Feature | Surfing

South Africa surfer Bianca Buitendag: the Olympics will be my ‘last objective’

Bianca Buitendag opens up about mindset, family tragedy, and Olympic ambition in an in-depth podcast interview

By Ed Knowles ·

Bianca Buitendag is home. After spending years living in France, the surfer has spent the majority of 2020 back in South Africa.

“I'm home in a small town called Victoria Bay in South Africa. I've been here since November (2019). So that's the longest I've been home in the last 10 years.

“It’s been really nice. I think I can stay in South Africa for the next 20 years without leaving the country.”

The past 10 years have included family tragedy, injuries, and qualifying for the Olympic Games.

She's one of the stars of the new Olympic Channel documentary 'Road to Tokyo: Surfing – The Qualifier Stories'.

The 26-year-old sat down with the Olympic Channel Podcast to talk about how she dealt with her father passing away, why the Olympics are so important to her career, and more.

Olympic Channel: You grew up in beautiful small town in South Africa as the middle child. But also with two brothers. How was that? Did you feel any different to them in any way?

Bianca Buitendag: I really was convinced that I was a boy up until the age of like 14. I think that also could have had a big influence in the whole situation.

I didn't feel that there was any difference, really, until we had to split off for the boys division [in surfing competitions] as well.

I felt my family structure also allowed for girls to be just as valuable and capable. So I just saw my brothers doing well, just as a challenge to put myself up there as well. I never felt the difference really at all.

OC: Your father passed away just as your career was taking off in 2015. How did you get through that period?

BB: I think it was easier being away from home. I came back for the funeral for three days and then I had to do an event. I think that was part of the recovery [and] I think it really helped. I don't know if I would be able to have faced being home.

Secondly, I think things get put into perspective. So winning or losing it really doesn't it doesn't matter. I think that whole mindshift… What am I anxious about really? Or what am I trying to prove? It was more a shift in mentality.

I think it was a mindset shift, some type of escape, and being far away was easier than being home.

I'm just I'm just grateful for having him up until the age of 21 - Bianca Buitendag on father

Most people don't have an example like that of unconditional love from their parents. I think that also [gave me] like more gratitude than tragedy to me.

But, life goes on a quickly. I guess it does shape your character. Big time, but I wouldn't say grateful for that time. I think it was a bit of a struggle, but it definitely did shape some sort of resilience or tenacity. I wouldn't wish upon anyone. But if it does happen, there's opportunity to grow from it.

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OC: The upside of being a pro surfer is obvious – getting paid to travel the world to surf great spots with very few people in the water. But it’s so terrifying to watch! A few mistakes over a few years and it could all be over really fast…

BB: To some extent, you get used to it, but it's still so terrifying! There’s always pressure in every qualification or ranking that you need to obtain – that is terrifying. I think even we even though we might look quite meek and mild from the outside, we are trembling inside. But I think also that you do develop some type of stress management.

But then again, it's not a question of life or death. It's just a question of a heat score. I think some athletes get too caught up in it and they get pretty upset. But again, no life is on the line. It's just a question of ego, finances, etc..

OC: Surfing is making its first appearance at the Olympic Games in Tokyo. You have already qualified. How much are you looking forward to it?

BB: I think it's going to be a great opportunity and I plan take my whole family with it, make it more of an experience than an event, really. But the fact that it's the first time that surfing is included is also quite iconic. So I would like to make the most of that opportunity as well.

Bianca Buitendag qualifying for Tokyo 2020 at the 2019 ISA World Surfing Games 

OC: Is the Olympics the number one goal in your career right now? 

BB: I think most of the things that I set my mind to achieve - I have. I also obviously would like to go to the Olympics, and that's probably the main focus at the moment, to see if I can get in the rankings.

I would have to say that the Olympics is going to be my last kind of 'hurrah' or my last stint and my last objective. And after that, I felt like I did what I wanted to do. So the Olympics will definitely be a major, major part of the ambition or the objective of my surfing career in general, never mind just the next year or two.

Surfer Bianca Buitendag is set to represent South Africa at Tokyo 2020

OC: Olympic Channel have put together a series about that qualification process. What can people expect from that?

BB: I think it gives some insight into the reality an athlete's life. So whereas the public might have portrayed it in a certain way, you can get the inside view of what it's really like. I think that part of the show is amazing.

It's from the first day of the event and it kind of moves through up until the final day. I think that progression of heats [to finals] is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. They will get insight into that as well.

OC: I also wanted to get your opinion on sharks. Lots of people have died this year in Australia from shark attacks. What’s your take on that?

BB: I think also you need to be careful of statistics or some sort of data collection, because most of the time the things that make the headlines are not usually the truth. And, also, maybe the amount of people that surf has picked up not only the shark attacks.

I guess it is a lot of things to consider when kind of comparing the stats of one country to the next. But I feel like in South Africa, I think our life expectancy is like 64. So the chances of something happen, something happening to us is enormous. Daily. So if you do get bitten by a shark, you didn't expect to live to 85 anyway. We've got heavy diseases. We've got poverty – [more than] you can imagine.

We've got thousands of other issues that are more lethal or more tragic than the stats on shark attacks.

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Bianca Buitendag is this week’s guest on the Olympic Channel Podcast. More episodes and ways to subscribe head here.

The questions and answers were edited for clarity.