© Yoshi Tanaka

I’m thrilled to have American pro surfer Nique Miller as today’s Lessons in Badassery interview. Nique resides in Waikiki, Hawaii (check out her Instagram handle for crystal clear turquoise ocean shots) and is self-taught in both longboarding and stand-up paddle surfing. She competes in both and reached a ranking of fifth in the world in stand-up paddle surfing in 2018.

To find out more about Nique’s surfing, I caught up with her via email where she shared details of her pro career so far, including the reality of choosing between entering a contest or paying rent, and the sponsorship challenges of being an Afro-Latina surfer. Nique also reveals her typical day in Waikiki and her aspirations to pave the way for minority surfers as she moves towards her first world title win.

You’re self-taught. What was your journey from newbie to pro like?
I went from a beginner to pro surfer through a lot of hard work. My journey definitely wasn’t easy and I’m still working very hard at it. I started out not really knowing what I was doing in the water. I first went out [surfing] after my friends invited me and told me it would be fun. The first time out was a disaster but fun. I went out for an hour and caught one wave that I stood on for about two seconds – after that, I was hooked. I wanted to go out every day and get better at it. I learned the most by watching other good surfers in the water. I would watch where they sat, what waves they caught and what they did on the wave. After about a few months, I started getting really good.

Within a year-and-a-half to two years, I decided to enter my first local contest after the encouragement of many people. I ended up placing second and I remember feeling so happy – like, wow, I really can do this. So I started competing in all the local events I could find for the next year. I did really well, usually placing within the top five, sometimes even winning.

I then entered my first World Tour event shortly after. However, I got creamed. I got knocked out the first round. It was really eye-opening. When I first entered, I thought that I was really good and was going to go far in the event, but I quickly saw that competing locally and competing against the best in the world is a totally different ball game. After that first world tour event, I was even more inspired and determined to get better. I ended up finishing 2018 ranked 5th in the world in stand-up paddle surfing, so I think I have come a long way from not knowing how to surf.

Did you experience any challenges in your journey to becoming pro?
I have had other struggles trying to compete internationally. The biggest one being funding and sponsorship. It’s very hard in the surf community for athletes of colour to get fair treatment and funding. For many contests, I’ve had to make the choice of whether I was going to be short rent and possibly get in big trouble from my landlord, or not enter a contest. It’s so frustrating knowing that you could be ranked higher or win contests but you don’t have the funding to go.

Travelling to surf is very expensive – you have to pay for the airfare, transportation, hotel, board bag fees, entry fee, and food expenses. Most of my contests outside of Hawaii cost between USD 1,000 and 3,000. This makes it so challenging to do more than 3-4 surf contests a year.

You compete in both longboard and stand-up paddle surfing. Can you explain what’s involved?
There is a huge difference between longboard and stand-up paddle. The biggest being that on a SUP you’re already starting standing up and you need a paddle. Also, SUP (at least, competition SUP) is more progressive, like shortboarding. It’s about doing radical moves and having a lot of power in your surfing. Longboarding is more about grace and style. I love both a lot but currently, longboarding is where it is at. There are more contests, sponsorship and recognition in longboarding at the moment.

What does a typical day in your life involve?
I live right in Waikiki, a block from the beach. My daily routine is to wake up around 7am, eat a little breakfast of a piece of fruit, cereal, or yoghurt. I then walk to the beach and surf until 11/12ish and then come home. I shower, eat lunch and take a nap until 4:30/5pm and then go back and surf for sunset.  If the waves suck, I normally only surf once and find something else to do, like make jewellery, watch TV, go hiking, or hang out with my boyfriend.  Currently, with coronavirus, I’m not working a normal job but have been doing a lot of social media brand work so it gives me a very flexible schedule.

How do you feel before your surf contests – do you get nervous or stay calm?
Honestly, I don’t remain very calm during surf contests. I am a nervous wreck. I chew my nails down to the skin. I get very jittery and sometimes nauseous. Apparently, according to my mom, my father (who has never really been in my life) was the same way when it came to competing in sports. I’m trying to work on being more relaxed in contests. I found that my nerves have played a huge role in me losing heats. The more contests I surf and different countries I go to, I’ve found that I’m getting more confident and each time a little less stressed… but it’s still a work in progress and something that I’ve been trying to focus on a lot.

Do you have a training schedule or do you approach each surf session as training in itself?
Yes, I think of each surf session as a training session. Some people just go out to have fun and socialise but I go out every time thinking each wave is a contest wave. I always try to surf each wave like it’s being scored by a judge. I don’t talk much in the line-up and I focus on catching as many waves as possible and doing high-level manoeuvres.  I do love surfing and enjoy every minute I’m out there, and I will talk to people, I’m just a little more serious than some if that makes sense.

You recently had a nasty leg injury after another surfer crashed into you. What happened?
The man who hit me was a beginner and had very little experience in the water. His board hit me and made a 7-inch gash that cut through muscle and hit my tendon causing a bad sprain. I also needed 25 stitches. For a few weeks, I required a brace and crutches. I was in a lot of pain for the first two weeks but slowly got better and better each day. I couldn’t surf for 7 weeks.

This is also why I always tell people who are interested in learning how to surf to take a lesson with an instructor. A surfboard can be very dangerous if it’s not used properly. A lesson is so important because it teaches you the proper way to stand up and paddle. It also teaches you safety and the etiquette of being in the ocean.

Are you fully recovered now?
I’ve been going to physical therapy and it’s been helping me out tremendously. I am now back surfing but just trying to regain my surf abilities. It’s hard going from sitting on a couch for two months to catching waves, but slowly I’m feeling like myself again. Luckily, with coronavirus, it has put a halt on all surf events, so I haven’t missed anything!

What are your future goals in surfing?
My dream for the future is to become a world champion. I want to pave the way for minority surfers. I am half-black, half-Mexican. I want kids that look like me to see that your dreams are valid and you can achieve anything you put your heart in… and it doesn’t matter how you look.

You can follow Nique via www.instagram.com/nique_miller and www.tiktok.com/nique_miller.