Stab Magazine | Straight Outta Santa Ana: Courtney Conlogue

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Straight Outta Santa Ana: Courtney Conlogue

Courts doesn’t apologise, she just wins. That’s why she’s world number one right now.

news // May 11, 2016
Words by Jed Smith
Reading Time: 7 minutes

“Obviously I’m fierce when I get in the water,” says Courtney Conlogue matter-of-factly. “I take what I do seriously.”

The world number one is sipping from a flat white in a Margaret River cafe. It’s one of her favourite things about Australia, the coffee. During the Quiksilver Pro on the Gold Coast (where she placed runner-up), Courtney surprised clientele at a local cafe when she got behind the machine and started turning beans. She pumped out sixty in total. She hopes to open an Australian-style cafe back in Santa Ana one day, but that day is a long way away. Right now, she wants a world title.

“My competitor next to me, they don’t like me in the heat because they think I’m fierce,” she continues. “It’s kinda like you see a Tiger and it’s all peaceful and you’re like, ‘oh, I wanna hug it.’ Then you get in their territory and it’s gonna pounce on you and take you down. It’s what I’m trying to do. I’m here to get a job done and win a world title.”

It hasn’t been an easy run for Courtney. Raised in Santa Ana, California, a town 30 minutes inland from the nearest beach, she is the first pro surfer ever from her area. By qualifying for the world tour she also became the first mainland American female surfer to make the tour since Karina Petroni (six years earlier). Her rise through the ranks took place at a time when the women’s tour was a barely-funded afterthought.

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“Obviously I’m fierce when I get in the water,” says Courtney. “I take what I do seriously.”

“The women before us really paved the way and had to take the rough end of the stick,” she says. “They didn’t have a lot of things in their favour for the time. The money wasn’t behind them but that’s just part of the sport evolving and they helped make it what it is today, and it’s better.”

Courtney was given her first board from her dad, a red and green Rawson “that looked like Christmas.” Santa Ana was roughly the same distance from Huntington and Newport as it was Trestles, so each weekend the Conlogues piled into the car and headed for the vastly better waves of Lowers. They would spend from dusk til dawn all weekend long at the wave and it didn’t take long for Courtney to turn heads. Mike Doheny (Andrew’s father) was the first to spot her talent. He suggested she enter a regional NSSA contest held in the State Park. There would be no girl’s division, however, so she’d be in the boy’s against Kolohe Andino, Luke Davis and Andrew Doheny, among others. The event took place in a bone-crunching shorebreak that broke the legs of two competitors. Courtney came third (she can’t remember which of the three big name boys she beat). She was 10 years old. A year later, Billabong came knocking and she’s still with them in 2016 (she will release the first ever women’s performance suit with them later this year). At the following year’s event she was forced into the under-18 girl’s division due to a lack of depth, but she didn’t mind. It was the quickest way to learn, not to mention the perfect preparation for the following year’s US Open.

“I enjoyed being dumped in the deep sea,” says Courtney. “I think that’s where you learn how to swim the fastest.”

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Courtney took her first win of 2016 at Bells. It certainly won’t be her last.

Competing at the US Open aged just 13, Courtney competed in and won a handful of heats against some of her heroes, like Steph Gilmore, Holly Beck, Chelsea Hedges and Claire Bevilacqua. The performance also earned her her first major coverage – in the OC Register – blowing her cover back in Santa Ana. “I was like, shit, now everyone knows!” she says. “I was a total nerd.” Courtney was an A+ student and track and field star at school. So good, she would later earn a scholarship to college for academics and athletics. She rates the lessons learned on the track as some of the most important in her life.

“When the going gets tough, right when you start thinking of letting up, that’s when you should push in,” she says. “As long as you see you’re going in the right direction, that’s when you commit. There’s all those funny little sayings for a reason – because when the going gets tough you gotta keep going.”

She was 18 when she qualified for the World Tour, but the gap between her and the last American on tour, Petroni, had made it a foreign and inhospitable place for mainlanders. “Dealing with figuring out how I belonged on tour and traveling three months in Australia all by myself, just my mum and I, trying to figure out how to win an event… it was crazy,” she says. “I had a lot to learn.”

Getting the right equipment was top of that list. Of the dozen boards she had at the start of the year, only three worked. Today’s flowing power game took a lot to reach. “I’m always evolving my surfing because I’m very artistic and always changing and adapting to who I want to be – something better, obviously,” Courtney says. “I’ve brought a lot of flow to my power. I came from surfing beachbreaks, so there’s a learning curve understanding how to transition seamlessly, coming against the Carissas and the Tylers and the Stephs.”

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Fins? Yeah, Courtney can loosen them. Not only that, but she also has one of the best air games in women’s surfing.

She won no events as a rookie (and not a single round one heat), yet still managed an eighth place finish by year’s end. The tough financial climate of the tour, however, had her questioning her future.

“At one stage I was like, I’m not figuring it out,” she says. “I was ready to go to College. There was no money in it, it was still the ASP. The women were just scratching to get from event to event. It was super expensive. I thought, I don’t know how long I can do this for.”

She hit a crossroads in New Zealand when a mystery throat infection landed her in the Emergency Room the night before the contest. The following morning before paddling out, she had two injections, plus a pep talk from her mum. “Mum said, ‘Just go out there and win it and then you can rest the whole time and you won’t have to do round two,” she recalls. “Just give it all you’ve got, don’t hold back.”

Courtney won her first round heat ever that morning. She spent the next 30 hours sleeping before powering to a quarterfinal finish. She won the next event at Dee Why, the Commonwealth Bank Beachley Classic, which had the biggest prize purse on the women’s tour that year.

“I found something, the light, where I was like, ok, I have something to work with here,” she recalls.

Fast forward to 2015 and Courtney is one heat away from winning a world title. Her opponent is Carissa Moore and the event is in the best Honolua Bay ever seen for a women’s World Tour event. A day before the final Courtney was run over by a freesurfer, leaving her bruised and a little rattled. It was the latest in a number of mishaps that year. The worst being tearing an oblique off the 12th rib, requiring her to drink kava for a good night’s sleep. But Courtney doesn’t complain.

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Could’ve been a barista. Instead, became world tour surfer. And, currently flying above the rest of the pack.

“Things happen and that’s life, and you just have things that play out,” she says. “You’ve just gotta embrace it and go along for the ride. It’s gonna get bumpy. Just hang on.”

It wasn’t her body that let her down in the final. A 10-minute lull closed out the heat, leaving Courtney needing an eight. She made it interesting with a wave on the buzzer, but it came up short. And she knew it before she took off. “That last wave, it wasn’t the score but I thought, hell, I’m gonna give it a shot,” she says.

World title runner-ups can leave a hangover that lasts a career. For Courtney it lasted “a couple of days,” not that it hurt any less.

“It sucks, obviously,” she says. “Everyone who wants something and gets so close but doesn’t get it, they’re gonna go back and be like, argh! and just wanna let it out.

“A world title is this dream you have for so long and you build up in your head what the experience is going to be, and when you don’t get it, it’s just like, you just have this big exhale and you think, geez, now I have to wait a whole other season to see if it all happens.”

She begins 2016 with two runner-ups (Gold Coast, Margaret River) and a win at all-time Bells heading into Brazil (an event she won last year). She might be fierce but there’s an altruism to it.

“I just wanna create a platform for women who want to be pro surfers,” she says. “I wanna make it nice for them, where they can reach for the stars and become world champs if they wanna be.”

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Courts grew up with Lowers as her weekend playground. Cali taught her to rip, but she learnt flowing power from thicker foreign juice.

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