• Justin Duyao

Tyler Wright, Up Close and Personal

Updated: Apr 11

Beneath a striking portrait of the consecutive WSL Women’s World Champion surfer, Tyler Wright begins her Instagram caption, writing, “I consciously say no to most interviews that want to explore my last few years. My story is my story, which I rarely share.”


Her dark brown hair is pulled tightly behind her head. She looks into the lens with a powerful, resolute gaze, her hands tucked into the zipper of her Rip Curl jacket. She embodies boldness, grit and grace, all at once.


Photo by Isabella Moore for ESPN.


Wright has been through a lot, in her surfing career. Between facing intense sexism, when she entered the pro surfing world at a young age; a grueling, two-year battle with post-viral syndrome, just as she was budding in her career; and the complexities of coming out, in a male-dominated culture, firmly rooted in homophobia — she’s had to endure plenty more than most world-renowned athletes her age.


“I entered this sport at 14,” she said, in her post. “At 24, I left via illness, and at 26, I am asking it to evolve.”


For somebody who has single handedly shaken the surfing world’s propensity toward sexism, heteronormativity, ableism and racism — Tyler Wright was due a proper, full length interview. Her story is exactly the kind that has the potential to catalyze real change.


“Aly, thank you for helping me share my story, which will hopefully make surfing a better space where I and many others can be exactly who they are," Wright gushes about her in-depth and moving feature story with ESPN.


If I had to venture a guess, it absolutely will.


A Force for Change


Senior writer for ESPN Alyssa Roenigk kicked off her interview with the Australian native by recounting the moment when Wright took at knee at the Tweed Coast Pro event, last summer, raising her fist for 439 seconds: one for each of the 439 First Nations people killed in police custody in Australia since 1991.


On an image of the event, on the bottom of Wright’s board, the words “BLACK LIVES MATTER” are etched in black ink.


The model pro surfer was someone who was silent, white, hot, blond, skinny and hetero.

“Absolutely disgusting,” one person posted on Instagram.


“Who are her sponsors? They should drop her,” writes another.


Little did they know, Wright wasn’t some throwaway athlete. She was, and is, a force to be reckoned with.


Photo by Isabella Moore for ESPN.


A Girl Full of Gumption


In reference to a forehead injury Wright sustained while surfing at age five, Wright’s older sister told Roenigk, “We were raised to push through everything. Even if you had a severe injury. … Get stitched up and let’s go for a surf.”


By the age of eight, Wright landed her first sponsor. By age 14, she had become the youngest surfer ever to win a world tour event — and, two years later, the youngest in history to qualify for the World Surf League (WSL) championship tour. Yet, even in all her success, the world was set against her from the very beginning.


“I want to win a world title,” she said. “This is what it feels like to care.”

Roenigk wrote that Wright listened to “the guys rip apart the women’s performances, question why they are permitted to surf the same breaks as the men and demean women rumored to be gay.”


Wright took all of this in stride, but it weighed on her heavily.


“I had so many thoughts at 16, but no language to articulate any of it,” Wright said. “We have to make the women’s tour about sexy models who surf to make it marketable. The model pro surfer was someone who was silent, white, hot, blond, skinny and hetero.”


She was a competitive grom, taking home armfulls of wins by the time she turned 18. And yet, around that time, she tells Roenigk she was ready to walk away from it all.


"A high-performance burnout,” she calls it.


Selema Masekela, longtime sports broadcaster and one of the most high-profile Black men in surfing, tells Roenigk, “How you made it as a woman in pro surfing was for the male gaze to see you as man-esque in how you applied yourself. Surfing has had a hard time catching up, when it comes to how it’s dealt with women.”


This is exactly the kind of culture Wright is asking to evolve, today. It’s also the same one that made her want to quit, just a couple years into her pro tour.


“You’re being raised with all these drip-fed views. Meeting Alex, that’s when the unlearning process began for me.”

But in 2015, she buried her head and decided to commit herself to the sport.

“I want to win a world title,” she said. “This is what it feels like to care.”


Photo courtesy Brook Mitchell/Getty Images.


Challenges Compound


The more she dug in, however, the more threads in her life begin to fray.


In 2015, her uncle, Mark Morrison, died suddenly; her brother Owen, also a massively successful pro surfer for his age, suffered a traumatic brain injury during a warm-up surf; and, in early 2016, her mother was diagnosed with her second brain tumor in five years.


“It was all so intense,” Wright told Roenigk. “I couldn’t deal with any of it.”


To complicate matters further, in 2018, Wright met the woman who would become her first girlfriend, Alex Lynn, at a Central Coast music festival.


“The more I’m on the podium, the more I’m on your screens,” Wright said, “the more important conversations I get to have.”

“She doesn’t realize until she meets Lynn how her environment affected not only how she saw the world,” writes Roenigk, "but how she viewed herself.”


At this point, all her frustration with the surfing community came to a head. Wright explained that, even though she had wondered whether or not she might be gay for years, because she spent her whole life in the surfing world, she had still internalized a measure of homophobia.


“The general culture of the surfing community has been homophobic, racist and extremely sexist,” Wright said. “You’re being raised with all these drip-fed views. Meeting Alex, that’s when the unlearning process began for me.”


When The Body Fights Back


That same year, Wright became extremely sick and learned, soon after, that she had contracted post-viral syndrome, a poorly understood condition similar to chronic fatigue that forced her to drop out of a contest in South Africa. Throughout the following year, Wright spent most of her time in bed.


Come mid-2019, Wright began working with sports and exercise chiropractor Dr. Brett Jarosz to begin her process of recovery. After seven weeks of grueling therapy, in August of 2019, she paddles out to her first wave in over a year, “pops to her feet, crouches low and cuts right.”


“It was beautiful and emotional,” Wright’s mother said. “She ripped the back out of those waves.”


Photo courtesy of Ed Sloane/WSL/Getty Images.


A Bright Future


She was finally back in the game — but this wouldn’t be the last obstacle for her to overcome. When Wright arrives in Maui in November of the same year, officially re-entering in the surfing world, she also made the decision to make her and Lynn’s relationship public.


"I understand now … it’s for the 14-year-olds"

“When Lynn reaches for Wright’s hand, she takes it,” Roenigk writes. “She pulls Lynn closer and together, they walk to the beach.”


Finally, Wright explains that she had enough language to express herself in the way she had always wanted to.


“Before her illness, Wright had contorted her personality to fit surfing,” Roenigk continues. “Now, she is asking the sport to evolve and accept her.”


Wright would finish second in Maui, an incredible feat, considering she had been bed-ridden only months before.


“When I was younger, I didn’t understand why athletes come out publicly,” Wright said, contemplating what it would mean for young girls to see an out athlete surf a professional contest with a rainbow flag on her jersey. I understand now … it’s for the 14-year-olds.”


Where To Go From Here


In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which erupted into the world right after Wright got back on her feet, she spoke about the opportunity for change that this worldwide slowdown created.


“I was already asking for equality for LGBTQ+ women, and I understand in that conversation are Black women, trans women, indigenous women,” Wright said. “We can’t talk about sexism without talking about racism. They’re not separate issues.”


In the 2021 quarterfinals of December’s Maui Pro, Wright scored the contest’s first perfect 10, slapping the wave with her right hand and sticking out her tongue on the way out. Not only is she back, she’s better than ever.


“We can’t talk about sexism without talking about racism. They’re not separate issues.”

A week later, the WSL announced that the women will be joining the men on the North Shore of Oahu, for the remainder of the contest at Pipeline, “one of the most dangerous, revered and territorial waves in the world,” writes Roenijk. “Women had never surfed a championship tour there.”


With every wave she catches, every perfect 10 she scores, every trophy she takes home, she champions that fierce, illimitable spirit with which she's tackled every obstacle in her life.


She’s forging a new path forward, for younger girls watching her drop into and soar out of record-breaking barrels, for athletes of every stripe who haven’t even considered coming out yet, for folks from oppressed and marginalized communities — she’s breaking down barriers for everyone.


“The more I’m on the podium, the more I’m on your screens,” Wright said, “the more important conversations I get to have.”

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