Since she was a child, junior world champion surfer Ella Williams wanted everyone to know her name. How, she wasn’t sure. She tried singing, acting and dancing – and admittedly wasn’t great at any of them, but Ella (18) knew she was destined for fame.
So, at eight years old, when her friends still wanted to be princesses when they grew up, Ella told anyone who’d listen that she would be a champion surfer one day.
“A lot of people thought I was silly to dream so big, but look at me now,” she tells the Weekly, just days after winning the Women’s World Junior Surf Championship in Brazil.
Ella is now the fourth best female surfer in the world – and has returned home to the Coromandel town of Whangamata a hero.
Strangers say hi and tell her how proud they are, shops in the beach town are plastered with “Go Ella!” signs, and hundreds of people turned out for a parade down Port Road, the town’s main street, the day she returned home.
It’s not bad for the youngKiwi who wasn’t even supposed to be at the competition in the first place.
“I was next in the rankings to go, and one of the Australasian surfers, Ellie-Jean Coffey, pulled out because she was injured,” she says. “I had a week-and-a-half to prepare. So when I won, people were shocked.”
But winning the world junior title has long been in the making for Ella, who comes from a surfing-mad family. Her parents, Dean (52) and Janine (48), own the Whangamata Surf Shop where Ella works, along with brother Braedon (22).
“Ella’s been surfing since she was four,” says Dean. “I used to tuck her inside my wetsuit and paddle out to catch waves.
“She’d sit on the front of the board, then start trying to pull herself up. She would grab onto my hair and hold on. Since then, she’s been unstoppable.”
Entering her first competition aged just six, Ella quickly made her way up the national rankings, until she qualified for the International Surfing Association world junior team three years ago.
However, keeping up with her education proved a bit more of a challenge.
“I’m not a thinker,” she says with a laugh. “I wasn’t very good at school, I’d just want to surf. I would try to come up with any excuse I could to get out onto the water.”
“It was hard to maintain a balance,” says mum Janine. “We’ve had a deal – she had to get her Level 2 NCEA qualification. No matter what, she had to pass that. The end of last year was quite difficult for her to get the last four credits, but she worked really hard and passed.”
Ella has also found it difficult to be a “normal” teenage girl.
Keeping friends at Whangamata Area School was nearly impossible, as she would travel overseas almost monthly for competitions.
“There were moments when it upset me, but I wanted to be different to all of them,” she says. “I wanted to be a professional surfer, so surfing had to come first.”
Bubbly, humble and with amazing self-confidence, Ella’s not afraid to be herself – a quality she believes is the secret to her success.
“I’m a pretty strong person,” she says. “I’m happy with who I am. There is a definite image of what a surfer should be, and there’s pressure to look good. But I’m not going to change anything to make someone else feel okay.”
It was 99% mental strength, she says, that spurred her on as she lined up for the final of the World Junior Championships, competing against Tatiana Weston-Webb from Hawaii.
“If you are in a positive head space, then you’re good,“ Ella says. “About halfway through the final, I had this moment when they read out everyone else’s scores and they were quite low. I thought, ‘Man, I could actually win this.’ So, I put my head down and got to work. I caught two really good waves, the hooter went, and my name was called out as the winner.
“It was the most incredible feeling. I was numb.”
Ella’s quick to add that she couldn’t have achieved such success without a special support network – especially Janine, who travelled to Brazil with her.
“Everything my family does is a team effort,” says Ella. “We work, live and surf together. I know a lot of other people don’t get time like that, so what we have is pretty special.”
“Watching her was nerve-racking,” adds Janine.
“We’re all surfers, so we understand the risks. I do panic occasionally, though. I once saw this photo of Ella. She’d gone up to Hahei and you can just see her about to duck-dive a 20-foot wave. If I was on the beach, I think I would have been sick.”
Despite Ella’s new status as a junior world champion, she’s determined to stay grounded and focused.
“I’ve got a long way to go in my career,” she says. ”And I still need time to chill out and listen to Katy Perry, be a girly girl and watch Keeping up with the Kardashians – I love them!
“But I’m excited. I want more world championship titles – that’s why we do it. And it’s only upwards from here.”
About Kelly Bertrand
“I started at the Weekly after a two-week internship in 2011, which was part of my journalism studies. Basically, I hung around and annoyed people long enough to land a job as a staff writer, and I’ve been here ever since. I’m lucky enough to get to write stories ranging from the Kardashians through to the Queen, but my real passion is telling the stories of New Zealand’s sporting stars. Sometimes I can’t quite believe it’s my job to hang out with All Blacks and Silver Ferns! I absolutely love working at the Weekly, and feel really privileged to be part of this 83-year-old Kiwi institution. I’m also fond of Instagram, coffee and animals dressed as humans!”more of this author