Thought conquering one of the largest waves in the world would be enough to tick off your annual bucket list? Think again. This year has seen 22-year-old Felicity Palmateer – the pro surfer who swept onto the scene with a win over world champion Stephanie Gilmore in 2013 – make history riding the colossal swells at Cow Bombie, Western Australia, taking her debut art exhibition across Australia and promoting World Ocean Day with a hand-painted mural on Sydney’s Bondi Beach.
Selected as Australia’s ambassador for global Venus campaign, ‘Use Your And’, Felicity has joined the likes of Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani, TV presenter Emma Willis and supermodel Patricia Velasquez in inspiring women to kick one-dimensional labels to the curb and embrace their every talent – so we turn the tide and grill this surfer-slash-artist-slash-marine conservationist on her many ‘ands’.
In July you rode waves considered to be the largest ever surfed by an Aussie female. What was going through your head at the time?
I’m used to surfing bigger waves because I’m from Western Australia, but nothing compared to that day. This wave in particular, it’s not one that just breaks close to shore – you take a jet ski to get out there and it’s three kilometres out to sea. When we first pulled up to the break a wave came through and it was the loudest thing I’ve ever heard. It sounded like a bomb going off – I couldn’t believe it! I was scared at the start, but once I caught a few waves out there adrenaline just started going through my body, and I wanted to get another one, and another one. But there definitely wasn’t one point where I was really feeling totally comfortable with that situation!
Do you have methods for dealing with challenges like this?
I’ve been doing some breath training up on the Gold Coast where I live, and I use a few little techniques to try and calm myself down. I tell myself, ‘What’s the worst thing that could happen?’ I mean, you could die, but… it is just water. And you’re not just out there by yourself. There’s other people out there that will come and get you if you have a wipe out. It’s very controlled – or as controlled as it can be.
Just prior to this epic achievement, your role as ocean ambassador for the Marine Stewardship Council saw you painting a mural to promote World Ocean Day 2015 on Bondi’s famous boardwalk. Why is this a cause close to your heart?
I’m in the ocean every day and it’s just a way that I can give back to something I use so much – giving the ocean a voice, I guess. I feel pretty lucky to live in Australia and be able to surf waves that haven’t got rubbish and stuff coming through them, but when I’ve been travelling to different events overseas… I mean, Indonesia is shocking. There’s so much pollution there. Seeing that makes me want to get behind causes which will help make a difference.
In addition to making bold environmental statements, what role does art play in your life?
I was doing art before I was surfing. My dad got me into it – he’s a ceramicist – so it’s been a part of my life since I was really young, and it’s a nice way for me to tune out and not have to focus on competitive surfing so much. I had my first exhibition at the start of this year… so that’s been one of the highlights of my art career. I just love doing it, and it reminds me of when I was younger, too.
The Venus campaign is about empowering women to resist one-dimensional labels that limit their potential. Have you faced labels in your career?
I have. People try and label me, saying, “Are you an artist, or are you a surfer?” When I was younger I used to compete a lot more competitively, and now I’m stepping back a little bit and just trying to figure out what I really want to do.
Have you felt limited as a woman in the surf industry?
It definitely is a male-dominated sport. But women’s surfing is younger than men’s surfing, and women are given the same opportunities to surf the same waves around the world. Last year the prize money doubled for the women – it’s still not the same as the men, but it’s only getting better.
What advice would you give to other women wanting embrace their ‘ands’?
Not to worry so much. And self-belief is the secret to success. If you have belief, you can pretty much achieve anything. It’s just so powerful. You can be an amazing mum, you can be a painter, a writer, or you can enjoy sport… You don’t need to be defined by one-dimensional labels, or your job.