Malia Manuel is setting goals and surfing waves
The lululemon ambassador and champion surfer dives deep to discover that winning isn’t everything (even if you can’t stop winning)
Monday 2 January 2023 By Tilly Pearman
I first meet champion surfer Malia Manuel on a video call. She’s dialling in from her LA hotel room and is perched on the edge of a neatly made bed. Behind her, the slatted blinds are partially closed and I can just catch a glimmer of the early Santa Monica morning sun. She’s heading straight to Little Beach House Malibu after the call, which will be lululemon’s first-ever photoshoot in the buzzy sun-drenched House. Having spent most of her life in or around the ocean, I imagine Manuel will feel perfectly at home there, despite the cooler December temperatures. Though she won’t be fazed. Being a surfer, the unpredictability of the ocean has afforded her a lifelong lesson in the art of overcoming obstacles – however small or mountainous they might be.
Manuel descends from at least four generations of Hawaiians and calls Kauai – a luscious green isle forming part of the Hawaiian archipelago – her home. She lives there in a house close to the beach where her earliest surfing memories were formed. ‘I was probably only two or three years old, catching my first waves at the very beach my parents first met,’ she says. ‘I remember having to get up before the sun and pack our VW campervan with boards and fishing poles for the beach, but I loved it from the very beginning.’
For Manuel, the ocean is as much her field of play as it is her escape. ‘When I am truly in the flow state, I am able to let go of whatever is cluttering my mind and be fully present. Surfing gives me that sense of purpose, and the ocean keeps me connected to my family and my community,’ she says. It makes sense that Manuel attributes so much of her character to the happy memories and experience of growing up on an island she describes as ‘friendly and filled with the Aloha Spirit’.
She’s referring to the cultural principles and values many islanders, including herself, still uphold. Passed as a law in 1986, after an impassioned speech by Maui elder and linguist, Pilahi Paki, the ‘Aloha Spirit’ law is said to seek a harmonious future by being good to others, with no expectation of anything in return. It’s a sentiment that Manuel finds occasionally challenging to live by, particularly given that her chosen sport is one where goals, discipline and high-level competition feature heavily.
She describes her journey to professional surfing as a ‘domino effect’. At 14, she became the youngest woman to win the 2008 US Open of Surfing championships – a title that would ultimately push her onto the global stage. ‘At such a crucial age I had to take all my teenage feelings, set them aside and figure out who I was,’ she says. ‘I’m so used to my small community and surfing with the people that I know. Travelling to somewhere new is a whole other hurdle to overcome; just like being in waters that are unfamiliar. I was always travelling with just my mum, so I didn’t really have any local help or knowledge. I had to tackle everything on my own and learn to be comfortable in a place that was new and uncomfortable.’
This level of self-awareness has continued to play a key role in Manuel’s development, both on and off the board. She is the first to admit that her fixation on the end goal can be detrimental to her mental health. ‘Surfing will always throw you a curveball and you have to be OK with that. I often find myself wanting to be over-controlling; I can get so frustrated by the way I can’t control a good wave to come to me so that I can win a heat,’ she says. ‘My career is based off judgment and opinions, so for a long time I had the obvious “win” as my top goal.’ Her approach at this time was very traditional too – write it down and don’t stop until you achieve it. For a long time it worked, until it didn’t.
Her wake-up call was painful, coming in the form of a torn MCL (medial collateral ligament), which was incurred in Australia during the 2017 Margaret River competition. ‘I think your body can tell you things more than anyone else. I was burnt out, I’d lost my passion and therefore I got hurt,’ she says. Fortunately, Manuel’s injury became a blessing in disguise. It allowed her to pause, reflect and reconnect. ‘I’ve always felt that a big part of moving forward is also slowing down and giving yourself that time, because we’re always just chasing, chasing, chasing.’ She adds that she believes ‘nothing good is ever forced, in life and the ocean’.
Self-betterment is a recurring theme in our conversation. ‘Being on the highest level of surfing competition has taught me to face my fears and push past boundaries,’ she says. ‘The ocean has taught me to be comfortable with only controlling what you can control, and knowing that your flow of things can change in an instant. I know I won’t jump into the ocean with the same mood or physical strength every day. It’s similar to yoga in that sense; we are in constant practice, but as long as we continue to show up for ourselves, then there’s always a moment to take away that’s worth it.’
Yoga features prominently in Manuel’s life. She practices most days and never travels without her mat. For her, it’s the simplest way to cultivate that Aloha Spirit, allowing her to feel at home in both mind and body wherever she is in the world. But it’s not the only way she demonstrates her dedication to modern wellness and self-care. She gets up at 4.45am, makes a strong coffee, and then prepares a post-yoga smoothie in her Vitamix. By 6am she’s making the one-hour drive to her favourite studio where she takes Yoga Sculpt (a fusion class of yoga with light hand weights) in a room that induces a deep sweat with its hi-tech infrared panelling. Post workout, it’s a cool-down walk, or a quick dip in the nearby ocean before returning home for a lunch of freshly caught fish.
‘Surfing gives me that sense of purpose, and the ocean keeps me connected to my family and my community’
‘Wellness to me is all-encompassing. It’s the intent to understand yourself; aligning thoughts, words and actions in each moment,’ says Manuel. ‘It’s about being present, curious and receptive, and creating a healthy ecosystem within your environment.’
She applies this level of curiosity to everything in life, including herself. Understanding who she is, and where she has come from has helped her with perhaps the greatest lesson of all: knowing that winning isn’t everything, even when you keep on winning. ‘I want to continue pushing my limits in waves that I am less comfortable in. Last year I spent a lot of time in waves I’d only ever grown up watching. It was intimidating, paddling out to somewhere new, knowing what [the wave] could do, but I want to continue that challenge this year in other places around the world.’
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