CAPBRETON, France (Tuesday, October 15, 2013) – The completion of the recent EDP Cascais Pro, final event on the 2013 ASP Women’s World Championship Tour, decided next year’s elite Top 17. European Women and Junior Champion Johanne Defay (FRA) 19, will join the World’s Best Women surfers on tour alongside France’s Pauline Ado.
We just caught up with an ecstatic Defay, in-between training sessions and preparations for what will be her first year amongst the very best. Defay, who went on a tear in 2013 to win five out of seven European Pro Juniors, gives us her impressions, insights and fears just a few months before taking it to the big leagues. An in-depth look into her youth growing up on Reunion Island, and the path she followed to get there today, here is her story.
ASP Europe: When and how did you get into surfing?
Johanne Defay: I was born in Auvergne (in the south of France), but my parents moved to Reunion Island when I was only 10 months old so I grew up there. My dad surfed but I wasn’t so much into it. I did gymnastics and at some point it wasn’t fun anymore so I changed and tried surfing. I started at 8 years old in Etang Salé’s surf club, I then moved to another club who had a different approach, more towards performance in St-Leu and finally I got into the training camp of the island.
ASP: So you managed to go to school and start your career from there?
JD: Yes, I stayed in Reunion Island up until my last year of highschool where I came to France. I didn’t spend much time here though, I was always away for an event, and when I eventually came back in winter I couldn’t handle the cold and went back home to Reunion to prepare my exams on my own.
ASP: When did you actually start competing?
JD: I first was sponsored by Roxy at age 12, I used to only do local contests. Then I came to France for a Roxy Chicken Jam and it all started from there. Roxy Europe sent me to training camps in Australia and I started the events.
ASP: And on the ASP European Tour?
JD: I think the next year. Back then we weren’t talking about a career, I was just having fun with my friends. When I turned 14 I went to celebrate my birthday in Hawaii with Roxy and it all continued, trips in Australia, events in Europe and winters in Hawaii.
My very first season I think I made a final in Lacanau and got fourth. The next I made a couple finals, and my third year I won my first European Junior title.
ASP: Who did you look up to back then?
JD: I remember two events in Portugal, in Amado and Ericeira, and I think it was Alizé Arnaud, Lee-Ann Curren, Pauline Ado and Justine Dupont battling it out for the title. There were other girls too in the mix. Then I got selected to surf with the French national team, when I was 15 and we went to Ecuador where I got a 13th.
ASP: How do you rate amateur versus professional events?
JD: It’s so good to be selected to represent your country, plus it’s international competitions that we couldn’t reach otherwise at that age. You can’t really compare the amateur and professional circuit, but I think both are great and it’s different experiences that you can grow from.
ASP: Did that first European Title change anything for you?
JD: Well it allowed me to go to the World Juniors in Narrabeen. That was huge cause I had spent the last three years going there just to watch the event, and I finished third! Plus I really didn’t expect to win the title, I remember sitting at a table one night with our former team manager Anne Mollet, I had had a few good results and she told me “well, now it’s time to win that thing!” That was the first time somebody gave me a very concrete goal to attain. The only thing is that I didn’t win an event that year and I won the overall title with consistency. That makes this 2013 run even better, cause I’ve won several events on the way.
So then I started doing the Star events in Europe around 16 or 17. My first season was great, I think I had a good dose of beginner’s luck, but also I didn’t have any sort of pressure going into heats and was very relaxed. I think I finished 18th.
The next year was terrible, I was juggling with studies, ISA world games, the Junior tour and Star events, I just couldn’t handle it all at once.
ASP: In the end you put more efforts and work into school that year and got your exams. Do you see yourself going back to studying at some point?
JD: For sure, I love everything about fashion and art, I even entered a class last year, but unfortunately couldn’t really do it due to a busy schedule. But anyway, there are many things I’m interested in, even medicine and physio work, or psychology. You never know what will happen, so if opportunities come I might just get back to school yes.
ASP: Back to surfing, in a recent interview you told us the WCT wasn’t even a goal of yours, how did you manage to pull that off?
JD: Honestly I have no idea.
Mid-October last year, Roxy announced that they wouldn’t re-sign my contract, just days before the World Juniors and that was hard for me. I ended up getting a 7th and I was really unhappy.
I knew my friend Amandine Sanchez wanted to start her career as a coach and I called her to discuss my options. I really didn’t want to stop then, but rather at least giving it a go with a proper preparation before hand so I wouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t get the results I expected. So we started working together in Anglet, every two days I went to train with her.
Then I moved back home to Reunion Island where I started training with a triathlete, that was super hard: 2x 1hr running every day, plus 2hrs cycling and about 3km swimming. I was great for me to do something so different, and to do it there on our little rock where people seem to forget about us, Reunion Island is very quiet. I also spent a lot of time with my family.
This year started in China for me, then Australia where I didn’t have such great results but there were some positive aspects, I remember winning a heat against Lakey Peterson and being very happy with my performance.
I went back to Reunion to continue my training, this time with Joel Hauss (father of David Hauss, triathlete who placed 4th in the London Olympics) and Nicolas Conradie who surfs, and both accepted to work with me on physical and mental strength as well as technical aspects of my surfing.
After that I spent a little time in South-Africa with Bianca Buitendag, and I arrived in France early June to prepare for the European season. When I got here it was so cold and I was by myself for the first time in months, I couldn’t handle it and went back to Reunion for a couple more weeks.
When the season eventually kicked off in France, I started with a 4th in a French Cup, and I received an email from my coach Joel. I explained to him what went wrong and how I behaved in the event, his answer was pretty harsh. He said something along the lines of “Your attitude is not professional, don’t be surprised by the result. All your preparation is made to avoid such disappointments, you used your joker now it’s over.”
I actually printed the email and put it in my notebook, every night before our first Pro Junior I read it. This was exactly what I needed to hear, it made me realize how serious I needed to be. So from then on, I started traveling only with my mom and concentrated solely on my job. I won the first event in Royan and I really appreciated the rewards of sticking to your game-plan and having it pay off.
All summer I continued like that, we had events almost every weekend. Then on Mondays I’d go to work as a waitress in a restaurant some friends of ours from Reunion opened in Soustons. It’s insane but I needed to work too, you don’t realize how incredible this life as a pro surfer is until you actually try something else, even though it was only a couple days a week, it made me realize how lucky I am to live that life.
That season went great, I decided not to go to California cause my goal was clearly the Junior title and make a couple good results in the European Star events, to boost my confidence and also show the girls I was coming strong the following year, build some sort of credibility before doing a full campaign.
ASP: In the Swatch event you surfed both junior and open divisions, how did you managed to stay strong surfing that much?
JD: It didn’t seem that much harder honestly, apart from the final day when I had to surf all those heats one after another. It was just an intense five days. I don’t think I have more pressure surfing in France either, especially cause there was my family here with me and it felt great.
ASP: With that final in the 6 Star, people started talking about possibilities, didn’t it get into your head a little?
JD: People started talking yes, but I didn’t know what to answer. I know it’s a little weird, but my main focus this year was just to make heats, I didn’t think of the bigger picture at all. I went home every night during an event and felt like “I won my heat, I did my job” and I was really satisfied, it’s the first time I felt this way.
ASP: Then Pantin and the final CT event, and finally it’s official, you’re in the Top 17 for 2014. How do you take it all in?
JD: I haven’t had too much time to think about it all yet, it’s all still very recent. I’ve talked to my coaches and apparently they’re already working on something for me, which is great cause personally I feel like I can’t think straight since I’ve heard the news.
I want to go to South Africa soon and try to talk with Bianca and Pauline, maybe try to travel with them next year. I have so many questions for them, I know I need to stay in the same mindset, but it will probably be a lot harder. There will be new people, new sites, more media, I don’t know how I’ll handle all that.
There’s so much I need to do in the coming weeks, surf trips, training camps and events. It will all become very real in February when Snapper approaches. I’ll try to get there early to try and acclimate.
ASP: Obviously you’ve seen the Top 17 perform, like in the Roxy Pro here in Hossegor a couple weeks ago, what do you think?
JD: I watched a full day of competition, and watched all the replays from the previous day online, those girls just ripped so hard it was incredible, they’re all machines.
ASP: Who will you look up to? Who do you think can influence the most the direction your surfing will be taking?
JD: I watch Carissa Moore and Steph Gilmore the most, may as well learn from the best! I know one of my strong attributes is my power and those two girls are the masters. But I know I also have some trouble with barrel riding and progressive maneuvers so there’s a lot of work to be done there.
Malia Manuel and Lakey Peterson have a different surf, maybe it doesn’t suit every sort of conditions but I love to watch them surf too. Sally Fitzgibbons, Tyler Wright and Courtney Conlogue are so fit, it’s inspiring too. I think there’s so much I can learn from every single one of them, take Pauline for example too: she’s a machine, she really impresses me. Anywhere she goes, she’s right at home and she doesn’t care who she’s surfing against, she’s going to give it 200 percent.
I have a lot to learn, I’m going to find my routines, some combinations of maneuvers that can help out if I’m really in trouble in a heat etc.
ASP: Do you know the waves on tour well?
JD: Not so much no, apart from Snapper maybe. There are many difficult waves on tour, Bells for example is a tough spot to figure out. But there will be a few other rookies with me next year, so I won’t be the only one in trouble aha.
ASP: Did the qualification finally opened you doors for sponsorships?
JD: Unfortunately no, not yet. I have people trying to help me find a main sponsor, but nothing so far. I’m supper happy to have Smith Optics helping me out next year, and I hope we can find other opportunities.
Boards wise, it’s going to be a little complicated too. I’m going to need a proper quiver cause there are so many different waves on tour. I don’t have a dedicated shaper, so I guess I’ll try and work with local shapers all over the place, where the events are cause they have the local knowledge and know what works or not in those waves.
ASP: Well excellent, thank you very much for your time Johanne, and we wish you the best of luck next year in your WCT campaign! Anything else?
JD: I just want to say a HUGE thanks to my family and friends who have been supporting me unconditionally, and also all the different trainers I worked with in the past. I think they all contributed to make me reach the level I have today and I’m super thankful, I couldn’t have done it without them.