, that's when the un-learning process began for me."
In Lynn's world, Wright feels welcome, even adored. Lynn is open about her sexuality, "a gay icon in Australia," Wright says, who encourages her to embrace her true self. Wright watches the way Lynn moves so honestly through the world, and she begins to see herself as a feminist and an athlete with the power to create change. Although the couple keep their relationship private, Lynn's fans often stop Wright in public to tell her they spotted one of her surfboards in the background of an Instagram post, and say, "We know! And we love it!" When Wright is in Lynn's world, she feels comfortable and safe.
To share her world with Lynn, she invites her to the Roxy Pro on Australia's Gold Coast, where Wright will begin defending her back-to-back world titles. She is so at ease in their relationship, she lets herself believe she'll feel that way at the event. But the first morning at the beach, when Lynn reaches out to take her hand and wish her luck, Wright feels her body tense with fear. Before she realizes what she's doing, she pulls her hand away, then looks around to check if anyone has seen. In that moment, Wright realizes she and Lynn reside in vastly different worlds. No openly gay woman has ever competed on the championship tour. When former pro Keala Kennelly, a top-10 staple in the early 2000s and the 2018 Big Wave world champion, came out at the start of her big wave career, most of her sponsors told her she was unmarketable and dropped her from their rosters.
"The general culture of the surfing community has been homophobic, racist and extremely sexist," Wright says, "and that's been the standard across the board." It pains her to witness the reaction on Lynn's face. "I told her, 'Oh no. You cannot show me affection here. You have to be a platonic friend,'" Wright says. "I didn't feel safe at all."
WHEN WRIGHT'S FLIGHT lands at Port Elizabeth International, South Africa, in early July 2018, she doesn't feel well. But she's looking forward to a three-day safari with Lynn and believes she has time to recover before the contest at Jeffreys Bay, so she doesn't mention how crummy she feels as she and Lynn rent a car and drive north.
When the couple checks in at their hotel, Wright can't get warm. Her bones ache. She feels shooting pains in her legs and begins slipping in and out of consciousness. Lynn drives Wright two hours south to a hospital in Port Elizabeth as Wright's symptoms worsen and she begins to hallucinate. She can barely stand when they arrive at the emergency room. Wright undergoes hours of tests and scans and is eventually diagnosed with influenza A, a sometimes life-threatening strain of the flu, given antibiotics and sent on her way. "They told me, 'Take these and you'll be fine in two weeks.'"
Wright pulls out of the contest. She doesn't know it yet, but she won't surf again for more than a year. Ten days later, her fever breaks and the couple flies home to Australia. "But I just didn't get better."
Day by day, Wright's world closes in around her. The woman known for her power and pain tolerance now struggles to lift her body out of bed. She loses weight, suffers severe memory lapses and delusions, forgets to eat, sleeps only a few hours each night and frequently passes out mid-conversation. "There were days when you put on a great face in front of her, then cried later because of how much it changed her," Kirby says. "She was so out of it. In her eyes, she just wasn't there."
Wright's doctors recommend 24-hour care, but at first, she tries to go it alone. Eventually, Lynn becomes Wright's round-the-clock caretaker. "I couldn't imagine being in her position, watching this woman who was super independent, and now she can't get out of bed or make her own breakfast," Wright says. "It was devastating. But she kept me alive."
On most days, Wright experiences excruciating, constant headaches that worsen with light or sound. The few conversations she has by phone or text, she won't remember. On and off throughout the day, her body feels like it has been lit on fire from the inside. When the pain becomes too much, she collapses onto the cool tile of the shower floor beneath a warm stream of water. Most nights around 2 a.m. -- if she was lucky enough to fall asleep -- she wakes in a panic, drenched in sweat and convinced she died in the night. "I would roll over, wake up Alex and ask her to make sure I wasn't dead," Wright says.
After months of countless doctor's appointments, a name is attached to Wright's illness: post-viral syndrome, a poorly understood condition similar to chronic fatigue. When Wright contracted the flu in July, her immune system ramped up and never returned to normal. Doctors don't understand why this happens, but in rare instances like Wright's, symptoms linger and sometimes worsen after the infection clears.
"Overnight, I lost everything, what made me Tyler Wright," she says. "I lost my personality, my physicality. I'm used to excruciating amounts of pain, but the physical pain got so bad that it would mentally break me. And it broke me every day. I didn't get a minute where I was unbroken."
FOR NEARLY A YEAR, Wright spends most of her time in bed, unaware what day it is and unable to do much for herself. A 15-minute conversation knocks her out for days. Surfing is so far from her mind, she doesn't think about the contests she's missing or the Olympic team she won't make. She starts to believe recovery will never come.
In June 2019, Dr. Brett Jarosz, a sports and exercise chiropractor with training in clinical neuroscience, gets in touch with Wright. He had treated post-viral patients and worked with Wright in the past, and flies to the south coast to meet with her. In her apartment, Dr. Jarosz asks Wright to stand up from lying down. Within seconds, her heart races dangerously and she experiences a headache, nausea and lightheadedness, a condition called postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome -- likely brought on by a year in bed. He asks her to stand with her feet together and her eyes closed. She immediately begins to sway. "To this date, it was the worst post-viral exam I have seen," he says.
Wright needs multiple tries to touch her finger to her nose with her eyes closed and becomes aggravated and belligerent. "She told me she wanted to punch me," Dr. Jarosz says. She is unable to focus on an object with her eyes or track Dr. Jarosz's index finger as he sweeps it from left to right. "Her autonomic nervous system, which controls the things we don't think about and delivers fuel and oxygen around the body, was not working efficiently," he says. "So, any activity she tries to do, she is going to fatigue." Dr. Jarosz also found that Wright's amygdala, a brain structure conditioned to monitor a person's environment for danger and respond to fear was working on hyperdrive, her brain essentially stuck in flight-or-fight mode, which likely contributed to her long-term sickness.
As Wright puts it now: "All the mentalities that made me a great athlete did not make me a great human. They made me 10 times sicker and my life 10 times harder when I was sick."
In her early therapy sessions, Wright sits upright for 20-minute stretches while Dr. Jarosz moves her limbs and passively works on her coordination. She progresses to standing for short periods while focusing her eyes on an object. After a few weeks, Dr. Jarosz monitors her heart rate while she does light aerobic activities like jogging on the treadmill and riding a stationary bike, and body weight exercises like squats. As Wright's recovery progresses and her eye control improves, she begins to read again. The first book she pulls off the shelf is "One Life" by U.S. women's soccer player Megan Rapinoe. She studies the women of the WNBA, reading anything she can find on Natasha Howard, Nneka Ogwumike and Sue Bird.
"These are the women who are raising me," Wright says. "They set the standard for me, and this is the standard I want to set for the next generation in my sport."
Wright also begins a limbic retraining program, which targets her negative fear triggers through exposure, mindfulness and visualization. For the first time in her life, in sessions with a therapist and other times with Dr. Jarosz, Lynn or members of her family, Wright allows her emotional trauma to flow: her past injuries, Owen's accident, her uncle's death, her mother's illness, her issues with her father, which are complicated by the fact that Rob has recently been diagnosed with early onset dementia. She also confronts the fears surrounding her illness. The work is ugly and grueling, not only physically, but emotionally.
Seven weeks after her initial exam with Dr. Jarosz, Wright glimpses a future she stopped believing was possible. As her family and girlfriend stand silently at the shoreline on Duranbah Beach in August 2019, she paddles the short distance to the lineup. Fourteen months since she last donned a wetsuit, the neoprene hangs loosely on her emaciated frame, nearly 40 pounds lighter than the last time she surfed. When the first wave approaches, Wright paddles with surprising power, pops to her feet, crouches low and cuts right. On the beach, the crowd cheers. Tears fill Fiona's eyes. Wright's smile is visible from shore.
"It was beautiful and emotional," Fiona says. "She ripped the bag out of those waves." Wright catches 10 waves that day, five rights and five lefts. She takes breaks in between, returns to the beach after every four waves to report to Dr. Jarosz and exhausts herself after a little more than an hour. "It was pure joy that she could get back in the water," Kirby says. "For so long, we thought she never would."
HER FIRST DAY in Maui, Wright is overwhelmed. Word of her arrival in November 2019, two years after she last competed here, has spread like wildfire around the island. When she disappeared from the tour in the middle of 2018, the rumor mill began to churn. No one really understood her illness, and her family and girlfriend couldn't provide the WSL or her sponsors answers about her future. When people found out that Wright had surfed at Duranbah in September, the assumption was that she was "fixed in seven weeks."
Now, back at the event where she wrapped up her second world title, nothing feels familiar to Wright. During her recovery, multiple doctors diagnosed her with PTSD. The flight, the hotel, the constant barrage of hugs -- it's all too much. She suffers flashbacks and panic attacks on the beach, in the water, at the airport. When she injures her leg during a free surf, the pain triggers an attack. In those moments, Wright can barely breathe, her brain unable to decipher between today and two years ago. "It's overwhelming, always being on the verge of panic," Wright says. "My life is literally trying to walk through a minefield and not jump at my own shadow."
The next day, Lynn arrives from Europe and finds Wright at the contest site. The couple has not made their relationship public, but this time, when Lynn reaches for Wright's hand, she takes it. She pulls Lynn close and together, they walk to the beach. Before she runs into the water to surf her first heat, she kisses Lynn on the lips, aware a WSL camera is filming. Looking back, Wright admits that she still didn't feel entirely safe, didn't believe the sport had changed in the two years she was sick. But she had. "I had enough language to express myself properly," she says. "Besides, I hadn't thought about surfing in such a long time, I just didn't give a s---." Before her illness, Wright had contorted her personality to fit surfing. Now, she is asking the sport to evolve and accept her.
She also feels supported by the tour's leadership, which had begun to address the inequities between the men's and women's tours. In 2018, five years after new ownership took control of the WSL, the league announced equal prize money at every level and the following year, expanded the combined stops on its championship tour so that the women surfed more of the locations on the men's tour. In the weeks before her return, Wright asked them to protect her from extra obligations and had conversations with Miley-Dyer about going public with her relationship with Lynn. "It was important to let her know we support her," Miley-Dyer says. "Tyler will be a leader for other women and men, and I want other people who are thinking of making the same decision to know we will also support them."
Wright contemplates what it would mean for young girls to see an out athlete surf a professional contest with a rainbow flag on her jersey and seeds the idea with the WSL. "When I was younger, I didn't understand why athletes come out publicly," Wright says. "I understand now that it's not about them. It's for the 14-year-olds."
Wright finishes second in Maui. On the podium, tears stream down her cheeks. "I feel very lucky and grateful to be here today," she says to the crowd and the cameras. "It was only a couple of months ago that I was still in a rough place and I would love to thank the people who got me here. My girlfriend, Alex. She's been there the entire time."
IN THE MONTHS after Maui, Wright is exhausted, underweight and nursing a leg injury, but she is unwilling to admit she needs a break. She continues training, suffers a concussion during a freesurf and commits to a warm-up event before the 2020 season. "I wasn't going to stop," Wright says. Watching her girlfriend fall into old patterns, Lynn fears for her, and for their future. "Alex watched me come so close to death for more than a year," Wright says. "Then she was watching me risk it all again. We were both so traumatized and we knew it would take us a long time to get healthy." They realize they need to separate. "It was one of the healthiest, saddest breakups ever," Wright says.
Within weeks, news of a fast-spreading virus dominates headlines around the world and everywhere she looks, Wright finds reminders of her illness. "My triggers were going nuts," she says. When the world shuts down because of the pandemic, Wright finds herself alone at home, with a lot of time to think. She realizes she wasn't ready to compete in Maui, probably isn't ready for a full year on tour. But she was so desperate to be the old Tyler Wright, she pushed too hard too soon. In Maui, she dropped into her old mentality, blocked out the pain and forced a smile. "When I came back and could surf well, people were drawing silver-lining conclusions," Wright says. "But it was messier than that. What happened to me destroyed what my life once was. I had to let go of who I was. And I liked her. She was a badass. But she wasn't healthy."
As more and more people get sick with COVID-19, Wright realizes she is no longer alone in her suffering. Thousands of people around the world begin reporting post-viral symptoms similar to hers. They start reaching out to her and Dr. Jarosz through social media asking for answers, begging for the "seven-week fix." Wright knows people are seeking connection, but she doesn't often engage because the details mirror her experience too closely and trigger her anxiety. "I won't lie," Wright says. "I will always be scared and overwhelmed by it all."
With time to slow down and process the past two years, Wright spends time on the couch in her home office, a small, sunlit space where she goes to think. "It was warm and inviting and could contain my thoughts," she says. She imagines the woman she wants to become and decides that when she returns to the tour, she will speak up about the ugliness she often witnessed and work to create a safe space for all surfers. "I was already asking for equality for LGBTQ+ women, and I understand in that conversation are Black women, trans women, indigenous women," Wright says. "We can't talk about sexism without talking about racism. They're not separate issues."
Then she watches a video of a U.S. police officer kneeling on the neck of a Black man for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, and her bubbling desire to speak up turns to rage. When George Floyd was killed, Wright says, "it was a collective world reckoning with one's own privilege when it comes to race." She begins reading books by Black women educators like Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, Ijeoma Oluo and Isabel Wilkerson. She connects with First Nations leaders and Aboriginal-run nonprofits in Australia and looks at her country, her sport and herself more honestly. She enrolls at New South Wales University, where she plans to finish her high school education and begin college classes next fall. "I understand that in this conversation, I am a white person and I have benefited from white supremacist structures," Wright says. "We have to start dismantling those structures."
When the first contest of 2020 is announced, she informs the WSL of her plan to spend the first seven minutes of her heat kneeling in support of Black Lives Matter. "She called me and said, 'I want to make a stand. What would the WSL do if I do it?'" Miley-Dyer says. "What she was really asking me was, 'Will I get into trouble?' I told her we were there to support her." Wright also informs her family. "She told me, 'Don't read anything, Mom," Fiona says. "She said, 'Turn off your social media. It will get heavy. I don't have any supporters on this one.'"
Wright wins the Tweed Coast Pro and uses her post-heat interviews to explain the significance of 439 seconds and speak about two Aboriginal-founded nonprofits. "No one expects me to be more than a world champion," Wright says. "It's up to me to expect more of myself."
WRIGHT EMERGES FROM deep inside a barrel at Honolua Bay, slaps the water with her right hand and stands tall as she sticks her tongue out toward the beach, convinced the ride is over. When she realizes the wave has more to give, she carves low and executes a beautiful series of turns to seal the first perfect 10 of the 2021 season in the quarterfinals of December's Maui Pro. This time, she's ready to declare that while she'll never be "fixed," she is very much back. "It was special to start the year off with a 10," she says. "After that wave, I was like, I'm ready to go. Everyone else: Time to show up."
The next morning, the contest is suspended after a local surfer is attacked by a shark and later dies from his injuries. A week later, the WSL announces the women will join the men, including Wright's younger brother Mikey, on the North Shore of Oahu and resume their contest at Pipeline, one of the most dangerous, revered and territorial waves in the world. Women had never surfed a championship tour event there.
Wright is well aware of the risks. Five years ago, her brother Owen almost died at Pipe. Not too long ago, she could have died. She feels strong for the first time in two years and decides to prioritize her physical and mental well-being. "I told my coach, 'If an opportunity presents itself and the odds aren't great, I'm not going to risk it,'" Wright says. "I'm trying to put my health first for the first time in my career."
On finals day, Wright sticks to her plan. Other women score Instagram-worthy barrels while she surfs conservatively and clean. She is able to pull herself back from the edge, control what she calls "the psycho in me," and bag enough waves to win her semifinal heat. Then, in a dramatic final against Oahu local and four-time world champion Carissa Moore, a favorite to win the contest, Wright scores a last-second ride and becomes the first woman to win a championship tour event at Pipeline.
When she steps atop the podium later that day, she closes her eyes and thinks about the women who came before her as she proudly displays the rainbow flag on her jersey. This Tyler Wright is nothing like that quiet girl who won a world title with a torn MCL, fearful of facing her family trauma or revealing her true self. As she hoists the Maui Pro trophy, she thinks about how far she has come, and how much she still wants to do.
Two days later, alone in her room at the Rip Curl house, Wright watches "Blue Crush," the 2002 film that imagined women surfing a contest at Pipeline nearly two decades before they actually did, and the enormity of the moment sinks in. "I cried," she says. "My generation, we never saw surfing Pipeline as a possibility, but now, there might be Pipeline specialists in the women's field one day." Wright also realizes a third world title, so unthinkable two years ago when she couldn't lift her body out of bed, is a real possibility. "I think it would feel very human to win another world title with this mindset," she says. "And the more I'm on the podium, the more I'm on your screens, the more important conversations I get to have."