In December, when we still had surf contests, Tyler Wright, who hadn’t competed in nearly two years, prepared to paddle out to face Lakey Peterson at the Maui Pro. Peterson was in the throes of an exhausting title chase with Carissa Moore and Caroline Marks and had every reason to be ready for the heat: still crown-less, it was her best shot of sealing the elusive title she’d been seeking her entire career. But there was something in the air that day. The steely-eyed competitiveness of Tyler Wright was about to be thrust back into a jersey, back into the maw (albeit a beautiful one given Honolua Bay’s unrivaled elegance). There was just something about Tyler, in uniform, ready to do her thing – a palpable feeling that the two-time world champ would be tough to beat. Lakey’s title race ended that day.
Despite her tough competitive edge, though, Tyler Wright is more sensitive than you might think. More apt to learning and growing and becoming a well-rounded human than that “steely-eyed” athleticism belies. And all that toughness in the water doesn’t necessarily transfer to land. For the past two years she’s fought a debilitating influenza that literally brought her to her knees. She couldn’t move, couldn’t walk. Could barely feed herself. She revealed all this and much more in a 60 Minutes piece that aired last week. The feature went deep into Tyler’s struggles and she opened up about her relationship with Australian musician Alex Lynn, who performs her catchy post-modern indie-folk as “Alex the Astronaut” (think a more uplifting Built to Spill or Death Cab). Lynn helped nurse the champ back to health. And while they’re no longer together, it’s a beautiful little story. So I tracked Tyler down to follow up. And it was good.
How’s quarantine life gone for you?
I’ve been pretty cruisy. I’ve been reading and doing things like that. It’s been super good for me, spending some good time at home reading books, doing some online courses, surfing. I took six weeks out as soon as the pandemic first showed up and continued rehab, got some work done on stuff you wouldn’t get done throughout a season.
And the delay in action? Are you ready to get going?
Look, I was ready to go and prepared for a very big ask of my body. The trauma of the last few years has been really intense. But I’ve been really well supported. Which means my team is really well prepped with what I’ll do to compete, the limits I’ll go to and where I won’t go. With that said, I’m as ready to do a full year as I’ve ever been. However, with these unforeseen circumstances, it has meant being at home and not having to push myself straight away. I’ve had no choice but to make the most of it. Physically, I’m healthier than I ever was. The trauma of it took a lot out of me and to throw yourself back in the deep end, this is very manageable. Healing trauma takes time.
You really looked good at Honolua Bay.
I think for me it’s important to clarify, surfing was never going to be my downfall. I’ve done it for 20 years. I’ve been a pro for 10 years now. Getting back in the water is something quite natural for me to do. Maui was a very stressful event, though. I hadn’t been competing for two years and it was the next step in my recovery. It involved a lot more behind the scenes than what everyone saw. Even at that event, a lot of the work we did went unseen to get the final product. What goes into that final product is theory and ideas and thinking, particular at Maui, the first event back is pretty extreme.
I was speaking with Glenn Hall a couple of weeks ago and he said you would have taken a break regardless of if you’d gotten sick or not. You just needed it.
For sure. I think that situation I was in, it was unfortunate because getting sick isn’t a break, it’s a bit more of a nightmare what happened. For two years I was out, when you’re young you don’t look at the cost of what our job entails. As you meet people you want to spend quality time with and priorities change as you get over a certain age. In 2017, I ripped up my knee, pushed through that, which came at a cost. I started the season and I was already behind, mentally, emotionally. Going back to back (titles) is a big ask on the body and I hadn’t taken the time that you need to reset, pre getting sick.
So in the 60 Minutes piece – which was really good, by the way – there was so much there we hadn’t seen from you. With the illness, and especially I guess with the relationship. Maybe we’re in a more modern era, but Keala Kennelly’s struggles with coming out have been well documented. You kind of came out in the piece.
I guess. Look it was never a thing, for me. I fell in love, I fell in love with Alex. It was so beautiful – like the first week we started dating she met my entire family. It’s like it is at the start with any relationship, you always kept them private. Alex and my relationship was obviously very important, especially through my illness. We were always very comfortable with it, it was never a thing to hide. It’s a sensitive subject. I’m a public figure, I suppose, but a private person. For me it was a very natural process. People are like, ‘oh you’re coming out.’ I was never in, it was just, a very natural process. That person I fell in love with was Alex. But for me, that’s where it did get confusing: how much do I share of my private, life? Obviously I understand that people want to know, same with the medical history. It’s always hard to know how much of this stuff to share. It’s very well documented that I disappeared for a year and half and it was a huge part of how I survived that. It was a very natural process, even Alex’s journey. Keala’s journey was very different. We all have different journeys.
Was there any trepidation or hesitancy at all with speaking about your sexuality publicly?
I think for me, I’m just a private person. I still consider myself very private and so much is public knowledge and a lot of it is still very private. But the fears were different. I started to see it differently because I hadn’t experienced anything like that as far as seeing discrimination. It’s 2020. I’m lucky. It’s not that those sorts of things don’t exist, they do, it’s very evident that they do. It’s something that everyone can be made more aware of and how to navigate it. Honestly it’s not that hard to read something (and educate yourself). Really, that’s with all kinds of discrimination. It happens because people lack the knowledge. To make yourself more aware and read and learn and evolve. That’s the kind of thing I would say helps end those sorts of things and why the learning process is really cool. For sure, I’m not gonna say I didn’t have fears. I want to try to keep a professional career that doesn’t cross over into my private life. I always try to be conscious and sensitive of my private life and the private lives of the people I’m close to.
I’d argue that surfing is way more in the public eye in Australia. Surfers are national heroes over there so the spotlight is so much more intense and you and your family are definitely under a microscope at times. Would it make sense to move somewhere in California where you might be a little more anonymous?
Yes and no. When you get into a community you’re lucky to be raised in, people just don’t comment on different things because they know you. They don’t care. That’s the really cool thing about community. People you are around, you’ve known them so long, the only thing they really want to know is if you’re happy. I think I like home because where I’ve lived generally has been pretty remote. It’s not big city life. Obviously, the Gold Coast, where I’m living now is definitely the center of surf culture but everyone kind of knows you. Where I have generally lived, though, it’s always been rather quiet.
For sure, that community you’re familiar with definitely helps you get through stuff like you’ve been through.
The people that you connected with, who support you, and your support network, that’s how we do our job (as surfers). It was not something I focused on before, but after my illness, definitely the people that showed up, those are the ones who helped me get through it. Those that didn’t show up were quite detrimental. The people that showed up and helped, that’s your support network, they’re gonna be there when you’re at rock bottom, physically, mentally scrambled. That’s why Alex is such a huge part of my story, and became a very public part. She showed up and she didn’t just show up lightly. She talked to the doctors, she researched everything, continued to try and find answers when we had none, she dealt with the night terrors. My sister and her husband, I’d call them, they showed up. That kind of support and that kind of community are the type that even when you travel around the world, you stay connected to.
So, just out of curiosity, why did you decide to do this story with a national outlet instead of an endemic surf publication?
No particular reason. My management is really good and they really understood my story and they’re also really conscious of my relationship with Alex and the fact that there hadn’t been anything really mentioned about it before. But the WSL was also really amazing and incredible through it all. The producer was a surf fan and I feel like he captured the essence of it. Quite frankly, I didn’t want to tell this story of how scrambled I was. I didn’t want to say anything or have people have insight into my life. I didn’t want people to have insight into my medical history. But the story won’t go away just because I didn’t want to tell it. People are going to ask to tell it. If it’s told in 90 percent or 80 percent of its form, of what happened, then I don’t have to sit here and repeat myself. I guess there wasn’t a real reason why, the producer was just really good with 60 Minutes.
In the past, when you came up in a heat, most of us in the media felt like there was a competitive essence you carried where you had a chance to beat anyone you faced, even if you weren’t surfing your best. Are you going to be able to recapture that competitive fire?
I guess for me, it’s different now, that’s after ten years of it. The last few years and how they’ve worked out, it definitely changes your priority and how you do things. I don’t want to recapture the way I used to do things. I want to evolve it, being so far away from the sport you start seeing different perspectives and I’d like to incorporate that when I come back to competing. With surfing realistically, I have another max ten years if I’m doing it efficiently and doing it smart and being super body-mind conscious. If I am that means I could stay in this sport a little bit longer but I’m also trying to evolve the way I compete, when it comes to competing, yes there might be a difference in how I used to do things when the tour restarts. That’s why I’m really lucky I get to work Glenn. He doesn’t ask me to want to win, just to show up to do my job and my job is to win. We have a really good working relationship and he understand where I’ve been the last few years and how I want to compete, and the kind of mind frame I need to be in. I’m lucky to have a really good team around me. I think it’s important to learn and grow and expand and I have in the last two years. (My story) shows how quick anyone’s life can change. Maybe what I prioritize in life has changed: I’m 26 and I know this isn’t gonna last forever. I’m not going to be a professional surfer forever. That’s the reality. I love my job. It’s a really good job and allows me to have a lot of space and creative freedom to explore other areas of my life.