© Morgan Maassen
Growing up on a remote island in French Polynesia, surfing was a fun, family pastime for Tahitian surfing champ Vahine Fierro. Despite not competing until the age of 14 (when she moved to Tahiti for high school), she quickly became one to watch, and within a year, had surfed Teahupo’o – widely considered one of the world’s heaviest and most dangerous waves. (Incidentally, also the location for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games surfing competitions).
At the age of 18, on a wildcard entry, Vahine was crowned Junior Pro World Champion. Then, at 19, she won Surfer Magazine’s Best Barrel (women) award. Now she has her sights set on achieving Rookie of the Year in 2022.
Once you’ve read our Q&A, check out filmmaker Morgan Maassen’s short film, Goddesses, below, which goes behind the scenes of Tahitian life for Vahine and her surfing sisters, Heimiti and Kohai.
Surfing is a Fierro family tradition. Can you share your first memories of surfing?
My family and I grew up surrounded by the ocean, so I was always in the water. I started by getting barrels on the boogie board with my dad. I wish we’d had a camera back then to take pictures because they would have been souvenirs to cherish forever. I remember counting how many more waves we could catch before we had to get out of the ocean. Then I started surfing, maybe around 6 years old. My dad would push me, and my mom would wait, standing up on dry reef to catch me. But I wasn’t hooked on surfing until my sisters came into this world!
You were just 15 when you first surfed Tahiti’s Teahupo’o, which is often described as one of the world’s most dangerous waves…
I moved to Tahiti on the main island for school, and that’s when I started surfing Teahupo’o. I mean, until 2019, when I was 19 years old, I could still count on one hand how many sessions I did there in a year. I didn’t like it; it wasn’t fun for me, and I was scared – so much apprehension. There’s not a lot of water, and I probably didn’t have the right boards for surfing there. So it was a slow-building relationship with that wave.
In 2019, I won the women’s Best Barrel award (Surfer magazine), and they were just about to announce the 2024 Olympic location, and that’s when I told myself, OK, from now on, I will never miss a swell over there. Now I’ve lost count of how many sessions I’ve had surfing Teahupo’o in the last two years. I’ve found so much joy to go out there and share it with friends, have goals out there, and work on boards with my shaper, Britt Merrick. Teahupo’o is probably the only place I have no thoughts going through my mind; I’m just there.
Do you ever feel fearful approaching a wave?
I always feel scared, even when it’s small, haha. When I catch myself being scared, it’s usually because I don’t trust my abilities, so I often remind myself what I’m capable of and try to apply that to the conditions in the water.
Training-wise, what does a typical week look like?
I often try to do six drill sessions per week, so goals in the water would be more focused on competitive instinct, pretending I’m in a heat competing, strategies under a certain time (20 minutes heat or 30 minutes or 15). Then the rest of my sessions would be more focused on my surfing, achieving a better approach on the wave, and progression in my surfing abilities. And I also love working out on the side – running, Pilates, yoga, workouts, and swimming apnée (freediving). It all depends on what kind of wave I’m training for.
Do you have any pre-competition rituals or a routine that helps you stay calm and focused ahead of competing?
I often remind myself that this is a real family thing; it isn’t the most important contest of your career. It’s more like, this is incredible, it’s exactly like home, and there’s so much love surrounding me. It’s just surfing. But I always feel that pressure – that I have to surf better than I have done before and be smarter. However, when I’m at the water’s edge, I just feel like, OK, whatever comes, comes. You have to not only accept imperfection but embrace imperfection. Because imperfection in that moment is what turns into magic in the next.
What does a day in your life currently look like?
Haha, if I told you what I’ve been up to the last three days, it would be packing, getting on a plane, then overnight in a hotel, then boarding another plane… lots of travelling. But I’m home right now for four days, and I’m here to regroup and get fresh energy and love from my family before my last contest of the year in Hawaii. It’s so important to learn how to take a step back and be gentle with your body. Even if you’re not a professional athlete, always listen to what your body needs.
If I were to describe a typical day, it would be: Wake up, write what’s on my mind for 5-10 minutes, drink a big cup of water, stretch/activation for 15 minutes. Then breakfast and go for my first surf. Then I’d come back or have a workout, or do something fun like hike or read, have lunch, take a rest, then go for a second surfing session until sunset. I never miss a sunset! Then come home. Depending on whether I worked out, I can do that or just finish off the day with some yoga. Then have dinner, read and bedtime. I’m an early bird!
In the six or so years you’ve been competing, has the visibility of women’s surfing improved in your experience?
So much! It’s so different. Women are getting equal pay, and they have the same contest location for men’s and women’s events. I will say that it’s not even comparable [to when I started].
Do you have any goals or plans for 2022?
To be on tour for 2022 and be in the final top five. Be Rookie of the Year on tour. And have a lot of fun.
What are your must-have items of kit for surfing, and who are you sponsored by right now?
Roxy for the cutest bathing suits and wetsuits! Air Tahiti Nui for flying me all around the world – they support their local athletes. Raimana Van Bastolaer for a big day of surfing; he’s always there to tow me in or rescue me on his jet ski! Channel Island Surfboard (Two Happy is currently my favourite model). Jeep Tahiti to ride around the island on land. Yamaha Tahiti to cruise around the island on the ocean. FDJ sports Dakine for the best surfing gear ever. And Futures Fins – I always make sure I have them to go as fast as I can on a wave.
You can follow Vahine’s surfing via her social media: www.instagram.com/vahinefierro.