Pro Surfer Billy Stairmand: grief, resilience and the financial realities of being a pro athlete

 The story of Billy Stairmand’s rollercoaster ride through being a pro surfer feels like a surfing metaphor in itself – and a top example of overcoming adversity. Billy Stairmand is now one of the country’s best surfers but this is the story of when he was at his lowest. He lost his best friend and mother to cancer, only to then lose his major sponsorship a few months later – meaning that he could no longer call surfing his day job. It was at that lowest moment that he realised two things: the love of the sport and that he would return bigger and better, as a tribute to his beloved mum. We talk to Billy about resilience, living with grief and the financial reality of being a pro athlete in an under-funded sport. 

Dom: We have talked to a few surfers and I’m interested in your take, there’s all these studies that are out there, on how good cold-water swimming is for you and your mindset being out in the ocean. Do you relate to that research?

Billy: I’m always talking about how powerful the ocean is, not one wave is exactly the same. It’s forever changing, so that’s exciting to me as a pro surfer and a competitor at surfing. I’ve gone through some tough times along the way, I lost my mom and I just recently lost my brother but for me one thing is getting back in the ocean, it’s just so cleansing; it’s your time alone, you can just spend a bit of downtime by yourself. I enjoy the ocean. It’s such a powerful thing and really you know, I owe a lot to the ocean.

Dom: I want to touch on a few of the things you spoke on. I’d love for you to tell the story of when you were down and out, you lost your sponsor, you’d been through some real personal struggles but it was you building yourself back and doing it for someone else, that made you kind of, in some ways, catch fire.

Billy: Obviously as a professional surfer, you’re kind of out there doing it by yourself. You’re the only one out there. You make your own decisions but obviously having that family on your shoulders and I guess losing someone or something is a huge motivator. I kind of found the love of surfing again, I found a motivation I could work towards and hopefully make my Mum proud. Now I’ve got my brother to do that for, as well. Obviously these little setbacks hurt in a way but at the same time, it’s a huge motivation for me to make my family proud, take them along on this journey with me and also like New Zealand, I like to make people happy and kind of show people my journey. And hopefully everyone’s enjoying that.

Dom: How has the support from your fellow surfers been?

Billy: Yeah, it’s been amazing. I’m from a small town called Raglan in New Zealand. It’s an amazing community and ever since I started surfing, the whole community has been backing me and supporting me. It really showed, especially after the Olympics, how much support there is out there. 

There’s a lot of talk about the mental health side of things, about staying positive and everyone is working on that now, which is a really cool thing. Obviously I like to be happy and I like to enjoy my time. Not many people get to be a professional surfers and travel the world, you know. So, I’m just really enjoying my whole process and kind of growing as a human and as a competitor and as an athlete! I’m so thankful for my sponsors and my family and the whole surf community that has been backing me for years now. I feel like I’m just finding my stride and just loving my job and what I do.

Take us back to that moment when you are at your lowest, what was the mind chatter like and how did you get through it?

Dom: To be honest, it was a bit of a hard one. I was stuck at home, I had to get a real job as they keep saying, aside from surfing. I was in Raglan. I was planting trees for a while, and I was going through a bit of a rough time. I’d just lost my best friend in my mother, but luckily I had the support of my wife. We’ve been together for 10 years now and she’s seen me at my lowest, so I was really thankful to have her there for all that support. 

Billy: I look back and I had everything, I had the sponsorship, all my family and everyone was there. But then I lost my sponsorship and my mother all at the same time. It was a big realisation for me, on what I really wanted to achieve. So I kind of went off my own back and put my best foot forward – I got a proper job and saved up enough money to do the competitions again, you know, not only for myself but for my family, it was just an extra motivation that I had then and self-belief was a huge thing for me, you know. 

I’ve always been pretty shy, I like to stick to my little things. It’s about self-belief, for sure. Of course I also know those family members are always there with me and super proud of whatever I do, whether I win or lose, just to be a good human you know. So yeah it’s been a big journey. I’m always still learning as well, I’m trying to listen to other people, and what they have to say and like I said, my wife’s been there the whole time. So very thankful and stoked to have their support.

Dom: Your wife sounds amazing, we sometimes forget about the support, what’s happening behind the scenes is kind of what keeps you up and out there. I saw recently you caught up with Kelly Slater, the GOAT and a lot of amazing surfers that you’re exposed to. As a Kiwi from Raglan, when you’re rubbing shoulders with someone like that, whose career, I’m sure, you looked up to as a kid, what is that like?

Billy: It’s a dream come true. I’ve always wanted to compete here, ever since I started competing as a surfer and that dream has come true. To have the likes of Kelly Slater I’m one of his biggest fans. So just to surf alongside my peers and the self belief again, I’m always pretty starstruck when I when I see them but at the same time, I know I can beat them, so I’ve got to believe in myself and my abilities and put my best foot forward and try my hardest and if I don’t succeed, then it’s all good, let’s do it again another day. It’s always amazing to see those guys at the competitions and rub shoulders with them and kind of get to learn from those guys, because they’ve been doing it for so many years now. It’s a huge inspiration to me. Obviously everyone goes through stuff and learns along the way; it’s been an awesome journey.

Dom: What are the modalities that you really enjoy or see results from? Is it meditation? Is it journaling? Is it ice baths? What are you loving?

Billy: Especially with the Olympics, I learned a lot about myself as well. The whole process of being a professional athlete, it’s just another level being at the Olympics. I worked a lot alongside a guy called Woody, he does a lot of breath work. We worked a lot on controlling the heart rate, slowing the heart rate down and kind of that fight or flight mode. I worked a lot on my breathwork and trying to slow my heart rate down before competitions or if something gets pretty stressful or you don’t like something, you’re just having five minutes to really slow your breath down, the box breathing or Wim Hof breathing. The last few years if I was feeling stressed, I’d do that. 

And then a lot of ice baths and hot and cold and just looking after your body, physically and mentally, I think there’s huge benefits out of that. So obviously I learned a lot and I’m trying to do every little thing right. There are some days I don’t do it and normality they are the days I really need to do it. So, it’s just figuring out what you need to do for your own self and working on that.

Dom: What are you grateful for?

Billy: I am grateful for my family. You know, having the support of them these past few years, just my whole life basically. [Laughs] Without the support of those guys, I wouldn’t be here, especially without my wife and my parents. I’m forever thankful for that and grateful for those guys and obviously my job, not many people get to travel the world and live out their dreams. So, I’m very grateful to do what I do and hopefully, everyone enjoys my journey.

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