‘Losses have made me hungrier’: the New Zealand surfer chasing Olympic gold at Teahupo’o

Saffi Vette’s favourite surfing memory takes place at a small break named after her great aunt – Dorrie’s Rock – which juts out into the sea, near her Gisborne home on the wild east cape of New Zealand’s North Island.

In the memory, Vette’s father, Andy, launches the then seven-year-old and her younger brother Finn – propped up on surfboards –onto the waves curling towards the beach, as her mum, Vanessa, surfs nearby. Her father jumps into the surf and films the children gliding through the water.

“I just remember how special that was,” Vette says, speaking from Australia’s Gold Coast, where the champion surfer is now based. “We’d be catching waves one after another.

It is amemory Vette holds close following the death of her beloved father in 2020.

Saffi Vette (second from left) with her mother, late father and younger brother Photograph: Supplied by Saffi Vette

In a couple of months’ time, the 22-year-old will be a long way from Dorrie’s Rock, where her love of surfing began. Instead, she will be on the world stage, riding Tahiti’s legendary surf break Teahupo’o, as one half of New Zealand’s Olympic Games surf team.

Vette, who recently secured a place on the coveted World Surf League Challenger Series, will become the second woman (after Ella Williams) to represent New Zealand in surfing at the Olympic Games. She will be joined by Olympian and eight-time national surf champion Billy Stairmand.

Vette was over the moon when she realised she had qualified, after her performance at the ISA World Surfing Games in El Salvador last year.

It was a “gnarly event” and she lost the first round. “I was so embarrassed – I thought I had blown it and I was never going to get to the Olympics,” Vette says. “But mum told me to stop feeling sorry for myself … and then I ended up getting the highest in New Zealand and then getting the Oceania spot – it was so surreal.”

“Self-belief is everything, I feel like I’ve deserved it and I’ve worked hard for it,” she says.

Vette credits much of that self-belief to her parents – particularly her late father, who was “a bit of a personality” and had “a pure love of the ocean” which he passed down to his children.

“He always said to me growing up ‘you’re a world champion and you’ve got to have a world-champion mindset’ – he ingrained that sense of confidence in me,” she says. “With surfing you lose more than you win and that encouragement was so important.”

It was inevitable Vette became a competitive surfer, she says. Her childhood was spent at “a shack at the beach” down a one-way road, surfing with her family and playing team sports.

Saffi Vette competes at the Surfest Newcastle in March Photograph: Darren Anderson

Sport, and particularly surfing, she came to realise, was an area in which she could thrive. School, on the other hand, was a battle.

“I went right through primary school, intermediate and three years into high school without knowing I was dyslexic,” she says. “I kept putting in 110%, coming home absolutely exhausted and my results kept showing that I wasn’t going to do well – it was a hard pill to swallow.”

When it became too much, she left school early and began home schooling – in part, to appease her parents. But soon, this too was derailed, when her father began experiencing stomach pain. A short time later he was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer and died a year and a half later, in September 2020.

“It still feels like a nightmare,” Vette says. “You think they are going to walk through the door again.”

Vette, still a teenager then, struggled to deal with her grief. “I got pretty angry towards the end … I just wanted to hide,” she says. But in the years since, she has started letting her guard down.

“You can’t hide too much emotion because there is going to be a point where you have a major breakdown.”

Vette is learning to weather setbacks – last year she was injured at the same Tahiti break she will compete at in the Olympics, and recently Billabong – her main sponsor – dropped its sponsorship due to economic headwinds.

“A lot of losses have definitely made me hungrier. I’ve had tough times and you don’t become a success overnight. I’ve cried a lot, I’ve been angry a lot, I’ve been happy a lot but those losses make the wins that much sweeter.”

Vette will bring that hunger with her to the July Games as she sets her sights on gold.

“If you had asked me six months ago if I was going to be OK [at the Olympics], I was having sleepless nights because I was so terrified – now I have a lot more confidence and if I get the best waves on the day I can definitely get a medal.”

The Guardian

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